Maybe I missed the widespread retrospectives that should have come with the recent 25-year anniversary of the Major League Baseball players’ strike of 1994, but there’s still little doubt about that lost season still resonating with a lot of baseball fans even a quarter-century later.
A lot of fans said that they wouldn’t watch baseball again after 232 days of no Major League Baseball. Many didn’t, but most probably did, especially with the Sept. 1995 spectacle of Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak.
Maybe they stayed away until 1998, when the growth of steroids in baseball ultimately produced the summer-long home-run chase that led to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staging the sport’s race to the all-time single-season HR record.
Eventually though, most of the fans did come back, as evidenced by attendance averages growing from 50.4 million in 1995, to 71.4 million in the year 2000.
But make no mistake, the strike and its long aftermath profoundly affected the sport and how it was viewed by its fandom, and MLB took a major-league hit to its public-relations image.
So what happened again?
The seeds for the 1994 work stoppage were planted in 1990, when the issues of free agency and arbitration led to a standstill between players and owners that wiped out spring training completely. No regular-season games were missed, however, although season openers were delayed by a week. The compromise was reached to address revenue-sharing, and players’ minimum salaries rose to $100,000 for the first time.
But in 1994, owners again wanted to cut costs, and a way to do that involved revisiting revenue-sharing, as well as putting in place the sport’s first-ever salary cap.
The owners were poised to introduce the salary cap as of Aug. 12. The players had voted two weeks earlier to walk out if an agreement were not in place by that date. When Aug. 11 came and went, and the two sides were at a stalemate, the players in solidarity did not show up for work the next day.
In 1994, the average major-league salary was $1,168,263, but the players’ union had stockpiled a lot of marketing money, so the players felt as if they could stay out for a while if necessary if the owners didn’t backtrack from their firm stance.
As usual, it was the fans who suffered as the days went on in August and into September, with few glimpses of hope for resolution. Granted, minor-league baseball games continued to be played, but for many fan bases, those games were hard to find or irrelevant.
And at some point, we all realized that if something didn’t happen very, very soon in the labor dispute, that it would be impossible for MLB to finish its season, and then be able to successfully stage playoff series.
It was Commissioner Bud Selig’s unfortunate obligation to announce on Sept. 12 that the owners had voted to cancel the balance of the regular season, along with the postseason and World Series; it was the first Fall Classic to be skipped since 1904.
Yes, it was the fans who agonized the most, and anger toward both sides was vociferous and rage-filled, but certain fan bases had more to lament than others.
The Red Sox weren’t going anywhere that season. When the music died on Aug. 12, Boston – its championship drought having stretched to 76 seasons – were in fourth place in the AL East, 17 games in arrears.
Meanwhile, Yankee fans were apoplectic. Their team had the AL’s best record at 70-43, but the franchise had undergone an unaccustomed-to playoff drought, as New York had not even reached the postseason since falling to the Dodgers in the 1981 World Series.
That 1994 team, which included team captain Don Mattingly, would provide the framework for the squad that would win world titles in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000 (though Mattingly unfortunately chose to retire in 1995, without a championship).
Who knows how the burgeoning Yankees franchise would have fared in 1994? And would Mattingly have retired as a champion?
Even more disheartening and frustrating is the tale of the 1994 Montreal Expos.
The Expos had an MLB-best 74-40 record when the strike hit, and had a six-game lead in the NL East over a pitching-rich Braves team that would win the World Series the next year. Montreal had been an expansion team in 1969, but in its first 25 seasons of play, it qualified for the playoffs only once, in 1981 when the sport’s first major strike forced MLB to determine its postseason participants by crowning first- and second-half champions.
So the 1994 Expos were a spectacular breath of fresh air for the team’s long-suffering fans. The team was loaded, too: Moises Alou (.339 BA), Larry Walker (.322), Wil Cordero (.294), Marquis Grissom (.288), and Cliff Floyd (.281) were the anchors of the team, righty Ken Hill was 16-5, and a young pitcher named Pedro Martinez (11-5) and a pre-pinstriped John Wetteland (25 saves) were also on this roster that sold out Olympic Stadium every night.
Heading into strike night, the Expos had won 20 of their previous 23 games, and were a shoo-in for their first legitimate playoff appearance.
And then the players walked away – and the franchise never got another swipe at postseason glory.
The following season, Expos management began to dismantle the roster, plans for a much-discussed new stadium were scuttled, and the franchise never again reached the playoffs.
After a dismal 67-95 2004 campaign, the team was moved to Washington, DC, where it became the Nationals.
Other casualties of the 1994 strike: We will never know whether the Padres’ Tony Gwynn could have hit .400, since his 1994 season ended with a .394 batting average, the highest of any player since Ted Williams in 1941. We will never know if the Giants’ Matt Williams, who had 43 homers and was on pace for 61, could have been the first to break Roger Maris’s home-run record prior to the Sosa-McGwire run four years later. And Bo Jackson, Goose Gossage, Sid Bream, Tom Brunansky, Lloyd McClendon, and minor-leaguer Michael Jordan would never play pro baseball again.
Major-leaguers didn’t return to the big stage until late April 1995, as the owners chose to hire minor-leaguers and other players off the street to serve as “replacement players” throughout spring training, before the sides reached agreement – without the dreaded salary cap – and a delayed 144-game season began on Apr. 25.
Fortunately, baseball has not had a work stoppage since, average MLB salaries are now $4.36 million, and the sport is still the only one of the four to not have a salary cap.
But it’s fair to say 25 years later that baseball lost something that year, and the way things are going these days, the game may never get back the prominence that it held in people’s lives before greed and obstinacy wiped away the magical summer and fall of 1994.