"We were in last place. We were last in the league in attendance," he said. "I thought, 'It can't get any worse than this.'"
At that point, it felt like the Oakland A's might never win another game, and Beane has revisited those emotions often the past few months in the midst of beginning another reconstruction project.
He'll never forget the empty feeling he had after trading McGwire to the Cardinals, but he also remembers what happened in the days after the deal.
First, rookie Ben Grieve was summoned from the Minor Leagues and had three doubles in his debut. A few days after that, Miguel Tejada was called up.
"We were still in last place," Beane said. "But there was a light at the end of the tunnel."
Indeed, there were better days ahead. Over the next three seasons, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson would also arrive, and the A's would make four straight playoff appearances and average 98 victories a season between 2000-03.
One of Beane's many gifts as general manager of the A's -- he replaced Alderson in 1997 -- has been his aggressiveness. He's unafraid to trade a player a year early rather than a year late. He also has been able to assess his club honestly and deal with a reality others sometimes can't or won't face. He has refused to accept mediocrity.
"At this stage of my career, I could pretend to kick the can down the road," he said, "but that's not part of my DNA. When you're somewhere in the middle, you're just prolonging the process you'll eventually have to undertake. The competitor in me wants to win every day, but I also want to create something that'll get better year after year."
When he looked at the A's after the 2011 season, he saw a third-place club that had neither the payroll nor the Minor League talent to make a dramatic improvement. He had $51 million in contract commitments for 2012 and a $55 million budget even before attempting to re-sign his starting outfield of David DeJesus, Josh Willingham and Coco Crisp (only Crisp will be back).
"I had to look at it honestly," he said. "Look at the moves the Angels and Rangers have made. They're going to have payrolls rivaling the Red Sox and Yankees. It just seemed foolish to go forward with a third-place team that was losing significant parts. We felt we had to do something dramatic."
As A's assistant GM David Forst put it: "Given our choice, we wouldn't want Albert Pujols in our division. But it confirmed that this was a necessary move on our part. You're either planning to be good or stuck in mediocrity."
They are mediocre no more. They also believe that reports of 120 losses have been greatly overstated. Despite the trades, the A's should still have a pitching staff good enough to keep them in most games.
But trading their three most marketable pitchers -- starters Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez and closer Andrew Bailey -- was done with an eye on the future. In doing so, Beane acquired 10 players between the ages of 19 and 25. He'll also have four of the first 56 picks in the June Draft.
Among the 10 new players are three pitchers -- Brad Peacock, Tom Milone and Jarrod Parker -- who could someday be the nucleus of a great staff.
As for 2012, it'll be interesting to see how the club evolves during the season and where the new kids land. Beane signed veteran starter Bartolo Colon, acquired outfielder Seth Smith from the Rockies and has offered a contract to outfielder Jonny Gomes for immediate help. Still, this season's more important work will be in player development.
Beane's ultimate goal is to have the A's in a good place if they're given permission by Major League Baseball to build a new ballpark in San Jose. That new park could be a dramatic step forward in allowing the franchise to have a competitive payroll.
"Given a choice, I'd rather be sitting here knowing we're going to be competitive with the Rangers and Angels," Forst said. "That's why we've been so public in our push for a new stadium. We do believe in a new venue we'll be sitting here in three or four years ready to do that."
There's surely something inside that has both Beane and Forst wildly excited about getting to Spring Training and seeing all the new talent they've accumulated. After a week or two, they may see another light at the end of the tunnel.
"One of the most exhilarating things is to look on the field and see a group you think is going to be pretty special in a couple of years," Beane said. "We just have to have the guts to see it through. There's some optimism we may finally get that new stadium. If we do, this probably was a necessary step anyway."
He remembers how former Indians GM John Hart had the Indians positioned for five straight playoff appearances when Jacobs Field opened in 1994.
"There was a little bit of pain before that new stadium," Beane said, "but they did it right. Everyone thought the stadium was why they were selling out. It was a good team in that stadium. No one has done it as well as Cleveland."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.