Ok, just hear me out on this.
First, it’s no argument that Cardinals baseball in the 1990’s was mediocre at best. The only season they made the playoffs was in 1996, and they got outscored 32-1 in the final three games of the ’96 NLCS against the Atlanta Braves despite holding a 3-1 series lead.
The 1990’s saw Willie McGee return to St. Louis to end his career, the declining career of Ozzie Smith, and of course, Mark McGwire‘s famous home run chase in 1998 with Sammy Sosa.
But while all of that was going on, there was one guy who was consistently a quality player.
His name was Ray Lankford.
McGwire did not join the Cardinals until 1997, and played for them until 2001. Meanwhile, Lankford was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals since 1990, and played for them until 2001 just like McGwire.
Let’s turn back time for a bit and head back to 1990 when a 23-year old Lankford replaced the fan-favorite McGee (who was traded away). It was controversial because McGee was traded to Oakland while the Cardinals were on the road. There was no proper send-off until 1996, when McGee returned to St. Louis, re-united with his longtime teammate (Smith) and played until 1999 with the team that made him a household name.
What made Lankford such a high-quality player was the overall balance of skills he had. Twice in his career he stole over 40 bases, and six times in his career he had stolen 20 bases. He also had a modest career batting average of .272, which is nothing flashy but still very consistent.
Lankford hit 238 career home runs, showcasing his power (even if not to the level of some of his contemporaries). When he returned to the Cardinals during the 2004 season (his last season in baseball), his final at-bat was a two-run home run against the Milwaukee Brewers. But during his career, there was the constant challenge of having his performances being overshadowed. In fact, in 1998, his 31 homers and 105 RBI in 1998 were nothing in comparison to McGwire’s 70 home runs and 147 RBI’s.
The peak of his career took place before the “steroid era” of the late 1990’s occurred, which also had overshadowed the accomplishments Lankford had achieved. His career line of .272/.364./.477 was impressive, though not MVP-caliber. He showed up to play when called upon, and despite being overlooked for so long, his resume stands tall.
Is Lankford as beloved a Cardinal like McGee? No. Did he have as many notable power-hitting moments like McGwire? No. But in a decade of mediocrity within the National League, there was one constant regarding the St. Louis Cardinals.
And that was their versatile All-Star in Lankford.