In response to Friday’s post about the 1994 strike, a Yankee fan friend of mine expressed his disappointment at what may have been that season, saying, “That was the first year the Yankees emerged from their 80’s stupor and became the YANKEES again.” It got me thinking.
The “What If’s” around 1994 are particularly interesting. The long term effect of the strike on the baseball landscape is a bit stunning, if you think about it. When the season ended on August 11, the Yankees led the AL East by 6.5 games and had the best record in the AL at 70-43. The Montreal Expos were the best in the NL at 74-40 and had a 6.0 game lead in the NL East. The Reds lead the NL Central by half a game, the Dodgers led the NL West by 3.5 games, the White Sox led the AL Central by 1.0 game and Texas led the AL West by 1.0 game. In the AL, Cleveland had a 2.5 game lead on the Wild Card as did the Braves in the NL. Right off the bat, the pennant races were just heating up, with four divisions up for grabs along with both Wild Cards. Even the Expos and Yankees didn’t have insurmountable leads (the Expos were being chased by the team that would go on and win the World Series in 1995). There were 15 teams that still had reasonable playoff hopes.
When the season ended, most experts speculated that the Expos and Yankees would have faced off in the World Series. The Expos had Cliff Floyd, Wil Codero, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker in the lineup with Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill and Jeff Fassero starting. John Wetteland, who would win the World Series MVP for the Yankees in 1996, closed out games. The 1994 Yankees had some of the names everyone recognizes from the late nineties dynasty, including Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neil, along with stars that just missed the boat such as Danny Tartabull and an all time great, Don Mattingly. Jimmy Key led the rotation that included Scott Kamienieki and Jim Abbott. Derek Jeter and Mariona Rivera were still on the horizon.
So, on paper, we will go with the Expos vs the Yankees, and if pitching wins Championships, then the Expos win it all. The Expos team ERA was 3.57 vs the Yankees 4.34. Key led the Yankees starters with a 3.27 ERA and the Expos had three starters with lower ERAs. Pedro had the fourth best ERA in the rotation. As my friend put it, “the Expos would have 5 finger death punched the Yankees in the World Series.”
In this scenario, and making a few additional assumptions, let’s see how things may have played out after that. We’ll start with the runners up. In 1995, the Yankees lost one of the most thrilling playoff series in the nineties when the Mariners scored twice in the bottom of the 11th inning of game five after the Yankees had scored once in the top half of the inning off Randy Johnson, who entered the game in relief. Ken Griffey Jr. came around from first with the series winning run. If the Yankees had won the AL Championship in 1994, I think they would have been more seasoned…more experienced, and I think they win this series and possibly go on to the World Series. This is key, because if this happens, perhaps Buck Showalter wins keeps his job. Buck wears out his welcome real quick, so this may be a big assumption, but what if Buck and not Joe Torre is managing when the Yankees go down 2-0 in the 1996 World Series? Could Buck have navigated them back? Could Buck have kept that dynasty together for the last half of the nineties? I don’t think so. I think what may have happened is that the Yankees lose the 1995 World Series to the Braves, but Buck keeps his job and Torre goes on to coach somewhere else. I am convinced that only Joe Torre could have managed the personalities on that Yankee team that one four out of five World Series. Plus, if the Expos do win in 1994, do they end up keeping Wetteland? And if so, that means the Yankees don’t have their series MVP in 1996. Sure Mariano could have stepped up, but who sets him up? Even with Torre managing in 1996, could the Yankees have won without Wetteland? And if they don’t win in 1996 and don’t win in 1997, does Torre get to keep his job after the team came close four straight years, even if only two were his? I know it’s a complicated scenario, but the irony is that if the 1994 strike doesn’t happen and the Expos win, I believe the Braves, who were the victims against the Yankees twice, are the dynasty of the 1990s (and I would have a 2000 World Series ring).
The Expos are the more tragic scenario. They would never come close again. However, had they won in 1994, maybe they are still playing in Montreal and they didn’t trade off their stars or let them get away. And this point would have an impact on years to come. Think about the impact the various stars have had in the years since. Marquis Grissom helped the Braves to the World Series in 1995 and would hit a home run that help catapult the Indians to the World Series in 1997. Alou and Floyd helped the Marlins win the World Series in 1997. I already mentioned Wetteland’s impact. And Pedro Martinez eventually would go to Boston and be named the World Series MVP in 2004. What if even one of these guys stays put as a result of the Expos winning it all? What if the Expos, as a result of winning it all in 1994 could afford to keep most of these guys through the years and sign free agents like David Cone and Robbie Alomar? They may have been the dynasty and the standard everyone measures up to. I believe baseball would be a very, very different place today had the strike not happened. The ripple that the strike would send through baseball has washed up on the shores as a tidal wave that changed the landscape.
There are some other “what ifs” around 1994 I may ponder in a future column…Think Cal Ripken and that magical night in 1995 and my own personal baseball career.