PTBN’s Tribute To ’94 – No Balls & One Strike: MLB in 1994

On the same day 25 years ago, Greg Maddux threw a 94 pitch complete game shutout in Colorado against the Rockies to lower his ERA to 1.56, while Tony Gwynn had 3 hits in Houston to raise his average to .394 with 45 games remaining. It was August 11, 1994 and the longstanding war between MLB owners and the Players Association would go nuclear very soon, with a players strike starting the next day wiping out the remainder of the 1994 regular season, playoffs, and 252 games the following year. The game once called America’s Pastime was tarnished.

Because it was the players striking for the 5thtime since 1972, much of the blame fell on them in the public narrative, with owners receiving criticism but not nearly as much as the players and Union president Donald Fehr. 

The earliest labor disputes in baseball after the formation of the MLBPA in 1966 centered around minimum salaries, arbitration rights, and funding of pensions for retired players, the latter of which was the main issue in the 1972 strike that cancelled 86 games. The nullification of the reserve clause in December 1975 in the Seitz decision led to the advent of free agency, and increasingly hostile labor negotiations.

The next ten years passed with four work stoppages (three strikes and one lockout) mainly relating to free agency compensation rules and salary arbitration rights. The owners sought to impose a free agent system with heavier compensation to drive down salaries while the players fought for a free market approach. 

Under the guidance of MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth for three years starting after the 1985 season, owners refrained from making lucrative offers to free agents from other teams, depressing the market for those players. As an example future Hall of Famer Tim Raines became a free agent after the 1986 season at age 27, but returned to the Montreal Expos on May 1, 1987 after getting no offers as a free agent. The union filed a collusion grievance against the owners each year, and players were eventually awarded $280 million in damages, but any trust that existed between players and ownership evaporated with the rounds of collusion. (Note: Per the collective bargaining agreement, “clubs are not allowed to concert with other clubs and players are not allowed to act in concert with other players”)

Owners forced out commissioner (and ownership critic) Fay Vincent in 1992 and installed Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig as acting commissioner for the coming labor war, one that would see the owners demand a salary cap similar to what the NBA had and what the NFL had implemented in their most recent bargaining talks.

In June, the owners offered a salary cap with a 50/50 split of revenues. But put yourself in the position of the players: why would you trust the owners when they had just been caught cheating your side out of millions of dollars? The players were forced into a strike because they could not have a good faith negotiation given the history involved, and the owners were threatening to declare an impasse and implement their own system with a salary cap, which they did several months into the strike.

It is also hard to empathize with owners who talked of using replacement players before a strike date was even set. The following spring training saw replacement player games before a court injunction led to a return of the regular players for an abbreviated 1995 season. Replacements would have led to two teams not fielding teams: the Toronto Blue Jays were prohibited from using replacement players due to Ontario labor law, and the Baltimore Orioles refused to field a team because owner Peter Angelos was a highly-regarded labor lawyer.

Discussion of these labor issues in Major League Baseball isn’t much fun but trying to project how the rest of the 1994 season would have played out might be, with apologies to the rightfully upset Montreal Expos fans. Let’s assume that the MLBPA called off the strike in exchange for assurances of no lockout in 1995 or declaration of an impasse in negotiations by the owners.

AL East

There was a changing of the guard in the division with the two-time defending World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays taking a big step back with a 33-46 start. They won 22 of their last 36 games but that wasn’t enough to catch the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles in the division. The Yanks (70-43) held a 6.5 games lead over the O’s (63-49) on the strength of a career year from AL batting champ Paul O’Neill (.359/.460/.603) and a resurgent year from Wade Boggs (.342/.433/.489), who had his best power year since 1987. 

This was a very different Yankees team than the group that would dominate the AL East for the next decade: no Jeter, no Pettitte, no Rivera, and no Posada. They got 19 homers from Seinfeld guest star Danny Tartabull, over 300 innings between Jim Abbott and Melido Perez, and the back end of the bullpen was anchored by Bob Wickman and Steve Howe. All would be gone before the 1996 World Series.

Cal Ripken was the constant for the Orioles, as his streak stood at 2,009 consecutive games at the time of the strike, with Mike Mussina anchoring the rotation and Lee Smith in the bullpen. Their fate likely would be decided by the 15 remaining games against fellow wild card contenders Kansas City, Chicago, and Cleveland. Prior to the strike they did get a boost from = Armando Benitez, who gave up 1 run in 10 innings after his late July call-up.

The rebuilding Red Sox started 20-7 before collapsing to finish 54-61, and the Tigers both scored and gave up a ton of runs to ensure mediocrity.

Result: Yankees cruise to a division title with 95-100 wins, while a 87-90 win Baltimore team falls short of the wild card.

AL Central

This division was by far the best in baseball in 1994, with three playoff contenders and no teams on a track to lose more than 90 games. The defending division champion Chicago White Sox led the way, followed by a rising Cleveland team in its shiny new Jacobs Field, and a sneaky good team in Kansas City. An intense rivalry built between the White Sox and Indians centered about the Albert Belle corked bat controversy.

Frank Thomas won the MVP with Ted Williams-esque numbers (.353/.487/.729, with 109 BBs, 38 HR, 101 RBI in 113 games) but their strength was their starting rotation of reigning Cy Young winner Jack McDowell, veterans Alex Fernandez and Wilson Alvarez, and young Jason Bere all with ERAs under 4.00 with over 140 IP. 

That pitching would be needed against a Cleveland club on pace to score nearly 1,000 runs over a full season. Their regular lineup boasted 7 players with an OPS+ at 106 or higher including young Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. The starting rotation led the league with 17 complete games, perhaps a necessity with the bullpen being the clear weakness of the team. Cleveland still had 30 home games left to play, and they were 35-16 at Jacobs Field in its inaugural season.

Kansas City is something of a surprise contender because they would not even finish .500 again for another 9 years. David Cone won the Cy Young and led the team in WAR in the 2nd season of his second stint with his hometown team, while Tom Gordon and Kevin Appier were 2ndand 3rdin WAR for the Royals. With the retirement of George Brett, the lineup was below average, with only Wally Joyner and one-hit wonder Bob Hamelin carrying the load.

Result: The White Sox barely hang on with 95 wins and hold off Cleveland (94 wins), who pick up the wild card. Kansas City finishes 3rdwith 85-87 wins. 

AL West

This is the opposite of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, the place where all the women are string, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. The American League West was more like Camp Crystal Lake from Friday The 13thin 1994 with the four worst records in the 14 team league. 

Texas “led” the way at 52-62, on pace for 74 wins in a full season. Their lineup looks fit for 2019 with lots of home runs and even more strikeouts. Jose Canseco hit 31 homers in a strong comeback from an abbreviated season where a fly ball hit him in the headand a pitching performanceled to Tommy John surgery. Kenny Rogers did toss a perfect game, and they also had a young Darren Oliver who hung around long enough to actually pitch in a World Series for Texas. While their new stadium (which closes in 2019!) did not bring the same success as it did for Cleveland, it did embolden their ownerto seek political office. 

Oakland was a game back, but lost Mark McGwire to a foot injury at various points of the season. Steve Ontiveros became a footnote in history as one of the most obscure ERA champions in history with a 2.65, and Rickey Henderson returned from Toronto for his 3rdstint in the East Bay. The A’s had stretch losing 31 of 37, followed by winning 19 of 23. 

In mid-July, four ceiling tiles fell from the Seattle Kingdome’s roofwhich led to the Mariners finishing the year on the road, so the strike saved them from what would have become a 70 game road trip. While their best players like Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, and Randy Johnson excelled, the rest of the team was about as functional as their home stadium. The July call-up of 18 year old Alex Rodriguez did not last long and he was sent back to the minors after 6 errors and 0 extra base hits in 13 games.

The California Angels also saw their home stadium damaged in the Northridge earthquake in January, repairs were made prior to their season. The Halos had little going for them, with the exception of a bizarre outlier season from 33 year old 3B Spike Owen, who posted a .418 OBP in 321 plate appearances, nearly 100 points above his lifetime OBP.

Result: Seattle tires from playing 2 ½ months on the road, and Oakland edges Texas and saves MLB from the embarrassment of a sub-.500 playoff team by winning the division with a record of 81-81.

NL East

With the Marlins and Mets rebuilding and the Phillies backsliding after their ’93 NL pennant, the NL East was a two horse race between the Expos and division newcomer Braves, since Atlanta was strangely in the NL West previously.

Montreal had the best team in franchise history with the top outfield in the NL of Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, and Larry Walker. All the regulars in the Expos lineup were just entering their prime, as the oldest player was 3B Sean Berry at 28 years old. Of the top 4 starting pitchers, young Pedro Martinez had the highest ERA at 3.42. The bullpen 1-2 punch of John Wetteland and Mel Rojas was a factor in their 21-14 record in one run games, in contrast to the Phillies and their 12-26 mark in such contests. 

With a wild card spot in play, the Braves would not have to win at the same breakneck pace as the prior year in their race with the Giants in West. They would be able to ride their quartet of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery to a playoff berth and take their chances with their always questionable bullpen in a short series.

Result: Montreal keeps their foot on the gas and finishes with 105 wins, while the Braves cruise to 97 wins and a wild card spot locked up with over a week left in the season,

NL Central

The outlook was not positive for the Houston Astros despite being in a virtual tie with the Cincinnati Reds because of MVP 1B Jeff Bagwell suffering a season-ending broken wrist two days before the strike. With Chris Donnels and Sid Bream backing up, there would be a massive dropoff from the 213 OPS+ the future Hall of Famer provided. 

Cincinnati had a well-rounded lineup, placing 4thor higher in all key offensive categories as a team. Underrated big game pitcher Jose Rijo led the starting rotation, and there were not any notable trainwrecks in the Reds bullpen, positioning them well for their first playoff run in four years.

The Pirates were still recovering from the loss of Barry Bonds after the 1992 season, the Cubs got a 3 HR gamefrom Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes on opening day (a game they lost 12-8 anyway), and the Cardinals did almost nothing of note the entire season.

Result: Cincinnati rolls to 96 wins and the division, while Houston falls back and finishes with 89 wins. 

NL West

With realignment and the departure of Atlanta to its rightful spot in the East, the Dodgers and Giants battled for control, while the Padres and 2ndyear expansion Rockies continued to build.

Coming off a 103 win season, the Giants got almost no contributions from anyone in their lineup not named Barry Bonds or Matt Williams. The latter was famously on pace to chase Roger Maris’ then single-season record of 61 HR, but Bonds had 37 HR of his own to go with 29 SBs so he was on his way to the 2nd40-40 season in MLB history. Darryl Strawberry arrived in July and provided some pop, but would find himself under indictment for federal income tax evasion before 1994 ended. 

The pitching staff kept them competitive, but who knows if William VanLandingham and company could keep fooling hitters for another 7 weeks. San Francisco did win 20 of their last 30 which included a four game sweep of the Expos in Montreal.

The Dodgers held a 3.5 game lead, but still had six more games with Atlanta, against whom they were 0-6 to that point. Mike Piazza followed his Rookie of the Year campaign with another strong year, but Los Angeles got two outlier seasons from a couple of grizzled veterans. Tim Wallach (age 36) and Brett Butler (age 37) both set career highs in OPS, perhaps a signal that baseball was evolving into an era of inflated offensive numbers. Raul Mondesi became the 3rdstraight Dodger to win Rookie of the Year.

San Diego was rebuilding after their fire sale trades of Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield the year before, but the story was of Tony Gwynn and his quest to hit .400. With 45 games remaining, he was on pace to have 171 more at bats based on his total to that point if he played every game, requiring him to get 71 hits in that time to finish with a .400 average. In his final 171 ABs of the ’94 season, Gwynn had 69 hits so it is far more likely that Gwynn finishes in the same range as Ted Williams in 1957 (.388) and 1980 George Brett (.390).

Colorado improved from their inaugural season and were about to move out of cavernous Mile High Stadium and into Coors Field. The strike cost them a chance to set a new single season attendance record, but the 1994 Rockies still have the highest average home attendance (57,570 per game) of any team in MLB history.

Result: The Giants claw their way back and finish tied with the Dodgers with 86 wins, leading to a one game playoff for the division, won by the Giants avenging the Dodgers eliminating them in game 162 a year earlier.

Playoffs

The original wild card playoff formatwas different and in many ways made no sense with the wild card team assigned to play a specific division winner rather than the team with the best record. The NL West champion would play the wild card, and the AL Central champion would play the AL Wild Card unless the two teams were in the same division.

ALDS1: Cleveland over NY Yankees (3-1) – The Yankees end up falling behind in the series early when manager Buck Showalter forgets that he can use his best relief pitcher on the road in a tie game in extra innings.

ALDS2: Chicago over Oakland (3-0) – The White Sox win their first playoff series in 77 years

NLDS1: Atlanta over San Francisco (3-0) – The Braves went 21-2 in NLDS play from 1995 to 2001 and this season would have been no different.

NLDS2: Montreal over Cincinnati (3-2) – Buoyed by raucous sellout crowds of hockey-starved Quebecers (due to the ongoing NHL lockout) for games 3-5 after falling down 0-2, the Expos come back and win three straight to advance to the NLCS for the first time since 1981.

ALCS: Chicago over Cleveland (4-2) – This series is mostly remembered for an incident in game 5 where young absent-minded baserunner Manny Ramirez forgot to run to 2ndbase on a would-be walkoff single in the 10th, keeping the game tied and allowing the White Sox to win in 12 innings in an incident forever known as “Manny’s Boner”. 

NLCS: Montreal over Atlanta (4-2) – After losing the first two games at home, the Expos rally to win four straight after another unfortunate national anthem incident at game 3 in Atlanta where the Canadian flag was flown upside down….again

World Series: Montreal over Chicago (4-2) – A costly error in game 6 by Julio Franco, playing 2ndbase in place of Joey Cora due to the lack of the DH, leads to a 5 run Montreal 3rdinning in the clincher. Canadian Larry Walker wins series MVP as the Expos become the third straight World Series winner from Canada. 

Author: Peter Winson