The Billpen Wishes It Were Around in 1994

While my girlfriend was watching the Bachelorette the other night, I intermittently spat out baseball facts and stats at her, though she was thoroughly engrossed in JoJo’s quest for love. I saw this Grant Brisbee article on Twitter about the 154-game schedule and got to talking to her about baseball’s collective bargaining agreement and how it hasn’t had any major player/owner consternation since 1994, while the NHL and NBA have had seasons delayed because of lockouts and the NFL narrowly avoided missing some regular season games because of similar circumstances.

With baseball’s CBA set to expire in the near future, Commisioner Manfred will be thrown into the fire trying to make ends meet with the players and owners. So far, I think Manfred has been great as Commissioner, especially during a time of growing pains as it tries to speed up and appeal to the youthful viewer (aside from putting players on hoverboards catching Pokemon), but the December expiration of the current CBA will be Manfred’s biggest test.

The goal: avoid what happened in 1994, when the players went on strike after it was announced that team owners had restructured payment structure to streamline revenues between teams, part of which included a salary cap for players. Halfway through August, the players walked off the field, effectively ending the season with no playoffs or World Series, which was a massive letdown for a number of reasons.

First, Jeff Bagwell was having one of the greatest seasons ever. Though he broke his hand a few days before the strike began, what he did in 110 games is more impressive than most men can do with 162 (and now, maybe, 154): .368/.451/.750, 300 total bases, 39 HR, 116 RBI, 104 runs scored, 32 doubles, 65 walks and only 65 strikeouts (italicized stats indicate league leading). This spectacular display of dominance earned him the NL MVP award, even during Barry Bonds’ mid-90s reign of terror, and he did so without the aid of PEDs like so many of his contemporaries.

One a more philosophical note, it’s impossible to predict where the Yankees would have finished, but at 70-43 at the time of the strike, they were en route to a 100-win season if they went .500 down the stretch, which is highly unlikely given their .619 winning percentage through 113 games. They were 56-36 on today’s date in 1994, putting them a half-game behind the 2016 Giants, for the sake of reference, but I just have a feeling that those Yankees would not have gone .500 down the stretch. They led MLB in team average (.290), on-base percentage (.374), OPS (.836), walks (530), and were 2nd (fun fact – the Indians were first in all of these) in MLB in slugging percentage (.462), runs scored (670), and total bases (1,842). Though their pitching wasn’t as good as their hitting was, it was clearly good enough to get them to 70-43, best in the bigs come season’s end.

The mid- to late-90’s Yankees put together one of the best 5-year stretches in baseball history, second to perhaps only the Yankees of post-WWII when they won 5 straight rings. From 1996 to 2000, the Yankees won 4 rings, 551 games, and broke the AL record for wins in a single season, which Ichiro’s Mariners would break in 2001. Joe Torre went to the playoffs in all 12 years at the helm in New York, and, to be frank, was the minimum expectation with Jeter, A-Rod, Rivera, and the richest owner in baseball at the time. But – if the 1994 season went uninterrupted and Buck Showalter’s Yankees win it all, would those turn-of-the-century Yankees be the same?

Showalter inherited a Yankees franchise that had lost its way. The Yankees cycled through 9 managers since their last playoff appearance in 1981 (another strike shortened season) until Buck came along and righted the ship. He was the first manager since Ralph Houk (1967-1973) to last more than 3 consecutive seasons, and even then, Buck only lasted 4 before he was shown the door and Joe Torre redefined dynasty. He too soon fell victim to the Steinbrenner impatience despite winning the 1994 AL Manager of the Year award, and was fired after the 1995 season after the Yankees lost the ALDS to the Mariners (the same Mariners that had young Johnson, Griffey, and A-Rod).

But the 1994 Yankees were so good and so far ahead of the competition that had the season played itself out, I can easily imagine them winning the World Series. Had they succeeded, it would have been the Yankees first title since 1978 and ended a 16-year drought, the longest drought since they began playing in the American League. The rest of the AL was bleak at best; with a newly minted divisional and playoff formats introduced before the 1994 season, there would now be 4 playoff teams and a “divisional series” in addition to the “league championship series”in October. The team with the best record would play the wild card team and the remaining two division winners would be paired up in a best-of-3 series, rather than the East and West division winners facing off with the World Series at stake.

If the August 1994 standings held to the end of the season, because they had the best record in the American League, the Yankees would face the Wild Card Indians, and the Central Division winners White Sox would face the West Division winning Rangers (who led the division at 10 games below .500, 52-62). Though the Indians were an offensive juggernaut and an absolute force for the rest of the decade, they were 0-9 against the Yankees in the regular season, despite only losing each game by less than 2 runs a game. Just by law of averages, I have to assume that the Yankees advance to face the White Sox in the ALCS.

Hypothetical wins and losses won’t get us much further in the world of “for sake of argument” (I say that as I’m about to hypothesize the future of the most valuable franchise in the game). For as good as the Yankees record was, the Expos in the NL ended the season at 74-40, even better than the Yankees. Had the Yankees won the AL Pennant and appeared in the World Series, not even necessarily won the World Series, would Buck Showalter have stayed around after 1995? And if he did, how would the ensuing Yankees teams look? It’s fun to think about, but impossible to say for sure. The Yankees had gone more than an entire decade without even appearing in a World Series, but Steinbrenner wouldn’t have accepted anything less than a World Series ring at that point. He was notorious for personnel turnover, but even the stingiest of businessmen have to know that a little stability can be reassuring, especially to the high profile position of Yankees manager.

Knowing what we know now, I’m sure Yankees fans will be happy with the way things fell. A couple of rough years in the 1980s and some impatience in the 1990s led to one of the best dynasties ever: 12 straight playoff appearances, 9 straight AL East titles, plus the record for wins in a single season (for a few years, at least). Showalter won Manager of the Year in 1994, but personal hardware doesn’t mean anything to Steinbrenner and the Yankees, especially after 16 years of no titles.

The 1994 strike withheld baseball from its loyal and devoted fans, extending the already seemingly endless postseason into a tense and anxious staring contest between players and owners. Winter withholding baseball is one thing; mother nature has her right to join us every once in a while, but completely avoidable circumstances is another. And multiply these avoidable circumstances with the extremely high quality of baseball makes for a misdemeanor against humanity.

Header photo: Luc Novovitch, Associated Press

 

 

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