By: Gordon Schenk
As the cool, autumn breeze arrives in October, so does the post-season of the Great American Pastime, the best of the best in Major League Baseball. Bringing out the emotion of dedicated fans for their respected ball clubs. The stories an individual player will tell about their experience on and off the field and who will become a piece of baseball history. A sport that unites those who stuck with his/her favorite team and spread that passion from generation to generation. Baseball is the one sport that brings out the best and worst emotions. Some consider baseball the most human sport. I found this out myself, 20 years ago.
Being an innocent 9-year old attached to the TV screen on weekends in 1994, I was consumed by every sporting event I could watch. There were plenty of events to talk to anybody about that year. The New York Rangers ended their 54-year drought by winning the Stanley Cup against Vancouver. The United States was hosting the World Cup. The Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding controversy that captivated the country in all its bizarre glory. Michael Jordan takes a sabbatical from the NBA and plays in the minor league baseball system. Cubs great Ryne Sandberg announced his first retirement. Most infamously, the OJ chase. I still vividly remember watching the 1994 NBA Finals all of a sudden split-screen to a Ford Bronco being chased down the highway. However, what happen that year was also my first exposure to an event that went beyond cheering for my favorite team, hoping they would become the newly crowned champions.
“We picked a bad season to have a good year,” stated Ken Griffey Jr. a quote from one of the biggest names in baseball that would be so prophetic?
Before the 1994 strike took its effect on the game, it was a magical season for America’s Pastime. I recall Chicago White Sox becoming a powerhouse team that would be World Series contenders. Their division rival, Cleveland Indians, posed a real threat to the South Side team that could jeopardize their post-season. There were fascinating sides stories with that match-up. Frank Thomas living up to his nickname “Big Hurt” with a second consecutive AL MVP award. One of the more unusual moments to take place between the two clubs was Albert Belle getting caught with a corked bat. Carlos Baerga proved to be an offensive threat for Cleveland. Both teams fought hard to see which club would win the division title. Throughout the league were possible record-breaking performances worthy of attention. Matt Williams, playing for the San Francisco Giants, was on his way to break Roger Maris’ 61-home run record, with 43 home runs and 96 RBI at the time. Tony Gwynn was mastering the art of hitting during the 1994 baseball campaign. To this day, Gwynn was the closest player to reach that hallmark .400 batting average (Gwynn‘s BA was .394 that year). Ted Williams was the last player to obtain this feat in his heyday, a statistic that is the stuff baseball immortality is built on. The Montreal Expos were also serious contenders. With teammates like Ken Hill, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, Larry Walker, and Darrin Fletch to name a handful, they were an immensely talented team with the best record in the game (74-40).
When the baseball season headed into early August, an unexpected event took place. The game stopped cold, like a car-crash into a concrete wall. No post-season play. No shattering records. Worst of all, no World Series for the first time in 90 years. An abrupt end to a phenomenal year. The player’s association and MLB began negotiations that neither side could make an agreement on. The process went on and took its toll on the rest of the 1994 season. Many key players in these meetings like Donald Fehr and Bud Selig did their part in trying to repair America’s Game. Financial and political decisions added fuel to the fire and angered the fans even more. There were no good guys to cheer in these negotiations. This even went up to Congress to hopefully bring the game back to the masses. It would take until January 1995 for Major League Baseball to make any real progress. However, the damage was done and beyond repairable to most of the loyal fans.
As the new baseball season began in April 1995, there was an immense feeling of animosity from the spectators of the sport. There is always some type of anger when it comes to a team in a heated rivalry. This was far different. It felt genuine. Many showed their displeasure by showering the baseball clubs with boos and songs like “Field of Greed,” Shame on You”, and “The Strike Sucks”. Some of the unflattering moments when the game returned. A handful of fans at Shea Stadium on Opening Day ran onto the field, showering dollar bills around the players and making unflattering statements. Newspaper polls shown that baseball fans felt betrayed and not afraid to let their viewpoint carry throughout the 1995 season. Even sports columnists and news media grew increasingly furious at MLB. Many pointed at not only the suits behind the organization, but even big name players as part of the blame for the strike. This was unlike anything I had ever experienced, I was too young to understand the basic politics behind the baseball strike and kept wondering like any small kid, “When are they gonna play again?”
That season also brought in replacements players that seem to amplify an already enraged fan base. Even those in their respected ball clubs had a difficult time taking in the full scope of this strike. The biggest highlight of the 1995 baseball campaign did put tense feelings aside to witness a piece of sports history: Cal Ripken, Jr. playing his 2,131st consecutive game, surpassing a record many considered unbreakable (Lou Gehrig held this for 56 years at 2,130 games in a row). Atlanta braves would win 1995 World Series against Cleveland, but the public’s interest in baseball was still questionable. It would take around three-to-four more years for MLB to make a recovery that got the country talking about baseball again. The McGwire-Sosa home run race would play a vital role in the sport’s resurgence and another scandalous period about to happen: The steroid era.
I still wonder all of the possibilities that could have happen to the season looking back at this year. How fanatic the baseball crowd would be hearing the moment Gwynn’s batting average peeked over the .400 mark? Would the White Sox or Indians represent the American League in the World Series? Arguably, the biggest topic would be the 1994 Montreal Expos. If this franchise would’ve won the World Series that year, it could have created one of the most unique dynasties in recent memory: Canada dominating America’s Pastime since the Toronto Blue Jays won the baseball’s biggest prize in the previous two seasons. As much drama and magic that took place in the sports world of 1994, that baseball season will forever be the most debated for columnists, historians, and baseball aficionados alike. It’s a textbook case of “What If?” It was also one of its ugliest moments from a fan’s perspective and one that left an invisible scar that may have permanently damaged the game forever. I can safely say for many that I don’t want see that scar ever again.