1994: What could have been

Say whatever you want about the 1994 baseball season. Seriously: Anything at all. You won't be wrong.

Twenty years ago, baseball played a season that wasn't. Or a season that kind of was. There were at least 112 games per team -- some played a few more -- but no resolution. There were MVPs and Cy Young Awards, but no World Series winner.

Labor issues stopped the game on Aug. 12 and the season was forsaken entirely on Sept. 14. It was the baseball equivalent of an abandoned manuscript found in Salinger's basement, and it doesn't take much imagination to turn the game's roughest first draft into a fairy tale: Tony Gwynn would have become the first player since Ted Williams to hit .400; Matt Williams would have broken Roger Maris' single-season home run record; the Expos would have won the World Series and the team would still be in Montreal, playing in a state-of-the-art downtown ballpark.

The page is blank. Fill it in.

An enduring image of the man: Tony Gwynn sitting at his locker before and after games, talking about hitting while holding a bat in his hands. He adjusts his grip constantly, with nervous energy, as if he expects a fastball to come through the clubhouse at any moment and wants to be ready when it does.

Gwynn was healthy in 1994, a 34-year-old hitting savant free of the knee problems that chased him into his early 30s. He told anyone who would listen that he thought he was entering the sweet spot in his career, when the mental and physical sync up to allow his body to fully exploit his vast store of knowledge.

"He'd walk around the clubhouse in spring training saying, 'I feel good. I feel good,'" says Padres teammate Bip Roberts. "Everything he hit jumped off his bat. That's when guys started talking about it in the clubhouse and on the bench: He just might hit .400. I'm telling you, we saw it early."

It took a jeweler's eye to discern the difference between Gwynn at his spectacular best and Gwynn at his normal best. He hit .358 in 1993 and .368 in 1995, so it wasn't as if '94 was a wild outlier. Still, there was something different about the way the ball left his bat and found untended outfield ground. It was the year Gwynn went from a master to a sorcerer. That difference, molecular but noticeable, was the reason it seemed possible, from the first day of spring training, that he could be the first to hit .400 since Williams in 1941.

"Everything he hit was a bullet," Roberts says. "A slider to his back foot? He'd find a way to get a hit off that. The best lefties, the best righties, relievers -- didn't matter. He was 34 and he felt good physically. If you feel really good and healthy at 34, you're a better hitter than you are at 21. I think he could tell it was different, too. He was so motivated. His energy level was so high from spring training on."

Matt Williams hit two home runs on Opening Day against Zane Smith of the Pirates. He figured he just got lucky, swung where the ball was pitched, ran into a couple, guessed right. Something like that.

Williams, now the Nationals' manager, is one of the baseball world's most accomplished self-effacers. As a player, he could always find the dark cloud in the clearest, most sparkling sky. He would hit a home run and round the bases with his head down and his legs moving in double-time, as if apologizing for the interruption. No matter what he did, he remained severely unimpressed with himself.

He hit behind Barry Bonds in the Giants' lineup in '94; and from the beginning of the season, he knew he was going to see more fastballs than a bullpen catcher. He had 10 homers by the end of April, and precisely one double.

"It was just one of those weird deals," Williams says. "I wasn't having a very good year. I wasn't hitting .330 and pounding the ball. I was even below my career average throughout that season. It's just that every once in a while, I would club the ball."

He kept running into them until it turned into something that might make history. He hit his 20th on June 5 and his 25th on June 23. Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas and Bonds were running in the same neighborhood and getting far more attention. "Nobody talked to me about it," says Williams, sitting in the visiting manager's office in San Francisco earlier this summer. He shrugs, the shine from his bald head adding light to the room. "With everything else going on, it just wasn't a topic."

He's got a standard description of his '94 season:

"It was the year of the 1-for-4, with a solo homer."

For years, the principal sound of baseball in Montreal's Olympic Stadium was a form of reverse applause: the loud snaps of the ballpark's tightly sprung seat bottoms folding up as fans headed home, often around the seventh inning, when it was clear the Expos were headed for another loss. It was baseball inside a giant popcorn popper.

The Expos were always young and always improving. In their 25 years of existence, they made the playoffs just once, in the weird split-season of 1981. Throughout the team's history, management decisions -- based on the realities of small-market finances or the cheapness of ownership; your call -- kept potential from being realized. After four or five years -- "It was the college model," says former play-by-play announcer Dave Van Horne -- the best Expos spread to the wind, like seed, before youth could become experience and potential could become achievement.

A second-place finish in the National League East in 1993 made the Expos an underground pick to win in '94. For once, a core of young, exuberant players -- under the chamomile direction of Felipe Alou -- got good enough fast enough.

They had one of the fastest, smartest and most athletic outfields of all time in Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and Moises Alou. They traded for Pedro Martinez -- giving up fan favorite Delino DeShields -- in the offseason. Catcher Darren Fletcher was an All-Star and starting pitcher Ken Hill was a revelation. The bullpen -- back-ended by Mel Rojas and John Wetteland -- made most games six- or seven-inning propositions.

"I know it's obvious, but man, that was such a good team," says Sean Berry, the Expos' third baseman in '94 and now the Padres minor league hitting instructor. "One thing that sticks out: We were so much faster than everybody. Everyone on the team would score from second on a single and first on a double -- every time."

Their unsuccessful chase of the cocky, brash Phillies in '93 created a personality in the Expos' clubhouse. "They shaped our attitude," Fletcher says. "You had to be a little cocky and have some toughness. We knew Montreal didn't get much respect. We had a $10 million payroll, and all anybody could say was, 'How are these guys even in the conversation?' Everybody needs a motivator."

And they started the '94 season 4-9. The seats clacked in disgust.

On May 9 and 10 against the Reds, Gwynn went consecutive games without a hit. On May 15 against the Dodgers and May 16 against the Cubs, Gwynn went consecutive games without a hit.

Those were the only two times in the 117 games the Padres played that season (Gwynn played in 110 of them) that he went hitless back to back.

Everybody goes through a bad stretch, right? Wrong. For Gwynn, starting a game 0-for-2 qualified as a prolonged slump.

"He was the best fastball hitter I ever saw," says Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who was the Padres' third-base coach in '94 before becoming the team's manager the following season. "And that year, he hit a fastball better than he ever did. I don't care who you were, you could not throw it past him."

On June 11, Gwynn went 4-for-5 against the Giants to raise his average to .388. In a three-game series, he had seven hits. For the season against San Francisco, he was 12-for-28.

"We couldn't figure him out that year," Williams says. "We had no idea how to pitch him. None at all. We tried everything. After a while, we figured we'd just throw it down the middle so he wouldn't know which way to hit it."

The Padres lost that game on June 11, which means it served as a solid metaphor for the entire season: four hits for Gwynn, one loss for the Padres. They were 22-39 at that point, and it never got much better.

"We were busting our butts, but it was a rough year," Roberts says. "We would sit on the bench or in the clubhouse and say, 'Man, he's going to do it. Tony Gwynn's going to hit .400.' He never talked about it, at least with us, but I know he knew we were talking about it. Why wouldn't we? He was the thing we looked forward to every day."

Williams says, "He would survey the field. It was almost as if he would look out there and say to himself, 'Oh, there's nobody standing there? I guess I'll go ahead and hit it there.'"

In the concrete cereal-bowl ballparks of the day -- St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Atlanta -- the ball sounded like an M-80 when it left Williams' bat. The contact was inconsistent but loud, demanding the attention of everyone in the stadium. At the All-Star break, he was hitting .251 but with 33 home runs. It was about that time when the words ahead of Roger Maris' pace became a regular part of his world.

"I just remember that year going, 'Wow -- I can't believe that one actually squeaked over the fence,'" he says. "Maybe that's why I never took it seriously. It just never felt like a good year."

Williams never went more than six games without a homer, and yet he hit the All-Star break with just seven doubles. "An odd, odd year," he says. "Whenever I hit it, it seemed like it always had just enough to get out. It was never that way again."

At the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, the focus was on the looming strike, or Griffey, or Bonds, or Greg Maddux. "Really, nobody wanted to talk to me, and I was fine with that," Williams says.

In July, that changed when "Sports Illustrated" put Williams on the cover.

"Yeah, but even that had the same tone," Williams says. "Yeah, he's doing this, but it's going to end. I'm sure my teammates were probably saying the same thing: 'He's going to start swinging and missing any time now.'"

The scene sounds apocryphal, but the Expos swear it's true: Walker, the right fielder, and Grissom, the center fielder, used to play a little game within the game to keep themselves amused. They would stare at each other in between pitches, a form of Outfield Chicken, and dare each other not to be the first to turn his eyes back to the pitch.

Confident? Cocky?

Grissom and Walker would sometimes trade gloves between innings, too, just for fun.

"It was the easiest baseball I'd ever played," Berry says. "There was no stress. We were either too young to know better or too good to care."

The bad start didn't last. The Expos began to win and liked the feeling so much they didn't stop. The city of Montreal came along with them. Attendance picked up. The sound of vuvuzelas -- they were ahead of the curve on that one -- overtook the sound of folding seats.

The Braves were in the middle of a lower-case dynasty at the time, winning 14 straight divisional titles. But they'd been in the NL West until expansion put them in the East and made them the Expos' primary competition in 1994. In their first matchups as divisional rivals, the Expos took two of three in Atlanta in early May, and again at home in late July.

In Jonah Keri's recently released history of the Expos, "Up, Up and Away," Walker says, "After the break, we played the Braves and beat 'em again. I remember leaving Atlanta, and we were just laughing. Like, 'This is our competition?'"

Fletcher laughs and says, "Yeah, I guess we had a little attitude."

Things even out in baseball, right? It's an axiom that has soothed the slump-ridden for more than a century. For every line drive out, there's a check-swing single. Unless it's 1994 and you're Gwynn, in which case you're good enough to reject the very idea of a level playing field.

When he was on time, he would drive the ball to right or right-center. When he was fooled by an off-speed pitch, he would keep his hands back well enough to use his famous "5.5 swing" and drive the ball to the left of the third baseman. In 110 games, he had 165 hits. He slugged .568 and ended the season with a 1.022 OPS.

"He was an artist that year, Picasso at the bat," Roberts says. "At one point late in the season, I went up to him and said, 'What you are doing right now I have never seen in my life.' He just smiled."

On Aug. 11, the final night of the 1994 the season, with the work stoppage looming and nearly every player distracted to the point of disinterest, Gwynn went 3-for-5, hitting a single to each field, and raised his average to .394.

"From beginning to end," Bochy says, "it's got to be one of the most consistent seasons ever."

In an interview with San Diego magazine before his death earlier this year, Gwynn said, "To this day, I really believe I'd have hit .400."

Roberts is more emphatic. "I'd never seen a man hit like that," he says. "He would have gotten over .400 and stayed over .400. That wasn't just me -- that was the consensus in baseball. But watching him every day, there was no doubt."

Sixty-one homers. Seems like such a quaint record now, doesn't it? In '94, Williams was the only one on pace to hit 62 -- in fact, he did hit 62 in a 162-game stretch from September 1993 to May 1995 -- but there were others in the conversation.

Williams finished 1994 with 43 home runs. Griffey had 40, and Jeff Bagwell had 39, and Thomas 38 and Bonds 37. It was a big year for offense.

"I watched Barry every day," Williams says. "I remember thinking, 'It doesn't matter what I do. Barry's going to beat me, anyway.'"

Williams finished with one of the strangest statistical juxtapositions in history: 43 home runs, 16 doubles. "An odd grouping," he deadpans.

"I've never had any regrets or reservations about any of it," Williams says. "I didn't think I was ever going to get there. The strike was a foregone conclusion -- everybody knew that -- but it wouldn't have mattered if we'd played the whole season. I mean, come on? Me? Seriously?"

Wetteland, the Expos' union rep, began to feel more like a spokesman than a relief pitcher. He went to the park every day to find reporters standing at his locker, ready for that day's labor update.

One day in July, he approached Fletcher.

"Hey, Fletch, I need some help," Wetteland said. "This is wearing me out."

Fletcher became the backup spokesman, and the duty began to chip away his excitement for the season. "It was a grind," he says. "It was all downhill after the All-Star break."

Fletcher was one of six Expos to play in the All-Star Game, a moment he calls "the apex of Expo Nation." He has to be reminded that Montreal played its best baseball after the break. In fact, the Expos finished the season with 20 wins in their last 23 games to finish 74-40 and open up a six-game lead over the Braves in the National League East. "I don't remember the last few weeks being all that fun," he says. "We could see the storm clouds on the horizon. There was definitely a feel in the major league clubhouses that this was it."

Many players, subconsciously or not, drifted through games. ("The last week was especially bad," Fletcher says.) The intensity level dipped with every failed attempt to avert a shutdown.

"After the break, it really set in," says Van Horne, now broadcasting for the Marlins. "You could see how acrimonious the relationship between the owners and the union had become. It was clear: If the owners were going to thrust this onto the players, they were going to walk.

"When the reality of that hit, all of us -- broadcasters, the Montreal media, everyone close to the club -- figured it was going to happen but it wasn't going to last long. Two weeks, we thought, and cooler heads will prevail. I felt that way. Perhaps it was wishful thinking."

The last two weeks of the season were a mess of confusion, misinformation and irritation. Teams that were on the road as the doomsday deadline of Aug. 12 approached heard rumors they'd be stranded by management, left to make their own accommodations on their own dime.

On Aug. 11, after the Expos beat the Pirates in Pittsburgh and a work stoppage went from likely to inevitable, Expos general manager Kevin Malone stood before the team and said, "If you guys go on strike tonight, find your own way home."

The players looked at him, disbelief turning to fury.

Malone let the words sit there.

"Just kidding," he said.

Donald Fehr told the players to go home, that it would be a bad look for them to hang around. And so the players scattered like a crowd after a gunshot, the hopes of resuming the season diminishing a little every day.

"Fehr had been beating the drum for a long time," Fletcher says. "There was definitely a feeling that this was it. This was going to be a big one. The owners were asking for too much too fast."

To this day, Van Horne carries a laminated 2x2 card in his wallet with the Expos' 1994 roster and statistics as of Aug. 12. He calls Bud Selig's Sept. 14 news conference canceling the remainder of the season -- World Series and all -- "that dreaded announcement."

The Expos held a reunion in late March this year during an exhibition series between the Blue Jays and Mets at Olympic Stadium. They talked about how different the course of events might have been if they'd been allowed to finish the season. They were on pace to draw 2 million fans, and the team's success had built momentum for a downtown ballpark.

And they're convinced, of course, that a World Series win was inevitable.

"The feeling of being cheated grew on us over the years," Berry says. "The time frame for most athletes is limited. You don't have years to give away. That team probably would have saved baseball in Montreal."

Williams treats the lost season as a source of amusement, as if he alone sees the disconnect between perception and reality. Gwynn might have lost his best chance at .400, but his talent made it a possibility every year.

The Expos are different. Relegated to a footnote in an unfinished history, they were deprived of something more important than a few games and a chance for the World Series.

"Here's the biggest travesty of the whole deal," Fletcher says. "I don't have any specific memories of any one game or play or hit. The body of work was neat, but when we get together we can't say, 'We lost the third game of the World Series, but we came back and won anyway.' It cost us pinpointing that one moment.

"Isn't that kind of sad?"