Remembering the 1994 strike: When baseball went dark

08/09/2014 4:44 PM

11/12/2014 7:38 PM

The 1994 Rangers held onto first place in the newly configured AL West despite being 10 games under .500.

Montreal owned the best record in the major leagues, 74-40, despite the Expos having the second-lowest payroll.

San Diego’s Tony Gwynn appeared hell-bent on becoming the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams.

But then major league baseball went dark from Aug. 12, 1994, through March 31, 1995.

It was the longest work stoppage in professional sports history — 232 days — and wiped out all remaining major league games after Aug. 11, 1994, including the playoffs and World Series.

This was MLB’s eighth work stoppage since 1972 and the most damaging of them all. Never had an entire postseason been canceled in this manner, in any sport.

From Day One, the strike was shrouded in gluttony and mistrust — millionaires vs. billionaires — and ultimately was held responsible for keeping fans away in droves once the games resumed.

Here are nine things you may have forgotten, or tried to forget, about the ’94 baseball strike:

Fodder for farce

Sports Illustrated published a tongue-in-cheek cover story on Aug. 22, 1994, titled “Baseball ’94: Oh, What a Finish!” and crafted over eight pages of something it called “in your hour of need, the thrilling conclusion to the ’94 season.” It was inexpensive therapy for the jilted baseball fan.

(No, the Rangers didn’t reach the magazine’s fictionalized ’94 World Series, bowing out under MLB’s newly expanded playoff format in a tough Game 5 loss to the Cleveland Indians in the best-of-five first round.)

Don’t feel bad. The fantasy nature of the SI piece was evident when the magazine picked the Chicago Cubs to roar back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the then-equally cursed Red Sox in seven, while Marge Schott, embattled owner of the Reds, was sentenced to five days in jail for failure to obey the no-smoking ordinance at Riverfront Stadium.

Bad blood

Union boss Don Fehr made the rounds in spring training, informing players of their rights and telling them, “You’re hearing a lot of talk about how bad off [financially] the clubs are. Well, I’d like to give you a fact. If they paid every major league player $1 million, they’d only have $750 million left over.”

It could be argued that Fehr’s calculations were strictly “ballpark,” so to speak, since he failed to take into account front-office payrolls and club expenses. (Hey, baseballs cost each team nearly $90 per dozen.)

At the time, the major league minimum was $109,000; the league average, just under $1.2 million.

Animosity between the two sides was palpable. And while rhetoric was aplenty, the negotiating climate soon became the equivalent of Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy: cunning, irreverent, totally black and white.

Salary cap

MLB owners unanimously agreed (28-0) to a revenue-sharing plan that would be tied to a salary cap, so that small-market teams and large-market teams could co-exist. However, the players union was not about to budge on refusing to accept a salary cap in any shape, form or fashion.

The owners, who have always known they need a salary cap to protect themselves from themselves, carried into the ’94 strike an attitude of “teaching the players a lesson,” and unwittingly ignored the strength of the union and the solidarity of its membership.

A salary cap would become the central issue in reaching a new collective bargaining agreement. The old CBA expired on Dec. 31, 1993.

Fast-forward to 2014. There still is no salary cap in major league baseball, although a luxury tax was implemented in 2003 in an attempt to promote competitive balance.

Collateral damage

“Field of Greed” became a popular lament as the work-stoppage clock reached the witching hour. This, of course, was a takeoff on the feel-good Kevin Costner movie of five years earlier, 1989’s Field of Dreams.

Baseball fans now found themselves living a nightmare.

The last out was recorded at 11:45 p.m. CDT, when Seattle’s Randy Johnson struck out Oakland rookie pinch hitter Ernie Young for the final out of an 8-1 road victory by the Mariners. The Big Unit fanned 15. The season went into cold storage.

This became an enough-is-enough moment for many fans and media who found there wasn’t even a decent “side” to take on this labor fight. Inquiring minds wanted to know: How is killing the golden goose “good business” for either side?

MLB’s average game attendance plunged 20 percent from 31,612 per game prior to the ’94 strike to 25,260 once the game returned in April ’95. An indeterminate number of fans walked away from baseball for good, and this disconnect could be felt for years to come.

Chasing Maris

Matt Williams, the balding third baseman of the San Francisco Giants who would go on to manage the Washington Nationals in more harmonious times now 20 years later, stood at 43 home runs with 96 RBIs when the ’94 season came to an abrupt end on the second Friday in August.

Keep in mind, this was four years before Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staged their wildly popular, dual assault on Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61 in 1998, finishing with 70 and 66, respectively.

Williams, with 47 open dates left and swatting home runs at a prodigious pace of one per 2.7 games over the first 4 1/2 months of ’94, already loomed as a serious threat to eclipse the Maris HR mark.

The Aug. 22 issue of SI had Matt Williams hitting 62 home runs — breaking the Maris record by one. In reality, he finished with 43.

Chasing .400

During his 20 seasons with the Padres, Tony Gwynn won eight NL batting titles and finished with a .338 career BA. He certainly liked his chances of cracking the .400 mark after going 3 for 5 in an 8-6 win at the Astrodome on Aug. 11, 1994.

He was batting .394 at the time.

The major leagues shut down the next day. The closest Gwynn would ever come to joining the exclusive .400 club at a nonstrike season’s end was .372 in 1997.

Gushing optimism

The Ballpark in Arlington opened its wrought iron gates for the first time on April 11, 1994. For a moment, labor strife took a backseat to state-of-the-art design.

New digs and a team built to score runs were two reasons for the ’94 Rangers to feel good coming out of Port Charlotte, Fla. GM Tom Grieve told the Star-Telegram, “We should win it. We will win it. We have no excuses this year.”

The players responded well to the challenge. Kenny Rogers pitched the first perfect game in club history on July 28, 1994. Jose Canseco accounted for 31 home runs and 90 RBIs, Juan Gonzalez drove in 85 runs and Will Clark batted .329 with 80 RBIs, and this was just at the Aug. 12 strike date.

Then, everything stopped.

It would be 1996 before second-year manager Johnny Oates led the Rangers into the playoffs for the first time. It would be 14 more years before the franchise won a playoff series and reached the first of back-to-back World Series.

Harsh reality

The AL West-leading Rangers lost nine of their last 11, including six in a row, when the work stoppage occurred. Despite their record, 52-62, the Rangers held a one-game lead over the A’s atop the division.

Call it a blessing in disguise. No one outside Arlington, Texas, wanted to see a sub-.500 Rangers team make the playoffs.

Texas never climbed more than two games above .500 at anytime during the season, yet held onto first place in the AL West from Memorial Day through the strike date. In the end, even the cellar-dwellers from the other two AL divisions, Tigers and Brewers, had better records (53-62 each) than the Rangers.

Governmental nudge

President Bill Clinton, now early in his first term, tried unsuccessfully to bring an end to the baseball strike. He considered it something of a national crisis.

Clinton invited negotiators to the White House and set a Feb.7, 1995, settlement deadline. He urged Congress to intercede and legislate in favor of binding arbitration, but Congress was unwilling to get involved to that extent.

Only when federal district judge Sonia Sotomayor, who now sits on the Supreme Court, intervened and a truce was mandated were major league fans given back their game.

A court-issued injunction forced both sides to return to work immediately under the expired agreement. The ’95 season would be played under a reduced schedule of 144 games.

Players reported to their respective teams on March 31; the games resumed April 25, although the Rangers opened the next day at Yankee Stadium. Rogers took the loss, 8-6.

Not everybody felt the same about baseball, but the game was back.

Leave a message for Ray Buck at 817-390-7697.

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