The 1994 baseball season was guaranteed to be a historic one. Major League Baseball had ushered in a dramatic new divisional alignment and playoff format, creating three divisions per league and allowing a wild-card into the postseason for the first time in history. As the season unfolded, it looked to be historic for other reasons, with great races and compelling individual pursuits. But it ended up historic for all the wrong reasons—a strike on August 12 wasn’t resolved until the following spring and for the first time since 1904, there was no postseason baseball.
No team was hurt more by the strike than the Montreal Expos. They had a well-balanced team, with the top staff ERA in the National League and the Cy Young runner-up in Ken Hill. The corner outfielders, Moises Alou and Larry Walker were having big years. Montreal got right into the NL East race with the Atlanta Braves, the division’s three-time defending champ.
Atlanta’s great pitching staff was anchored by Greg Maddux. With 16 wins and an amazing 1.56 ERA at the strike, Maddux captured his third straight Cy Young Award. Fred McGriff, the first baseman whose acquisition sparked the Braves’ stretch drive a year earlier, was having a monster season. He had 34 homers on August 12, plus another one in the ninth inning of the All-Star game that got him MVP honors in the Mid-Summer Classic.
The Expos and Braves ran neck-and-neck to the All-Star break. Montreal was starting to get some distance, opening up a six-game lead by August 12. The Expos had the best record in baseball. The Braves were still on track to get into the playoffs. An NLCS showdown seemed almost inevitable. But we never got to find out. And even though baseball in the city of Montreal officially lasted another decade, the shattered dreams of 1994 effectively ended the Expos as a consequential franchise.
It isn’t often one would put the New York Yankees in the “nice story” category, alongside a franchise like Montreal, but that was the case in 1994. The Yanks had not been a serious contender for six years. But this season was different. With a young manager named Buck Showalter, the New York rotation was led by 17-game winner Jimmy Key, the Cy Young runner-up. Paul O’Neill and Wade Boggs were leading the everyday lineup.
Like the Expos, the Yanks were in a tight pennant race for the first half of the season. Baltimore, with Mike Mussina anchoring the rotation and reliable Cal Ripken Jr. taking the field every day, was in the hunt. But like the Expos, the Yankees were opening up some space by August 12. They were out to a 6 ½ game cushion. The Toronto Blue Jays, the two-time defending World Series champions, were sliding into a long period of irrelevance and New York was back on the rise.
Baltimore was still in the mix for the wild-card, a race that included three contenders in the newly-created Central Division. The Chicago White Sox, who had won the AL West a year earlier, were having another big year. And no one was having a bigger offensive year than the great Frank Thomas. With astonishing numbers of a .487 on-base-percentage and .729 slugging percentage, Thomas would win a second straight MVP award. The pitching staff, the most balanced in the league, had the AL’s top composite ERA.
But the White Sox were being challenged by a surprising source. The Cleveland Indians had not been remotely relevant for a generation. A team that would become one of the American League’s best through the balance of this decade, was having its breakout year. Albert Bell had 36 homers on August 12. Kenny Lofton stole 60 bags in the shortened year and the 22-year-old Manny Ramirez was making his mark.
Cleveland and Chicago were within one game of each other. The Kansas City Royals, were lurking in third, just four games off the pace. The Royals got a Cy Young season from David Cone, who won 16 games with a 2.94 ERA. All of these teams had a shot at the division, and were in the mix with the Orioles for the wild-card.
The National League side of Middle America was no less exciting. On August 12, the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros were within a ½ game of each other. Both still had a shot at the wild-card, although the strength of Atlanta’s pitching makes it likely that Cincy-Houston would have been an old-school, winner-take-all fight for the division crown.
Cincinnati was getting another vintage year from Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, and 30 homers from Kevin Mitchell led up the most potent offense in the National League. For their part, Houston’s Jeff Bagwell was putting up numbers to rival Thomas over in the American League. Bagwell finished with a .451 on-base percentage and .750 slugging percentage. In the traditional Triple Crown categories, he batted .368, popped 39 home run and had 116 RBIs. With numbers like that, it seems almost redundant to say he won the MVP award.
The Western Divisions in both leagues were marked by mediocrity. Going to the smaller division sizes and not masking it with an unbalanced schedule, left the mediocrity a little more on display than it would be in our own day. The Dodgers, with a young catcher named Mike Piazza led the NL West at 58-56.
But the San Francisco Giants were giving chase. The Giants not only had Barry Bonds, but they had third baseman Matt Williams with 43 home runs on August 12. If the strike doesn’t end the season, Williams’ pursuit of the then-single season record of 61 homers was poised to be a driving storyline for the stretch drive. As was the pursuit of another hallowed mark—San Diego’s Tony Gwynn was batting .394 and aiming to be the first player since 1941 to hit .400.
The AL West took mediocrity to a new level—the Texas Rangers, with a record of 52-62 were in first place. But shared mediocrity has its own excitement and the Rangers were one of three teams packed within two games of each other. One of those teams, the Seattle Mariners, had rising stars in Ken Griffey Jr. in centerfield and Randy Johnson on the mound.
What would have happened if this 1994 baseball season had been allowed to play itself out? Would baseball have survived in Montreal? If so, would Washington D.C., where the franchise relocated, ever gotten a team? Would Buck Showalter have stayed on in New York in time to manager Derek Jeter two years later?
These are just the start of the what-ifs. 1994 was indeed historic for Major League Baseball. It’s unfortunate that the lead story in that history couldn’t be one that is more positive.