Tuesday, August 12, 2014

It Was 20 Years Ago Today

Buck Showalter was just 38 years old
managing the 1994 New York Yankees
As the MLB action ended on August 11th, 1994 the defending National League champion Philadelphia Phillies were floundering 7 games below the .500 mark, and already 20.5 games behind the front-running Montreal Expos in the N.L. East Division race. But neither those floundering Fightins or the explosive Expos would win the division that year. No one would win it that year.

On August 12th, 1994, exactly 20 years ago today, a work stoppage occurred in the form of a strike action called by the Major League Baseball Players Association in response to ongoing labor problems with the MLB franchise owners. The strike would last the rest of the '94 season, resulting in inconclusive division races and the cancellation of the playoffs and World Series.

Many people believe that the entity most injured as a result of the 1994 strike was the Montreal Expos, as well as their fans. The Expos led all of baseball with a 74-40 record at the time, and led the N.L. East by 6 games over the 2nd place Atlanta Braves. Many of these same folks believe that the Expos would have won the World Series that year, and perhaps would still be in Montreal today. Instead, that franchise would see attendance plummet for a decade before moving to become the Washington Nationals.

But don't count me among them. The Expos, never having won anything to that point, would have needed to hold their lead over the Braves for another month and a half. I believe that a good case can be made that instead of Montreal in the World Series, we instead would have witnessed what became the 1996 Series, only a couple of years earlier, between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees.

Imagine if you will a 90's Yankees team with no Joe Torre at the helm, no Derek Jeter at shortstop, no Jorge Posada behind the plate, no Andy Pettitte in the rotation, and no Mariano Rivera closing out games reaching and perhaps winning the World Series. Those players would all make their debuts in 1995, and all but 3rd string catcher Posada would be key players for the 1996 World Series-winning Yanks.

But that 1994 Yankees team had a 38-year old Buck Showalter at the helm as the skipper. They had a Mike Gallego-Randy Velarde platoon at shortstop. Mike Stanley and Jim Leyritz did the bulk of the catching. Steve Howe was the closer for that team with Bob Wickman setting him up, while the rotation was made up of Jimmy Key, Jim Abbott, Terry Mulholland, Melido Perez, and Scott Kamieniecki. 

What the 1994 Yankees really had going for them, what had driven them to the best record in the American League at 70-43 to that point, was their big bats. The Stanley-Leyritz platoon combined to hit 34 homers and drive in 115 runs. Future Hall of Fame 3rd baseman Wade Boggs was hitting .342 when the strike arrived. Rightfielder Paul O'Neil was hitting .359 with 21 homers and 83 rbi. Centerfielder Bernie Williams was hitting .289 with 12 homers, 57 rbi, 80 runs scored, and 16 steals. The primary Designated Hitter, Danny Tartabull, had 19 homers and 67 rbi. The leftfielder, Luis Polonia, was hitting .311 with 20 stolen bases.

On the mound, Key was the unquestioned leader, having already won 17 games at the time of the strike, while the one-armed lefty Abbott was not only inspiring in overcoming his handicap, but had battled his way to 9 victories, equaling Perez for 2nd-most on the staff. Howe was inspiring in his own way, having come back from career-long drug addiction troubles to lead the bullpen.

Meanwhile over in the N.L., the Braves were being led by their future Hall of Fame duo in 28-year old righty Greg Maddux and lefty Tom Glavine. 27- year old John Smoltz, who will likely soon join his mound mates in the Hall, was the #3 starter. And the best rotation in baseball was completed by 24-year old Steve Avery and 26-year old Kent Mercker. In the bullpen, Greg McMichael already had 21 saves. He was set up by a tremendous group including young fireballer Mark Wohlers, veteran former Cy Young winner Steve Bedrosian, and the original Mike Stanton.

At the plate, the Braves could bludgeon you with the power of Fred McGriff (.318-34HR-94RBI), David Justice (.313-19HR-59RBI), Ryan Klesko (17HR-47RBI), Javy Lopez (13HR-35RBI) or intimidate you with the speed of one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, centerfielder and 2-sport star Deion Sanders, who was hitting .288 with 19 steals in a platoon with Roberto Kelly, who had 10 steals of his own. 3rd baseman Terry Pendleton was one of the game's great leaders and still a clutch threat at the plate.

Yes, many will tell you that the Expos with Moises Alou, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Wil Cordero, Cliff Floyd, John Wetteland, and a precocious 22-year mega-talented starting pitcher named Pedro Martinez were the favorites and would have won that 1994 World Series. Me? I have no trouble saying we would have more likely been treated to Yankees-Braves in what could have become the biggest post-season rivalry of the decade were it not for that strike, begun two decades ago on this date. 

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