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Thursday, August 19, 2004

Baseball: Looking Back at the Strike 

Ten years have passed since the strike of all strikes prematurely ended the 1994 MLB season. In fact, the work stoppage went into effect ten years and one week ago today.

Ten years? Wow.

In the time since, we've seen Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa reduce Roger Maris to an afterthought in the record books. Barry Bonds would later do the same to them. We've seen Cal Ripken Jr. out-Iron Man Lou Gehrig, and then retire a few seasons later. Ripken still awaits a Hall of Fame phone call, but a number of 1994 stars -- Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor and Kirby Puckett -- have retired and already visited Cooperstown, seeing their respective busts enshrined alongside Babe Ruth and Bob Gibson.

Those players helped bring the game back from the stike's devastating affects, but there was a time when fans weren't sure that was possible. We didn't know when the game would come back, and we weren't certain that we would come back with it.

Baseball came to a halt in August of 1994, shutting down MVP seasons, and slamming the door on pennant races. Half of baseball's six divisions featured teams within one game at the top of their standings. I attended an Astros-Goants game less than a week before the season's final day, and as we left the Dome, my dad and I wondered whether Houston could catch the NL Central-leading Reds. Sadly the Stros would close to within half-game of Cinci on Aug. 11, never to overtake them. The Aug. 12 Baseball Tonight didn't air highlights of Jeff Bagwell v. Barry Larkin. No, the only contest shown that night was Bud Selig's owners v. Donald Fehr's players.

Who won? The owners or the players? It didn't matter. The only losers in this battle, which spanned into the early months of 1995, were the fans. Yankees fans missed seeing Don Mattingly restore postseason glory to the floundering franchise. Rangers fans missed seeing 33 years of futility discarded with their club's first-ever playoff performance. And all baseball fans missed seeing the Monreal Expos claim a world championship, cementing their place as one of the best teams in baseball history (The Crank has more on this). Fans missed seeing these milestones because none of them happened. The 1994 season had no playoffs; it had no champion. Baseball teased us with glory and then vanished.

Would the fans come back? Many pondered that question. Even the most hardcore of hardball nuts had their doubts. "Fool me twice..." they said when pitchers and catchers finally reported the next year.

Things started to return to normal, though, in 1995. Despite a shortened season, fans slowly came back. Ripken's 2,131st consecutive game helped un-do much of the previous season's bad PR. Sosa and McGwire's traveling fireworks show did more of the same in '98, as have a slew of true Fall Classics in the past few years. But for all the goodwill of those years, a conspicuous blank spot remains beside the number 1994 in the baseball history book.

Labor peace has ruled the decade since the strike, and though steroids and drug testing represent the game's big unresolved issue these days, baseball doesn't face the imminent work stoppage that threatened the sport for so long back then. I like to think that baseball learned its lesson, and has put 1994 in its rearview mirror for good.

This fall the AL will battle the NL in the World Series. Yankees? Braves? Red Sox? Cubs? It won't matter. The fans will tune in to cheer and jeer and curse and rejoice. We'll see one team emerge victorious, and our distant memories of that bleak Fall a decade ago will be long gone.


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