1994 was unforgettable, regrettable

Strike shut down game, ended races, chases of major consequence

Baseball

August 30, 2002|By THE FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

ARLINGTON, Texas - As a rookie, Rusty Greer put himself in the major-league record books.

He caught the last out of a perfect game. A line drive to center field landed in his glove to seal Kenny Rogers' perfect game on July 28, 1994, one of the highlight moments of the Texas Rangers' first season at The Ballpark in Arlington.

It was more than a Rangers highlight. It was one of many for Major League Baseball in 1994, one of the sport's most extraordinary seasons.

In 1994, baseball had record pursuits and tight pennant chases. Tony Gwynn flirted with .400. Matt Williams stirred memories of Roger Maris. Jacobs Field was giving new life to the Cleveland Indians. The Montreal Expos were the envy of the National League. The Ballpark in Arlington opened as the latest in a line of stadiums built with modern comforts and a nod to yesteryear.

And there was a strike.

The players' strike of 1994 stopped all the record pursuits and pennant chases. Gwynn ended up at .394. Williams had 43 home runs, never getting the 160 or so plate appearances he could have used to approach Maris' record of 61 home runs.

The Expos wound up with nothing except a 74-40 record. The Rangers, in first place in the American League West despite being 10 games under .500, might have been headed toward their first playoff appearance. Instead, they are a footnote of the first season in which a labor stoppage took with it a World Series.

It remains unforgettable.

This week, another season might be on the verge of suffering the same fate. Another strike looms today, threatening a season with its own share of drama. Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez is a candidate for the Triple Crown and his first Most Valuable Player award, plus a chance at 60-plus home runs.

The Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa is trying to match Babe Ruth's record for consecutive 50-homer seasons. John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves has a chance for the single-season saves record (he's 12 shy of breaking Bobby Thigpen's record of 57 in 1990). Rafael Palmeiro of the Rangers is after his own piece of the Babe, the mark for consecutive 38-homer seasons, and has an outside shot at hitting his 500th career home run before the end of this season.

In the AL West, a three-team race between Oakland, Seattle and Anaheim is threatened. The Houston Astros might see their late-summer charge in the NL Central go unrewarded.

A strike puts all of baseball in limbo. It's too early to say if lost games will be made up. The only thing certain is uncertainty. That won't change what happened - or didn't happen - in 1994.

"I don't think [the strike] hindered my development or anything like that," said Greer, who hit .314 in 1994. "It was just that I wondered if I was going to get a chance to come back in 1995 and play - not from a labor standpoint, but from not having a job because somebody took it."

Baseball came back in 1995, and Greer came back with it.

But 1994 will never come back. It lies there in everyone's past, unfinished, a mystery with the last four chapters missing.

"Nobody thought that was going to happen," said Larry Walker, one of the players behind the Expos' surge in 1994. "We were thinking it [the strike] would be a two-week thing. Then the reality set in when we were at home watching TV and the World Series should have been going on."

The Expos have had only one postseason team in their history. It's hard to believe 1994 wasn't it.

The Expos led the NL East by six games, and the Braves didn't appear to have the gas to catch them. The Expos' winning percentage of .649 put them on track to finish 105-57. It would have been the franchise's best won-lost record by 10 games.

Expos manager Felipe Alou lost a clear shot at the playoffs. Now a coach in Detroit, he still has not managed in the postseason.

"I think we were good enough to win a World Series," he said. "We had the best team in the game. ... If we'd have kept that team together, we'd have been even better the next year."

Alou's club might have been the favorite in the playoffs, considering the roster.

The rotation included Pedro Martinez and Ken Hill, who led the National League with 16 wins when play stopped. Martinez was not as dominant as he is today, but he was getting close, finishing 11-5 with a 3.42 ERA.

To close games, the Expos called on Mel Rojas and future Yankees and Rangers closer John Wetteland. Jeff Shaw and Gil Heredia added more punch.

The hitters? Try Cliff Floyd and Moises Alou, in addition to Walker. Speed? Marquis Grissom provided it in center field and at the top of the order. Wil Cordero and Mike Lansing formed a solid middle infield.

By 1995, however, Walker, Wetteland, Grissom and Hill were gone from the Expos. Steadily, more players left over the next few seasons.

Long before the breakup of the roster was complete, Alou knew the fate of his fine team.

"In spring training, we traded Marquis Grissom across the field [to Atlanta]," Alou said. "I knew then what was going to happen. We were going to finish in last place."

In 1994, everyone knew where Gwynn was going to finish - at .400 or darn close.

He retired last season with a career .338 average. He needs nothing else on his career resume. But his best chance at .400, like everything else from that season, is gone forever.

Williams, 36, has not hit 40 home runs in a year since that season. He has five home runs this year, having missed most of the season because of injury.

The memories of his home run chase are strong, but today, with another strike looming, they are of little comfort.

"It's a much better position not to have gotten there," Gwynn told the Associated Press of his reaching .400. "If I had gotten there, people would have to remember it and say it was because of the strike year."

These days, too many people have to remember 1994. Because it was a strike year.

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