The casual baseball fan almost certainly has memories of the 1994 season. The casual baseball fan also remembers 1994 as the season that had no ending.
1994 was shaping up to be a wonderful year in baseball, until the premature and abrupt ending to the season came on August 11th of that year.
The Yankees were poised to return to the postseason under Manager Buck Showalter. The most recent postseason berth for the New Yorkers was in 1981, which saw the Yankees lose four straight games to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series after posting a two games to none lead. The ‘Strike Year’ also could have been Don Mattingly’s first postseason appearance, as he was a star player within a struggling franchise in the 1980′s, and early 1990′s.
While the Yankees sported the best record in the American League, the surprising Montreal Expos roared to a 74-40 start in the National League. Montreal had a six game lead over the Atlanta Braves, and were on pace to win 105 games. Surely an opportunity to interrupt the Braves NL dynasty were looming on the horizon. The spectacular season in Montreal was only fueling the Expos’ bid for a new stadium, and a chance for the Expos to duplicate the success of their northern brother, the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Cleveland Indians were slated to return to postseason play after a drought of their own. The Tribe had not won an AL Pennant since 1954, where Willie Mays of the New York Giants robbed Cleveland of a championship. Trailing defending AL Champion Chicago by a single game was a rare position for the Indians. Cleveland was also leading the Wild Card race, which was slated to debut in 1994.
Also competing in the Central Division were the Kansas City Royals, who were a mere 4 games back when the strike hit. Since then, the Royals have not played too many meaningful games as late as August.
Jeff Bagwell was a unanimous MVP selection for the NL as he single-handedly kept the Astros in the Central Division race. At least Bagwell received his hardware. Matt Williams of the Giants had clubbed 43 home runs when the strike hit, putting him on pace to match Roger Maris’ record of 61. Unfortunately, the fans were denied a chance to see a historic chase.
Not to be outdone by Williams, Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres was batting an amazing .394 for the year. Gwynn’s accomplishments are certainly not dimished, but his opportunity to crack the .400 mark and have his name etched in history with the likes of Ted Williams was struck down.
Maybe the oddest aspect of the 1994 season was the American League’s West Division. Despite a 52-62 record, Kevin Kennedy’s Texas Rangers were in first place. All four teams were within six and a half games, with the California Angels bringing up the rear.
This season, as well as the strike, certainly set the tone for the remainder of the decade. A vote to use ‘replacement’ players was passed, but the idea never came to fruition with the end of the strike paving the way for a shortened 1995 schedule.
The New York Yankees finally did return to the playoffs in ’95, where they were ousted three games to two in a memorable series with the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners’ memorable run came to a halt when the Cleveland Indians won another thrilling series for the AL Pennant. The Indians carried momentum from the strike into 1995, winning 100 games despite playing in a year that featured 18 games less than the standard 162 mark.
The deepest wounds from the strike were felt in Montreal. The Expos’ legitimate chance to keep the championship banner north of the border was not felt the following season. Montreal tumbled to the bottom of the division in 1995. Attendance and general fan interest suffered to a point beyond recovery. No faithful ownership group meant no new stadium. No new stadium in Montreal meant the franchise was in danger of being contracted, along with the Minnesota Twins.
Thankfully, both teams survived, albeit the Expos have since been relocated to Washington DC.
The Braves, without an obstacle in Montreal, cruised to the NL Pennant, and a World Series Championship after defeating Cleveland 4 games to 2.
What if the strike never happened? Would baseball still exist in Montreal at a major league level? Would the Expos have squared off in a memorable clash against the historic Yankees? Would we be talking about the achievements of Tony Gwynn and Matt Williams?
For the sake of baseball, let us hope that the sport does not follow the recent trends of the NBA and NFL. We do not need to look back on yet another season asking the question, “What if?”