Sunday, August 10, 2014

1994 Major League Baseball Strike — Don Mattingly's Best Shot At World Series

When Bud Selig announced Sept. 14 that there’d be no World Series for the first time since 1904, some thought of Don Mattingly (pictured), who had played 1,657 games to that point, but hadn’t been to the postseason.
1994 was Donnie Baseball's best shot for an elusive World Series

The Season That Wasn't: 1994 Yankees Primed For World Series Before Strike Ended The Dream

Don Mattingly, Buck Showalter, Jimmy Key, Jim Abbott and Paul O’Neill all fondly recall when it all came together for 1994 Yankees before strike ended season for potential World Series team and return to glory for Bombers.

The two men whose best chance for October glory may have come in the year they canceled the World Series don’t really discuss 1994 when they see each other, Buck Showalter says. It’s hard not to think about what might have been, though, and when Showalter sees his old first baseman, he and Don Mattingly exchange what Showalter describes as “kind of a look.
“You both know,” says the man who managed the team that perhaps really started it all for these dynasty-era Yankees. “You don’t need to constantly talk about it. It’s not overly pleasant to talk about. It’s something that could’ve been. Should’ve been. But we’re both thankful.
“Life is not always fair.”
But there’s more to the story of the 1994 Yankees than just the awful way it ended when the players went on strike and the season was spiked. Or the sting and regret that sprouted from missing the playoffs and, perhaps, a chance to play the Montreal Expos — that year’s other “what-if” team — in the World Series.
Much more.
It was the year everything jelled, all that Showalter and GM Gene “Stick” Michael had put together as they searched for players with character as well as baseball skill. Young players were blooming; veterans such as Wade Boggs were rejuvenated and thriving. The club’s recent bad days were fading from pinstriped memory.
It was maybe the best Yankee team since the last World Series club, in 1981. It was, Mattingly says now, “one of my favorite teams and one of the most fun.” It was a tight group that oozed chemistry. And was the start of something good, though so many wouldn’t be there when it really took off two years later.
But it was also a season that might’ve had a drastic effect on how the championship Yankee teams to come might have looked. Had the players not gone on strike Aug. 12 — 20 years ago this Tuesday — and assuming the ’94 Yanks indeed reached the playoffs, what shape might the dynasty have taken?
“Losing in ’95 in the playoffs the way we did, a lot of things ended,” says Paul O’Neill. “Who knows if they would’ve ended if ’94 would’ve been a great year? Maybe you don’t make as many changes. I think losing the rest of the ’94 season had a big effect on what happened the few years after.”
If there were a parade down the Canyon of Heroes in 1994, would Joe Torre have been the manager for the 1996 title team and beyond?
Buck Showalter managed the team that perhaps really started it all
for these dynasty-era Yankees.
“No, I don’t believe I would’ve been,” Torre says. “There’s a reason for everything happening. I certainly fell into it and inherited some good people who were used to winning at that point.
“But if they had won in ’94, maybe ’95 doesn’t turn out the way it did.”
Maybe nothing does.
* * *
This town had championship fever that year. The Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940 while the Knicks went to the seventh game of the NBA Finals before losing to Houston. And there were high hopes the Yankees would reach the World Series and perhaps win the club’s first championship since 1978. George Steinbrenner, as usual, was antsy.
They had the best record in the American League — 70-43 — and led the AL East division by 6.5 games over the second-place Baltimore Orioles.
“We were probably the best team in our league,” says Michael, the architect. “Some of our guys had come along pretty fast. Bernie (Williams) had improved. Paul O’Neill led the league in hitting. We had good balance. We had lefties and righties. We had switch hitters. Mike Stanley behind the plate had on-base percentage and power.”
O’Neill had his best season, batting .359 with a .460 on-base percentage and .603 slugging. Signs such as “O’Neill The Real Deal” appeared at the Stadium.
Boggs hit .342 and some wondered if he could’ve stolen the batting title from O’Neill had the baseball calendar ever flipped to September. Jimmy Key was 17-4 and finished second in the Cy Young voting.
Jim Abbott.
Jim Abbot
The Yankees scored the second most runs in baseball (670), nine fewer than Cleveland, and led the majors with a .374 on-base percentage. Seven of the nine regulars had OBPs of .360 or better.
“Everyone seemed to be clicking on that team, particularly on offense,” says Jim Abbott, who was 9-8 for the Yanks in ’94. “Buck was amazing at putting guys in positions to succeed in the lineup. It was maybe the best team I ever played on.”
On May 9, Abbott beat Cleveland, 4-3, at the old Stadium and the Yankees moved into first place for good. Only the strike stopped them, it seemed.
The Yanks won eight straight from July 29 through Aug. 5, but then lost five of six as the labor impasse loomed. Suzyn Waldman, who covered the Yankees for WFAN then, recalls thinking the Orioles might eventually pass the Yankees, but Key told her it wouldn’t happen.
“And for years after, every time I saw Jimmy Key, he told me, ‘We were going to win that year,’” Waldman says.
“It was a good club,” Mattingly adds. “I don’t know how good. But we really enjoyed playing together and were close. We had been creeping back ever since Buck got there, getting better players. There was a great attitude on that team. We felt like we were turning the corner.
“I don’t know how we would’ve done (in the playoffs). But I really would’ve liked to have found out.”
* * *
The gut punch that was the strike came the day after a 13-inning loss to Toronto at the Stadium. “Leaving in the middle of the season just felt so strange,” Abbott recalls. “Very unsettling, guys all going in different directions.”
In 1994, Paul O’Neill has his best season, batting .359 with a .460 on-base percentage and .603 slugging.
In 1994, Paul O’Neill has his best season, batting .359 with a
.460 on-base percentage and .603 slugging.
When Bud Selig announced Sept. 14 that the season would not re-start and there’d be no World Series for the first time since 1904, some thought of Mattingly, who had played 1,657 games to that point, but hadn’t been to the postseason.
“I’m so sad for Don Mattingly,” Steinbrenner was quoted saying. “I feel so badly for that kid.”
The Yankees worshipped their captain, even though Mattingly’s ailing back had diminished his once-wondrous hitting skills and the end of his career was approaching.
Waldman remembers seeing a young Pat Kelly, the club’s second baseman, watching Mattingly put on his socks, so Kelly could imitate him. To this day, O’Neill calls Mattingly, “Cap.”
“It was a driving force, kind of a rallying thing, that Donnie deserved to be in the playoffs,” Showalter says. “He spoiled all of us.”
“That year,” Waldman says, “it would’ve been all about Donnie.”
Turns out, it wasn’t Mattingly’s only shot. The Yankees won the wild card in 1995 and then lost to the Mariners in the best-of-five first round series even though they had won the first two games. Mattingly hit .417 with six RBI.
That chance is why Mattingly refuses to dwell on the missed opportunity of ’94. “I don’t think about it from that standpoint because — and only because — we got in in ’95,” he says. “I had a chance to play in the postseason and that changed the way I felt about ’94.”
* * *
Jimmy Key
In ’94, Steinbrenner was still a tiger, not the grandfatherly-type with a fixation on winning that some younger Yankee fans might remember. There were those around the team who felt Steinbrenner didn’t like the amount of credit Showalter got for the Yanks’ success and Steinbrenner raged in Seattle after the Yankees lost in the ’95 playoffs.
“If they had won in ’94, would ’95 have been such a disappointment?” Waldman says. Tension between Steinbrenner and Showalter exploded. They parted ways, opening the door for Torre, who won the World Series in ’96 and three more times after that.
Would Showalter have had that chance had the strike never happened and the Yankees went deep into the playoffs in ’94?
“No, I don’t think so,” Showalter says. All these years later, his convoluted Yankee exit prompts him to say things like, “I haven’t quite figured that one out, sometimes. It’s volatile. It’s a lot different today than it was back then when you were coaching and managing and playing for the Yanks. I knew the job description going in. I knew I had a short window.
“I don’t dwell on that very often. I’m not one of those guys. It was an honor.”
To Mattingly, ’94 and ’95 were “the building blocks” for the dynasty teams: “(Derek) Jeter was on the edge of showing up, Bernie was starting to be a star, (Jorge) Posada was on the move, Mariano (Rivera) had come through in ‘95 and then Andy Pettitte was establishing himself.
“I think Buck and Gene did a tremendous job through those years laying the foundation down, the attitude, all those young guys coming. Obviously, changing to Joe, it was like the perfect guy for that spot, a group ready to go.
“Unfortunately for Buck, he helped put a club together and then wasn’t there to see it finish out.”
What might have been? We’ll never know. — Anthony Mccarron | NYDailyNews

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