Previously, Banished to the Pen turned the clock back to 1988 in the first entry of our Throwbacks series. This time, we look back at 1994 — when Matt Williams chased 61, Tony Gwynn chased .400, and the Expos had MLB’s best record. That was before the dark times. Before the strike.
Part 1 takes you through what happened on the field (and what didn’t), how some Effectively Wild listeners dealt with the aftermath, and the Michael Jordan experiment.
In part 2, we look at what made Ken Griffey Jr’s first video game a classic. In part 3, we talk baseball cards and Major League II. For more on the before and after of the strike itself, read Rob Mains’ recap.
by Ken Maeda
In 1994, (Mighty Morphin) Power Rangers were go-going in their first season. Crystal Pepsi faded from shelves (though it’s back — right now). Kurt Cobain’s death shocked a generation. Star Trek TNG came to an end. The Ford Bronco got free but unwelcome publicity. Seinfeld, ER, and Friends became must-see TV. And a lot of people heard Weezer for the first time.
Meanwhile, the MLB season started on a festive note: you may recall the ubiquitous gold logo which honored the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first fully pro team (not the first team ever, as George Carlin might’ve thought).
In 1993, the expansion Marlins and Rockies gave MLB 28 teams. A year later, the four divisions were changed to six: five teams in each league’s East, five in each Central, and four in each West. This also brought about an expanded playoff format (in theory), in which the best second-place team in each league would get a wild card spot. Houston was in the NL Central, Detroit in the AL East, Milwaukee in the AL Central. Interleague play wouldn’t arrive until the next expansion in 1997.
Other events of 1994:
- Steve Carlton was elected to the Hall of Fame with 96% of the vote.
- Before becoming the star of Space Jam, a Wizard, a Bobcats owner, and a crying meme, Michael Jordan took up baseball after retiring from the NBA the year before (more on that below). In June, Chicago’s other famous #23, Ryne Sandberg, also retired relatively early only to come back later (playing in ’96 and ’97).
- MLB started its season at night for the first time, on Easter Sunday, with the Reds hosting the Cardinals to the chagrin of fans in Cincinnati.
- Cleveland’s Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) opened for business, replacing the 61-year-old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, aka “The Mistake by the Lake.” The Ballpark in Arlington also opened (later Ameriquest Field, then Rangers Ballpark, now Globe Life Park… all “in Arlington”). The Rockies played their final season at Mile High Stadium before moving to Coors Field in ’95.
- Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes hit three homers on opening day for the Cubs in a loss. He would finish the year with eight. In 2001 in Japan, he tied Sadaharu Oh’s single-season HR of 55.
- On April 8, the Dodgers’ Chan Ho Park became the first Korean-born player to appear in a MLB game — meanwhile, his team is no-hit by the Braves’ Kent Mercker. Park was 21, and wouldn’t see regular time until 1996.
- Alex Rodriguez, the first overall draft pick in ’93, made his debut for Seattle on July 8, a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday. In the same game, Boston SS Jose Valentin recorded an unassisted triple play. Rodriguez played in 17 games that year and wouldn’t break out until ’96 as the MVP runner-up.
- The NL breaks the AL’s six-game All-Star win streak at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium.
- Jeff Bagwell won the NL MVP unanimously, though he suffered a hand injury on August 10 that would’ve cost the rest of a full schedule. His numbers: 110 games, .368/,451/.750, 213 OPS+, 39 HR, 8.2 bWAR.
- Frank Thomas won his second consecutive AL MVP: 113 games, .353/.487/.729, 212 OPS+, 38 HR, 6.3 bWAR.
- Gred Maddux won his third of four consecutive Cy Youngs: 25 starts, 202 IP, 10 CG, 1.56 ERA, 271 ERA+, 2.39 FIP.
Awards, Leaders, and Lists
Teams played about 70% of their scheduled games.
|WAR||Kenny Lofton||7.2||Greg Maddux||8.7|
|Avg||Paul O'Neill||.359||Tony Gwynn||.394|
|HR||Ken Griffey||40||Matt Williams||43|
|OPS+||Frank Thomas||212||Jeff Bagwell||213|
|SB||Kenny Lofton||60||Craig Biggio||39|
|ERA+||Roger Clemens||176||Greg Maddux||271|
|FIP||Randy Johnson||3.18||Greg Maddux||2.39|
|K/9||Randy Johnson||10.7||Andy Benes||9.9|
|MVP||1. Frank Thomas, 2. Ken Griffey, 3. Albert Belle||1. Jeff Bagwell, 2. Matt Williams, 3. Moises Alou|
|Cy Young||1. David Cone, 2. Jimmy Key, 3. Randy Johnson||1. Greg Maddux, 2. Ken Hill, 3. Bret Saberhagen|
|Rookie of the Year||1. Bob Hamelin, 2. Manny Ramirez, 3. Rusty Greer||1. Raul Mondesi, 2. John Hudek, 3. Ryan Klesko|
Notable Draftees (round): Paul Wilson (1, 1st overall), Ben Grieve (1), Josh Booty (1), Nomar Garciaparra (1), Paul Konerko (1), Jason Varitek (1), Troy Glaus (2), JD Drew (20), Eric Gagne (30), Tim Hudson (35)
Debuts: Alex Rodriguez, Jeff Cirillo, Garret Anderson, Charles Johnson, Rusty Greer, Chan Ho Park, Armando Benitez, Jose Lima
Retirees: Willie Wilson, Kent Hrbek, Dave Henderson, Steve Sax, Harold Reynolds, Bill Pecota, Bo Jackson, Jack Morris, Goose Gossage, Charlie Hough
Born in 1988: Carlos Correa, Rougned Odor, Addison Russell, Corey Seager, Luis Severino
Average player salary: $1.2M
Highest salaries: Bobby Bonilla, $6.3M, Ryne Sandberg, $6M, Joe Carter, $5.6M
Average team payroll: $32.8M
Highest team payrolls: Braves, $49M; Yankees, $46M; Blue Jays, $43M (Lowest: Padres, $15M)
Popular songs during the season: Sabotage, The Sign, I Swear, Stay (I Missed You), Streets of Philadelphia, Loser, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, All I Wanna Do, Longview
Popular movies during the season: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, D2: The Mighty Ducks, Major League II, The Crow, Speed, The Lion King, Forrest Gump
How I Spent the Strike
This time a year ago, the Effectively Wild Facebook group was asked what they remember about what they did that fall and beyond. Most of the responses fell within a few categories:
Love of the Game
“I went to the Field of Dreams site (not as a direct response, but it was a bit more than coincidental) which helped me remember I love the game, not the league.”
“Minor leagues kept playing, so I followed them.”
“I went out and rented a bunch of baseball movies and watched one per cancelled WS game.”
“The strike was my in to fantasy baseball. A few of my dad’s friends dropped out of his home league and I got in for ’95. I won the league in ’96 when I was 13 yrs old and a few more of my dad’s friends dropped out.”
“It happened during a brief time when I cared more about the NBA so that helped take the sting off.”
“I think an NHL team moved to the city I lived in and hockey became the number one sport for me for about 10 years or so.”
“I was 11… so I probably played some more video games and spent more time playing outside.”
“A lot of Griffey Baseball on SNES.”
“I played lots of Dungeons and Dragons.”
“I guess I played a lot more drums.”
“I prayed a lot.”
“Played a lot of golf.”
“Lots of bourbon.”
“I was so hacked that I didn’t watch an MLB game for at least 4 years.”
“I started college the year after and pretty much tuned out on baseball for four years, until Pedro Martinez made me fall in love again when I moved to Boston in 98.”
“I stopped watching or paying any attention to baseball until the 2001 World Series.”
“I stopped watching. I was a freshman in college, so there were plenty of other distractions. Got lured back by Sosa/McGwire.”
“I was 14 and the strike was my excuse for rebelling against my dad, giving up baseball for comics until McGwire came over to the Cardinals. Because I love steroids. LOVE them.”
“I wrote a letter to [Bill] Clinton for an elementary school creative writing project asking him to help fix the strike. He didn’t answer, then I stopped watching baseball for about 12 years.”
“You guys are old.”
by Brandon Lee
“Mom, is Michael Jordan going to play?”
– Brandon, 7 years old, attending a baseball game at Wrigley Field in 1994
This was not the April 7, 1994 Crosstown Classic exhibition game at Wrigley, so I was disappointed by the answer – Jordan played for the White Sox, not the Cubs, and he didn’t quite play for the White Sox, since he played in the minor league system at this point.
Michael Jordan had just completed what ended up being his first run as Best Basketball Player in the World, and still held the title of Most Famous Athlete in the World. At this point after playing 9 seasons for the Chicago Bulls, he had the highest points-per-game in NBA history to go along with 7 consecutive scoring titles, 3 straight NBA Championships, 3 league MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs, and 2 Olympic gold medals. When Mike said he had nothing left to prove in the NBA, and wanted to honor the dreams of his recently murdered father by pursuing baseball, it sounded about right (and is far more believable than conspiracy theories about the NBA asking him to retire over gambling debts).
So, for the 1994 season, the most famous athlete in the world played minor league baseball for the Birmingham Barons of the AA Southern League. Because he wanted to. Because he could.
In his year with the Barons, Michael Jordan hit .202/.289/.266 with 3 home runs, 30 stolen bases (albeit with 18 CS), and 11 errors in right field as a 31-year-old. And he played full-time, with 497 PA in 127 games.
I maintain my belief that Michael Jordan’s .202/.289/.266 line in Double-A was actually a remarkable athletic achievement.
— Kevin Goldstein (@Kevin_Goldstein) August 24, 2010
History has looked more kindly upon these numbers, only later on acknowledging that such a line is pretty damn good for someone who hadn’t played organized baseball since high school a dozen years earlier. For someone with the (well documented) competitive drive that Jordan has, these numbers were a great accomplishment, the product of a year of hard work.
Even Steve Wulf, author of the infamous “Err Jordan” article (accompanied by the possibly more infamous “Bag It, Michael” cover) that started Jordan’s personal 20-year boycott of Sports Illustrated, returned later in the season and saw Michael Jeffrey Jordan as a completely new baseball player. Could he make it to the Majors? Maybe! Wulf wrote another article for SI saying as much, but the publication chose not to run it.
As you may have heard long after the fact, his manager at the time was Terry Francona. His most famous teammates in retrospect seem to be two veterans with brief stints: Steve Sax and Atlee Hammaker. The more recognizable names on other ’94 Southern League teams include CJ Nitkowski, LaTroy Hawkins, Brad Radke, Pokey Reese, and Doug Glanville.
As for Jordan, the strike put a bit of a hold on his baseball career. He would not be a September call-up, though Sam Miller wrote about PECOTA’s projections for Jordan in the bigs (.308/.357/.538 in 15 PA), and he did hit .252 in the (real) Arizona Fall League.
There is certainly a degree of “what might have been” for Jordan’s baseball career. Luckily for Bulls fans (like myself), Jordan returned to basketball in March of 1995 and went on to win three more championships before calling it quits (again) and coming back to play in the NBA (again, but this time for the Washington Wizards).
These days, Jordan is a billionaire, a majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets (formerly the Bobcats), and a Hanes pitchman.
More on Jordan playing baseball:
Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus: Michael Jordan, September 1994
ESPN 30 for 30: Jordan Rides the Bus
Sports Illustrated: Err Jordan: Try as he might, Michael Jordan has found baseball beyond his grasp
ESPN the Magazine: Bag It, Skeptics
Deadspin: Bag It, Maligners: Reconsidering Jordan’s Baseball Experiment
The Strike’s Impact on the ’94 Season
by Rob Mains
Probably the most famous impact on the field is that the season ended with the Montreal Expos, with the second-lowest payroll in baseball and a team that had never played in even the NLCS, holding the best record in baseball, 74-40. Baseball’s best team thus lost its only chance at a World Series since the strike-shortened 1981 season. Cash-strapped and denied postseason revenues, the Expos lost outfielder Larry Walker to free agency and traded pitcher Ken Hill, outfielder Marquis Grisson, and reliever John Wetteland prior to the 1995 season.
In the American League, the Yankees had the best record in the American League, so the strike likely cost Don Mattingly a chance to play in his first postseason. (He would finally play October ball the following year, his last season, in the Yankees’ loss to the Mariners in the Divisional Series.) When the season ended, the Rangers led the AL West with a 52-62 record, and had the third-worst run differential out of four teams.
Several great individual seasons fell by the wayside. Tony Gwynn was batting .394 when the curtain came down, costing him a shot at .400. San Francisco’s Matt Williams (the Matt Williams who got fired as Nationals manager after last season) had 43 home runs, on pace to hit 61 and tie Roger Maris‘s record. In the fun facts category, the Twins traded Dave Winfield to the Indians in August for a player to be named later, but since the season was canceled, Winfield never played for Cleveland. The teams settled the transaction when Indians executives took Twins executives out for dinner. (Winfield signed with the club as a free agent for 1995, his last season.)
For more on what might’ve been, read Dan Szymborski’s projections (ESPN Insider), or hear Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller discuss the article and Sam’s own projections in Effectively Wild episode 513.
If you’re in the mood for more ’94 footage, here’s an episode of Baseball Tonight, with a young Chris Berman and Peter Gammons.
Look for part 2 of our ’94 retrospective on Monday.
Special thanks to Darius Austin
’94 Throwbacks, Pt 2: Gaming with Griffey
Previous post: The 1994 Strike: What Was the Deal?
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