MLB: 20 years later: ’94 strike molded baseball’s path
Twenty years ago this week, San Francisco Giants pitcher Bud Black figured his fourth work stoppage as a Major League Baseball player would be like the first three. The bitterly battling players and owners would find their way back to the negotiating table and hammer out a solution that would allow games to continue.
It didn’t take him long to realize this strike would be unlike any other.
“I remember specifically continuing to play catch with Billy Swift down in the peninsula in San Francisco daily,” said Black, now the manager of the San Diego Padres. “And then it became every other day. And then it became every three or four days. And then I think we all started worrying that, hey, this is not looking good.”
The bleakest chapter in baseball history began on Aug. 12, 1994, when the players went on strike following months of fitful and fruitless negotiations with owners who wanted to implement a salary cap.
It was the seventh work stoppage since 1972, and it quickly became the longest and costliest. On Sept. 14, acting commissioner Bud Selig cancelled the remainder of the season. For the first time since 1904, there was no World Series.
“That was one of the sadder baseball moments of my life,” said current Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who was in his third season as the New York Yankees’ manager in 1994. “I can remember looking at the TV going, ‘Really? Did he just cancel the season?’”
The strike ended up lasting 232 days and was hours away from spilling over into a new season when the striking players agreed to work on March 30, 1995, when an injunction issued by Judge Sonia Sotomayor in the Southern District of New York forced owners — who were planning to play the 1995 season with replacement players — to restore arbitration and free agency.
Two decades later, baseball is as strong — and as harmonious — as ever. While baseball has not had a work stoppage since 1994, the NHL, NBA and NFL have combined for six work stoppages in the last 20 years. Baseball’s last two collective-bargaining agreements — in 2006 and 2011 — were negotiated without the union even establishing a strike date.
The unity yielded mutually profitable new media arms such as MLB Advanced Media, which operates MLB.com, and the MLB Network.
“Maybe we had to go through something like that in order to have (the) long extended period of peace we’ve had now,” said Yankees broadcaster David Cone, who was the American League player representative while pitching for the Kansas City Royals in 1994. “What would happen if the owners and players actually did become partners and really do cooperative efforts together? What good could come of it?
“And now we see because the game is growing. Rather than arguing over the slice of the pie, we’ve all grown the pie together.”
Still, while baseball healed and thrived, the sudden end to the 1994 season still reverberates and resonates on a daily basis.
Millions of fans who swore they would never return to the game came back during the late ‘90s, when baseball executives, fans and media looked the other way while long-standing home run records were obliterated by chemically enhanced sluggers.
Selig, now in his final season as commissioner, spent the past several years trying to rid baseball of the performance-enhancing drugs that helped the game recover.
In one of the great ironies of this or any other century, Alex Rodriguez — who was 18 years old when he made his major league debut on July 8, 1994 — would have been the only big-leaguer to play in both 1994 and 2014 had he not been suspended for the season for his role in the Biogenesis scandal. The players’ union recommended Rodriguez accept a suspension last summer, several months before he sued the union.
The 1994 season would have been the first in which wild-card teams qualified for the playoffs, but the Montreal Expos — who missed the postseason the four times they won 90-plus games between 1979 and 1993 — had the best record in the game (74-40) and were 6 1/2 games ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East when the strike began.
Within a week of players returning to work, the Expos traded three of their best and most expensive players: ace starting pitcher Ken Hill, closer John Wetteland and center fielder Marquis Grissom.
The Expos continued to strip down until they moved to Washington and became the Nationals following the 2004 season. The Nationals’ manager is Matt Williams — whose 43 homers as the Giants’ third baseman in 1994 had him on pace to tie Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
“One of the great things about baseball is the players association and how strong they are and how strong they have been,” Williams said Tuesday afternoon. “Everybody’s on the same page. I was one of the guys that signed my name to the piece of paper like everybody else. To say that I felt like I had a lost season wouldn’t be accurate, because I didn’t feel that way.”
Williams wasn’t the only one taking aim at Maris. Ken Griffey Jr. led the American League with 40 homers, while four others had at least 34 homers (Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Albert Belle and Barry Bonds).
Thomas, the American League MVP, was flirting with the Triple Crown: He was second in homers, third in batting average (.353, six points behind the Yankees’ Paul O’Neill) and tied for third in RBIs (101, 11 behind the Minnesota Twins’ Kirby Puckett).
The most wistful what-if belongs to the late Tony Gwynn, who was trying to become the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941. Gwynn was hitting .394 at the time of the strike — and was just getting warmed up. He hit .475 in 10 August games.
“He could have got there,” Williams said. “He was on everything all the time. I believe he would have made it.”
The Expos weren’t the only small-market team to pare payroll following the strike. The Houston Astros ended 1994 a half-game out of first place in the NL Central. However, during the strike, the Astros traded one-third of their starting lineup — third baseman Ken Caminiti, shortstop Andujar Cedeno and center fielder Steve Finley — to the Padres in a blockbuster deal.
“We had a very, very good team,” said current New York Mets manager Terry Collins, who was in his first season as the Astros’ manager in 1994. “We were very disappointed because we thought we were going to make a good run at it.”
The Yankees were as much the antithesis of a small-market team in 1994 as they are now. Still, the strike robbed the Yankees — who were 70-43 and led the AL East by 6 1/2 games — of their first postseason appearance since 1981 and first baseman Don Mattingly, who was the lone bright spot on those non-contending Yankees teams, of his best chance to reach the World Series.
“When you’re on a bad team, you’re always looking for light at the end of the tunnel,” said Mattingly, who now manages the Los Angeles Dodgers. “We had kind of gotten there. And then to have that happen, it was a little rough.”
The work stoppage also may have cost Showalter an opportunity to become the next iconic Yankees manager. Showalter wasn’t asked back after directing the Yankees to the wild card in 1995. Joe Torre took over, won four World Series in the next five years and entered the Hall of Fame last month.
Showalter, meanwhile, revived three franchises since but has yet to get as far as a league championship series. Has he gotten over what could have been in 1994?
“Oh, yeah, sure I have,” Showalter said, “(I am) 58 (years old). I live in reality. Meant to be. Some things happened good as a result of it, some things happened bad.”
Showalter and Collins are the only active managers who managed in 1994. Collins, now the oldest manager in the game at 65, never got as close to the playoffs as he did with the Astros in 1994 and is in his fourth season with the perpetually rebuilding Mets.
Collins said he is not bitter over how his career might have turned out had the 1994 season been played to its conclusion. Even so, he believes baseball will maintain labor peace because of tales such as his and the fallout that still smolders to this day.
“You can’t ever be bitter, because I had a major league job,” Collins said. “But I look back (on it) — and that’s why I’ve said it many times: I don’t think you’ll ever see another strike in baseball.”