Today is the 11th anniversary of the lowest point in baseball history–the strike that led to commissioner Bud Selig cancelling the remainder of the 1994 season and the World Series.
It’s also the 11th anniversary of the nadir of Bud Selig’s career.
In both cases (baseball history and Selig’s career), that’s saying a lot.
Oh what might have been.
So many players were having seasons for the ages. The Montreal Expos looked like world beaters. The Yankees appeared like they were going to see their first postseason action in over a decade. The Indians were locked in a battle with the White Sox to end their decades long run of futility. Tony Gwynn’s name was being mentioned in relation to Ted Williams; Ken Griffey Jr. and Matt Williams were being linked to Roger Maris; Jeff Bagwell, hitting in one of the worst hitter’s parks in MLB, was having an historically great season and in the other loop Frank Thomas was doing likewise. Greg Maddux was in the midst of his greatest season in his first ballot Hall-of-Fame career. Heck, even Chuck Knoblauch was hearing Earl Webb whispers.
The turnstiles were spinning, the fans were rabid and baseball fever was running high in cities like Montreal, Denver, Miami, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toronto, Baltimore and even Kansas City, where the Royals sat just four games back in the newly minted AL Central and just three back in the wild card race.
Baseball was vibrant and healthy.
However, it was being run by nitwits. After a disastrous attempt to more evenly distribute baseball’s revenues in Kohler Wisconsin the year before, self-interest ruled the day. Since smaller revenue clubs couldn’t keep up with the large revenue clubs’ spending and larger revenue clubs were unwilling to provide relief to their disadvantaged brethren, the owners united and decided to wring a solution out of the MLBPA and insist on a salary cap.
We know how history played out.
However, we’re not here to rehash this; we’re looking at what might have been had 1994 decided to play itself out.
The Montreal Expos
The Expos had it all: a potent offense (third best in the NL, first in the East); the best pitching in the National League; superb outfield defense with Moises Alou in left field, Marquis Grissom in center field, and Larry Walker in right field; a young and improving infield; a terrific bullpen with a potent set-up/closer combo in Mel Rojas and John Wetteland—all led by a manager who was hitting all the right buttons in Felipe Alou. The Expos sent five players to the All-Star Game. They enjoyed the best record in MLB (74-40), a six-game cushion over the Atlanta Braves (over whom they were 5-2 in their last seven games), and were 20-3 before the strike hit. Furthermore, of the last 48 games on their schedule, 34 were home dates. The Expos were averaging 27,154 fans per game, and in their last four-game homestand from August 1-4 they averaged 34,376 fans—and the stretch drive was just getting under way. Had the Expos averaged 35,000 (a ridiculously modest number considering how the crowds were starting to swell in Olympic Stadium) patrons for the rest of the year, their attendance would’ve been 2,466,250.
Had the Expos played .500 baseball the rest of the way, they would finished the year 98-64. In short, only an epic collapse would’ve kept the Expos out of the playoffs. Montreal had a young, exciting team on the rise, the second lowest payroll in the game, rising attendance, and postseason revenue all in the future. The extra money would’ve helped the Expos avoid the fire sale of 1995 and who knows what else? The Montreal Expos were the number one casualty of the strike. Absent the strike, the Expos would be alive and well in Montreal.
Gwynn finished the year with the highest batting average (.394) since Royals’ Hall-of-Famer George Brett batted .390 in 1980. Gwynn was hot before the strike hit: he batted .417 in his final 21 games and .452 over his final 10. Gwynn was 9-for-19 (.474) leading up to the strike. Over that 21-game span he raised his already impressive average from .388 to the now famous .394. Could he have made it to .400?
We’ll never know.
The March to Maris
Like Gwynn, San Francisco Giants third sacker Matt Williams went into the strike on a tear, homering in nine of his last 20 games, raising his season’s total to 43. Could he have reached 61? Well in 1994, Williams was averaging a home run in every 10.35 at-bats. In the four seasons leading up to 1994, he averaged 579 at-bats. So by those rates, Williams would’ve reached 60. However, there are a few things to consider:
- He was on a hot streak that might’ve goosed his total a little.
- He had played in all but three of the Giants’ games in 1994 and played 146 and 145 games in 1992 and 1993. Chasing Maris (and absent injury) he probably would’ve played in 155-159 games which would give him around 610 AB which would make his total rise to 63.
- Candlestick played as a pitcher’s park, with a Park Factor of 95 in 1994. However, the Giants would have played 26 of their last 47 games on the road.
He had a shot.
Ken Griffey Jr. was the AL representative in the Maris chase. He didn’t go into the strike as quite as as Williams, hitting 5 home runs over his 18 games, including two in the final four games, but he was sitting at 40 on August 12. The season before, Griffey played in 156 games, which was a career high for him at the time. However, he had played in all but one game of the 1994 season. Since he too was chasing a milestone and the Mariners were just two games out in the AL West, we’re going to assume a 158 game season for Griffey. He was averaging 3.9 at-bats per game which would give him 616 AB for the season. Griffey was averaging a home run every 10.83 at-bats, which would have given Griffey 57 dingers. Considering that he hit 45 the year before and hit 49, 56, 56, and 48 home runs in his first four full seasons following the strike (he was injured in 1995) he had an outside chance of pulling it off.
Am I the only one who misses the old Junior? He was amazing.
Before Bulking, BALCO and Barry
The exploits of Sammy Sosa, with three 60 home run seasons; Mark McGwire with home run totals of 70, 60, and 50 (twice); and Barry Bonds, who belted 73 home runs and shattered single season records for OBP, SLG, and OPS, have made us somewhat jaded about the meanings of stats. Before the home run chase of 1998, two first basemen who were born on May 27, 1968 put on a fireworks display that ended up with each copping their respective league’s MVP awards. The White Sox had Frank Thomas, the Astros, Jeff Bagwell.
A quick look-see:
Player BA OBP SLG HR *OPS+ Thomas .353 .487 .729 38 212 Bagwell .368 .451 .750 39 213
At the time, Bagwell’s slugging percentage was best mark posted since Jimmie Foxx’s .749 in 1932. Both Thomas and Bagwell were the first players since Ted Williams in 1955 to have an OPS in excess of 1.200. Their *OPS+ levels and only been reached once since Babe Ruth did it 1930: when Willie McCovey weighed in at 211 in 1969.
Could they have sustained it? Well that’s another question to engrave on Bud Selig’s tombstone.
Greg Maddux’s 1994 season was the greatest had by a 20th century pitcher since the dead-ball era (Dutch Leonard in 1914) ; even better than Bob Gibson’s magnificent 1968 campaign, when he posted an ERA of 1.12. Only one post dead-ball era pitcher enjoyed a better season, and he had to post the following line to achieve it:
W-L ERA lg. ERA IP H BB K 18-6 1.74 4.91 217 128 32 284
And that was Pedro Martinez in 2000.
Let’s compare Maddux’s 1994 with Martinez’s 2000:
W-L ERA lg. ERA IP H BB K Martinez 18-6 1.74 4.91 217 128 32 284 Maddux 16-6 1.56 4.22 202 150 31 156
Of course, Maddux’s season was shortened, so we can’t tell whether he would’ve finished with better or worse numbers. Of interest, however is that Maddux followed that up with this line in 1995:
W-L ERA lg. ERA IP H BB K 19-2 1.63 4.18 209.6 147 23 181
Also to be considered is how well he was pitching when the strike hit. Here are his last five starts:
Date IP H ER BB K July 21 9 5 1 0 8 July 26 8 6 1 1 4 Aug 1 9 8 2 1 8 Aug 6 8 3 0 1 7 Aug 11 9 3 0 0 4
Over his last five starts, Maddux was 4-1, 0.84 ERA, 43 IP 3 CG 25 H 3 BB 31 K. His only loss was to Montreal (heh).
Who knows how his season might have played out?
What’s Up Chuck?
One record I follow ferociously every year is the single season doubles record set by little known Red Sox outfielder Earl Webb who, at age 32, smacked 67 two-baggers in 1930. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Chuck Knoblauch was considered on track for a possible Hall-of-Fame career. He was the only player to interrupt Roberto Alomar’s run of 10 Gold Gloves at second base. He was an offensive catalyst atop the Minnesota Twins’ lineup, who was batting .298/.388/.419 by the time he was 30, averaged 105 runs scored per season and had pilfered 335 bases. Only Alomar’s considerable shadow held him back from being recognized as the AL’s premier second basemen (Knoblauch was 237 runs created over the average for the position over that span). In 1994, Knoblauch was banging out doubles like there was no tomorrow. When that fateful day came, Knoblauch was sitting at 45 after just 445 at-bats. As a durable leadoff man, he regularly garnered 600 at-bats a year. His pace, assuming 600 at-bats, would have caused him to end up at 61. Over his last 20 games (83 at-bats) Knoblauch was batting .325, but his doubles stroke was slumping–he hit just six over that stretch. Regardless, 60 doubles would’ve been cool.
The three-division/wildcard format we see today debuted in 1994. It also marked the end of the Blue Jays terrific 1985-93 run. Their closer Duane Ward injured his shoulder and didn’t pitch a single inning. Starters Juan Guzman, Dave Stewart, and Al Leiter were all terrible. First basemanJohn Olerud took a step backward. Shortstop Tony Fernandez’s departure hurt and the next generation (Shawn Green, Carlos Delgado, and Alex Gonzalez) weren’t ready for the big time. The AL West looked worse than the NL West did a couple of weeks ago. The Seattle Mariners were in the playoff hunt (just two games back) despite a 49-63 record. That season would mark the last year that the Kansas City Royals would be north of .500 until 2003. Baseball also said goodbye to Allie Reynolds, who was a key pitcher on the Yankees’ terrific 1949-53 clubs that won five straight World Series. Eric Show, the troubled starter for the San Diego Padres, Marvellous Marv Throneberry of the Amazin’ Mets of 1962, and Harvey Haddix, the Pirates pitcher who pitched 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves only to lose the game in the 13th. Lew Burdette went the distance for the Braves, surrendering 12 hits but no runs.
1994 … what might have been.
References & Resources
Thanks to Retrosheet, Baseball-Reference, and The Sabremetric Encyclopedia for all the data.