Some years just have a different vibe to them. Teams are clicking, the games are exciting, the performances are just a bit more spectacular more often. For Major League Baseball, the summer of 2020 was not one of those years. However, in the summer of 1994? Well, that one should’ve been one for the ages.
There was a great franchise at the peak of its power in Atlanta that faced an emergent challenge to its reputation from Canada. The great hitters of the era were all having classic seasons, and the pitchers were not far behind. It was the accumulation of the final production of the stars of the ’80s converging with the new faces of the game to make it through the next decade. All things considered, it was one of the most exciting times the game had seen in decades.
Yet the respective corners of the game’s boardroom were rapidly on a collision course with each other. Locked in an arm-wrestling match for the financial future of the game, baseball was headed to an inevitable stoppage of action because the uniforms and the suits could not coexist.
The ultimate outcome was the loss of some of the great campaigns in recent history. Left in its place is long-lasting speculation on what could have come of the season. Could Roger Maris’ record have fallen not once, but twice that summer? Could one of baseball’s most elusive batting mile markers have been finally captured as well? And could a now extinct version of a franchise have starved off being erased from the face of the game and changed how the rest of the decade — and beyond — played out?
We will never know, but it does not hurt to take a glance back occasionally. And while the day the music of the ballpark stopped was really August 11th, at the time it felt like it would be just a temporary thing. There was no way such a great season could REALLY be over like that. But about a week in it became apparent that everything that was so real every day, and had just vanished, could actually be gone for real … and it ultimately was. So marking the 20th anniversary of the 1994 baseball strike, here is a look at what was truly lost along the way due to the sudden stoppage of everything that was great that summer.
The Loss Of The Montreal Expos’ Greatest Season
The standout part of the lost season is that we never got to see what the full potential of that year’s Expos could be. The franchise had been on a steady simmer for the years leading into ’94. Finally, everything came together, and they grabbed the National League by the throat.
There were few to no holes on the Expo offering. Moises Alou was hitting .339 with 22 home runs, and Larry Walker was not far behind, sporting a .322 average and 86 RBI. Marquis Grissom was the glue of the outfield, with 36 stolen bases, and a snagged a Gold Glove in the process. Darrin Fletcher and Wil Cordero were also chosen as All-Stars, while Ken Hill went 16-5 on the mound, leading a rotation that included Jeff Fassero and a young fireballer by the name of Pedro Martinez. The bullpen was anchored by John Wetteland and Mel Rojas, and the entire operation was led by the guiding hand of Felipe Alou.
When the doors shut on the season, the Expos had the Majors’ best record by over four games at 74-40 and were in a compelling position going ahead. Could they have taken down the Braves in a matchup of NL East powerhouses in the NLCS? How would the team have fared against the coming-of-age Yankee dynasty-to-be that was starting up? What would victory have done to keep that collection of talent together after the strike … and what would it look like joined by soon-to-debut talents like Vladimir Guerrero and Delino DeShields (ed. point – missed the mark here, Delino was already gone…E-1 on the CSF)? Most importantly, if that season plays out, does it plant seeds that keep the Expos in Montreal? Alas, none of it was to be, but it is one of the most intriguing black holes of possibility in MLB history.
Griffey Was Going To Do It
The record was still “The Record” in 1994. Roger Maris’ mark of 61 home runs was the most hallowed record in sports at the time, and while it had been tempted in the past, it was never conquered. But that summer, The Kid was at his best. Ken Griffey Jr. had run up 40 home runs already in the summer, and the buzz was getting real that he could begin to push up on 61 by September. He was hitting the long ball once every 10.8 times to the plate on the year and having one of the finest all-around years at the plate that any generation has seen.
While he had dipped some in July, hitting only four balls out on the month, he had already met his July total in August when the season came to an end. With a realistic shot at meeting 50 headed into September, it would have made for one of the most exciting months in MLB history watching its most popular player chase after the final 12 home runs.
Williams’ Brush With Immortality
While Griffey had a better track record and was involved in more pursuits of Maris’ mark, he did not lead the Majors in home runs at the close of business 20 years ago. That distinction was held by San Francisco Giants third baseman Matt Williams, who had 43 round-trippers when the year closed out.
It was a chase that filled out in a poetic style that mirrored the Mantle/Maris competition in 1961 for the Babe’s mark. The popular fan-favorite (Griffey) running neck in neck with the undeniable consistency of the lesser-known name in Williams. The rate that Williams was attacking the fences (double-digit homers in all but one month — when he finished with nine HRs in May), it would not have been a stretch at all for him to have not only met 61, but to have made Mark McGwire chase a much larger number four years later.
Tony Gwynn Was Tempting History
Nobody has hit .400 since Ted Williams last topped the feat in 1941. But the damage that Gwynn was doing in ’94 had him in fantastic shape to take down the ultimate hitting challenge. When the season wrapped, Gwynn was at .394 for the season and was hitting a staggering .475 in August, with 19 hits in 40 at-bats. His post-All-Star average as a whole was .423, which shows he was actually getting hot as the season froze out.
The biggest bat in the Tribe was on a warpath straight through the American League. Albert Belle was arguably the best all-around hitter in the game at that point, even considering Griffey and the eventual AL MVP Frank Thomas in the equation. He was sporting a .357 average along with 101 RBI, and his 36 home runs were right on the shoulder of Griffey’s record pace.
He was on stride to run up a 50-homer/50-double campaign — a mark he would meet the next season. But if ’94 would have played out as it could have been, Belle would have been the only player to ever do it in back-to-back years.
As well, he was only 11 RBI behind league leader Kirby Puckett, and if he would have caught him to lead the AL, he would have become the only player in history to lead a league in RBI for four consecutive seasons.
Lofton Joining The Century Club
In the history of baseball, only Vince Coleman, Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock and Maury Wills have managed to steal 100 bases in a season. Kenny Lofton was in the middle of a five-year run where he consecutively held the AL stolen base crown in ’94 and only finished beneath 60 swipes once.
When the season came to a close, Lofton was sitting squarely on 60 bags, and while it would have taken a push from him, it certainly was not outside of the realm of possibility. Lofton was second in the AL in batting at .349 and tops in the circuit in hits at 160. His on-base percentage was at .412 as well, meaning he was helping his own cause plenty. Add in the fact that Carlos Baerga and Belle were supporting him in the lineup, and he had plenty of chances to catch an otherwise occupied pitcher off guard. He had already swiped 83% of his attempts in the year, and with another 50 games in the season, it’s not unthinkable that he could have taken at least one bag in all but 10 of his remaining games.
Maddux’s Spree Stalled
The early ’90s belonged to Greg Maddux. He was in the midst of his dominant four-year Cy Young stretch. But ’94 was the crowning season for Maddux, who did win his third consecutive Cy, but was truly owning batters like he never had before or again.
Mad Dog’s ERA was a minuscule 1.56, which carried him to a 16-6 record at the time. In addition, he had completed what ended up being a career-best 10 games, had three shutouts and reached 200 innings at the time. Batters hit only .207 against him on the year, while he hit .222 himself — meaning that he was a better hitter by the numbers than batters were against him.
An ironic fact about Maddux is that despite winning 355 games, he never had more than 20 victories in a single season. But there is little chance that he would not have pushed well past the mark with the eight starts he had left, at least.
Bagwell’s Lost Summer
History will show that Jeff Bagwell had the highlight of his career, winning the ’94 NL MVP. But a look inside of what his year could have been belies a potential all-time great year left on the table.
Although his summer was done either way, as his hand was broken by a pitch the day before the strike started, it is too tempting to not savor where his year was at. He finished either first or second in average, home runs and RBI (which he led the Majors in with 116), becoming the first NLer in 49 years to do so. In the process, he also set a record for the fewest plate appearances to reach both 100 RBI and 100 runs scored and posted the 11th best slugging percentage in MLB history.
Donny Baseball Lost His Best Chance
One of the Shakespearean tragedies of baseball was the ironic timing of Don Mattingly’s career. His rookie year was just a season after the Yank’s final title until 1996 — a year after his career had concluded. In between, he had become an MVP, batting champion, six-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove winner, but had not appeared in October baseball.
However, after a decade of being mired in the middle, the Yankees were taking their traditional form again in 1994. Led by Mattingly (who hit .304), AL batting champ Paul O’Neill, wins leader Jimmy Key, Wade Boggs and Bernie Williams, they had a league-best 70 wins when the season came to its sudden close. Therefore, no playoffs for Mattingly and ultimately his best chance was not to be, as he retired the following season.
No Yankee of any other era has had his legacy limited by the fact that he was not a part of a World Championship team, yet Mattingly will forever be distinct by the bookends of his career, which 1994 could have redefined.
Lost Momentum That Had To Be Stolen Back
There was no victory in the strike. Sure, the players won out and there was no salary cap put in play. Shortly thereafter, the contract values spiked to unimaginable levels, while the dream of competitive balance was sunk for the time being and held ransom to the free-spending abilities of the game’s large-market teams.
The most immediate disaster however was that the fans never forgot the feeling of abandonment that sudden stoppage of one of the game’s great seasons caused. When the MLB resumed full speed after several months of boardroom bickering, which made Donald Fehr and Bud Selig the most infamously frequent names associated with the sport, and intervention from the Supreme Court and the West Wing, nothing was the same. Attendance was down, fan disinterest was at an all-time high and nothing seemed to be able to grab the lost grail for America’s pastime, past its time.
Instead, the game was brought back to mass popularity by what would be its next great controversy (and one that flares on to this day): steroids. The boom of the home run record chases of McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds quickly resurrected the excitement of the game and the crowds that came out to see it, but then mired it into a hole of dishonesty and moral debate. It’s a situation that was not totally the fault of the strike itself, but it certainly was not helped by the dip in relevance of the game caused by it.
I’m a firm believer that the closest I’ve gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I’ll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and ‘Live From The Cheap Seats’.