The 1994 New York Yankees were in what would be an unusual spot in the city’s sports landscape today. They were actually under the radar. The Big Apple was cheering on the Rangers in their push for the Stanley Cup, and the Knicks, who reached the NBA Finals. The Yankees hadn’t seen the postseason since 1981 or even seriously contended for it since 1988.
There was rebuilding in the Bronx under the watchful eye of general manager Gene Michael, and a young Buck Showalter was the field boss. By the standards of even a few years later, this wasn’t the star-studded lineup we’ve come to expect from the House of Steinbrenner. Don Mattingly was winding down a great career, and while he could hit for average and get on base, a lot of the power was gone from his swing.
On the other side of the infield, the Yanks had Wade Boggs, the Red Sox mainstay who’d left the team on bad terms and was now employing his precision hitting skills for the enemy. Boggs hit .342 in 1994, and his .489 slugging percentage showed he had some power to the alleys. Showalter’s power came from rightfielder Paul O’Neill and centerfield Bernie Williams, both of whom would be cornerstones of the dynasty in the later part of the decade.
Pitching was a problem, but not at the top. Jimmy Key won 17 games in a season that ended in early August. The closer was Steve Howe, remembered mostly for blowing numerous “last chances” when it came to his drug use and eventually being banned from the game.
Howe’s repeated screw-ups and baseball’s repeated willingness to bring him back was immortalized in the police-action comedy The Naked Gun 2 ½, when actor Leslie Nielsen warned the villain—‘This is your last chance…and I don’t mean one of those Steve Howe kind of last chances. I mean your last chance.” Howe could still pitch in ’94, getting 15 saves with a buck-eighty ERA.
Behind Key and Howe, Showalter mixed and matched and found ways to win games. In a stretch from April 19 to May 3, the played the soft AL West (everyone in the division was at least ten games under .500 when the strike hit on August 12) and went 10-5. The Yanks were only 2 ½ games back of the Boston Red Sox in the AL East.
New York enjoyed a pretty good May. On the first weekend of the month, Boston came to town. Key opened the series with a complete game win on Friday. On Saturday, the Yanks trailed 5-4 in the ninth, but Boggs helped haunt his old team. The last of his three hits was part of a ninth-inning rally and his pinch-runner eventually scored the winning run. Then on Sunday the offense had a power surge, hitting four home runs, two by catcher Mike Stanley and the three-game sweep left them a half-game out.
Showalter’s team used the Red Sox sweep as a springboard to a ten-game win streak that moved them into first place and the Sox eventually faded and were replaced by the Orioles as the principal challenger in the AL East. Baltimore came into New York two weekends after Boston had, and the Yanks won two of three and led the race by 1.5 games. The prospect of a strike loomed over the game, but the winning was back in the Bronx.
The Yankees gave the city reason to hope for a third team to make their sport’s showcase event and possibly produce another victory parade. They went to Baltimore and won three of four, extending their division lead to three games. In late July they took an 11-game trip to the West to face the A’s, Mariners and Angels and went 10-1. The lead in the division was now up to 5.5 games, and it hit ten games by August 5.
In the final week leading up to the strike—a point where a work stoppage was seen as imminent—they lost five of six, but still held the lead in any area it mattered.
No one was optimistic about much of the regular season being salvaged, but there was talk perhaps the postseason could be preserved. If it was held in its entirety, the Yanks had the AL East crown. They also had the best record in the American League overall, meaning they were safe if a partial postseason were picked up starting with the League Championship Series, or even just going directly to the World Series.
The LCS option wasn’t radical for the time, because this was the first year of the three-division alignment for each league and the Division Series still a new phenomenon. Regardless, none of it happened and the season just ended there. The 1994 New York Yankees wouldn’t be able to give the city another championship, but they had given them a nice summer run to help sports fans wind down after the magnificent spring.