Special to Page 2
Today was the day it hit the fan.
The history books say that 10 years ago today, Major League Baseball pulled the rug out from under its fans with a crippling work stoppage. It lasted 232 days, wiped out the playoffs and World Series for the first time since 1904, and delayed the start of the 1995 season.
The thing is, until the strike, 1994 had a chance to be remembered as one of the greatest seasons of all time instead of one of the worst. There were several tight division races, the Expos -- the Expos! -- were the best team in baseball, Tony Gwynn was closing in on .400 and several sluggers were within reach of Roger Maris's then-record 61 home runs.
Unfortunately, there's no way to know how the '94 season would have ended.
Or is there?
The 1994 season was the first to use baseball's current six-division format, and the playoffs were to be the first-ever with wild cards. More teams than ever before in the game's history were in contention for the postseason when the game shut down.
Perhaps the most compelling race in baseball in 1994 -- and undoubtedly the most pathetic -- was in the A.L. West, where the Texas Rangers, sporting a blistering 52-62 record, led the division. The A's were a game back at 51-63, followed by the Mariners two games behind. The Angels trailed by five-and-a-half.
Here's what happened in Page 2's parallel universe ...
The Angels' chances of winning the division ended on Aug. 20 as ace Chuck Finley was knocked out for the season when he received a severe beating from model and future wife Tawney Kitaen, who he met at a party that night.
The Mariners' hopes were dashed when star center fielder Ken Griffey, Jr. pulled 62 muscles over the season's final 50 days.
That left the Rangers and the A's out West. The race came down to a crucial late-September series, with the teams tied for first. The A's won the first game after a long fly ball hit by Stan Javier to Rangers' outfielder Jose Canseco bounced off Canseco's head for a game-winning home run. The A's won the second game after a long fly ball hit by Rickey Henderson to Rangers' outfielder Jose Canseco bounced off Canseco's head for a game-winning home run. The A's won the third game after a long fly ball hit by Terry Steinbach to Rangers' outfielder Jose Canseco bounced off Canseco's head for a game-winning home run.
Texas didn't recover from the sweep, and Oakland won the division with a 75-87 record.
In the A.L. Central, the White Sox and Indians were separated by only a single game at the time of the work stoppage, and appeared primed to go down to the wire. But fate dealt the White Sox a cruel blow. Leading the Indians 3-0 in the eighth inning of a crucial September match-up, things unraveled quickly for Chicago when a teenager named Steve Bartman, sitting along the left-field foul line, interfered with a foul ball hit within reach of leftfielder Tim Raines. Cleveland went on to win the game and the division.
Coincidentally, young Bartman became so scorned in Chicago that he never attend another major league game. Instead, he watched on television as the Chicago Cubs won the 2003 NLCS and the team's first World Series since 1908.
The Yankees maintained their 6.5-game lead in the A.L. East and won the division. The Dodgers, leading their rivals by 3.5 at the time play stopped, took the N.L. West' and the Houston Astros came from behind to pass the Cincinnati Reds and win the N.L. Central. (It's worth noting that Marge Schott contributed to the Reds' downfall. She embroiled the team in controversy when she was quoted as saying that the dominance of staff ace Jose Rijo reminded her of Hitler, circa 1933.)
That left the N.L. East and the star-crossed Montreal Expos ...
Montreal went into the strike with the best record in baseball, having won 20 of its last 23 games. The Expos held a six-game lead over the Braves; and Montreal's young roster -- stacked with such players as Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Pedro Martinez and Larry Walker -- was only improving.
The work stoppage prevented the possibility of a World Series championship coming to Quebec.
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The team hit some stumbling blocks along the way. Alou was lost for the season in late August after he sustained a severe, urine-related infection in his hand. A fatigued Pedro Martinez nearly blew a lead in Game 6 of the NLCS, but was yanked in the nick of time by a prudent manager, Felipe Alou.
But in the end, Montreal won the World Series in five games over the Yankees.
Tony Gwynn's Assault on .400
Tony Gwynn was hitting .394 when the season came to an end on Aug. 12. Had just three more balls fallen in for hits, he would have been above .400, albeit that average would have come with an asterisk because of the shortened season.
Here's what happened in Page 2's parallel universe ...
Gwynn didn't complete the season asterisk-free. While he finished up hitting .407, bettering even Ted Williams's .406 average in 1941, he was consumed by the pressure of his historic season -- just as Roger Maris had been in 1961, when he lost his hair chasing Babe Ruth. In Gwynn's case, his hairline remained intact, but his eating ballooned out of control. With four games remaining in the season and Gwynn above .400, the Padres pulled him from the lineup, claiming they didn't have any uniform pants capable of fitting the 384-pound star.
Gwynn's .407 average made a meaningful impact on the life -- and death -- of Williams. Sensing the legacy of their father was not what it had been, Williams's children didn't push the Splendid Splinter's notion that he should be cryogenically frozen at the time of his death. Currently, the greatest hitter who ever lived is decomposing peacefully in a Florida cemetery.
The Chase for 61
Maris's single-season mark of 61 home runs looked to be in serious jeopardy in 1994.
Matt Williams had 43. Griffey, Jr. was right behind him at 40. Jeff Bagwell was at 39, Frank Thomas 38, Barry Bonds 37, Albert Belle 36 and Fred McGriff was closing in with 34.
And each slugger had nearly 50 games to play.
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We know already that Griffey, Jr., fell short of 61 because of his record 62 muscle pulls. With Junior out of the picture, it came down to Williams, Bonds and McGriff in a battle to the end. Williams finished with 60, one short of the mark. A late-season flurry by McGriff enabled him to move into second with 58, four more than Bonds's 54.
The repercussions were great. McGriff, released recently by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, is a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame with a career total of 517 home runs and a 50-HR season on his resume. Bonds, embarrassed to not even be the top home run hitter on his own team after being bettered by Williams, sought the help of a Bay Area nutritional supplement company and dedicated himself to physical fitness. He also decided to be less selective at the plate in the future, in hopes of hitting more home runs. In the 2001 season, those changes resulted in a record 119 home runs for Bonds.
Cal Ripken and "The Streak"
Ripken entered the work stoppage with his consecutive-games streak at 2,009 games, 122 short of Lou Gehrig's then-record. If the owners had made good on their threat to use replacement players, Ripken's consecutive games streak would have ended. "The Streak" hung in the balance.
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Ripken's 1994 season, in fact, didn't reach its conclusion. A freak injury on Sept. 1 ended it for him. Sitting in front of his locker before a game, baseball's Iron Man was struck in the head by a bat thrown across the team's locker room by fellow Oriole Rafael Palmeiro, who was enraged about his seemingly-incurable impotency. The serious concussion from the blow kept Ripken out of the lineup for the rest of the regular season, thus ending his pursuit of Gehrig and destroying his legacy.
Of course, according to the historians, none of this came to pass. According to the history books, baseball closed down on that dark day in 1994, ending one of the greatest seasons in baseball history.
But then, you can't know that for sure, can you? Because when the game stopped 10 years ago today, you kept your angry promise to give up on the sport and never watch another major league game.
You did keep that promise, right?
D.J. Gallo is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine, as well as the founder and sole writer of the award-winning sports satire site SportsPickle.com.