One strike and they were out
It was the year of O.J. Simpson’s infamous leading of police on a slow-speed chase on one of southern California’s freeways, the bizarre act of a supposedly innocent man who went on to beat a double-murder rap before committing the truly heinous crime of memorabilia theft. The latter, of course, did what Marsha Clark and Christopher Darden couldn’t: put Simpson behind bars.
1994 was also the year Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa and Michael Jordan discovered that hitting a curveball was more difficult than defying the laws of gravity on a basketball court. Jordan eventually returned to the NBA, in part because baseball abandoned him first.
Twenty years have passed since baseball’s most crippling work stoppage, one so sweeping that even the 1994 World Series got wiped out. Not coincidentally that was also the moment when an awful lot of fans finally decided to abandon the sport, at least the major league version of it, for keeps.
There were no sides to take in the squabble between millionaire athletes and billionaire owners because there were no good guys involved in the fight. Both groups were greedy, but the owners didn’t stop there — they also had stupidity on their resume.
Actually the stupidity started long before 1994. A quarter-century earlier former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood fought a trade to Philadelphia, something he was forbidden by baseball’s collective bargaining agreement from doing.
While slavery had been abolished more than 100 years before Flood’s show of resistance, indentured servitude was alive and well in the sport of baseball, where a player’s rights pretty much consisted of doing whatever he was told and doing it wherever he was sold. So Flood’s choices amounted to this: report to Philadelphia or retire.
He opted for a third: fight for his career freedom. Flood never did get what he wanted, but he still managed to expose some previously hidden agendas. And because the owners of that time period refused to budge an inch the players decided to follow Flood’s lead and engage in their own brand of hard ball.
Free agency came to the forefront by the mid-1970s and player salaries skyrocketed as a result. Had those 1970s team owners been willing to negotiate even a little and allowed Flood any kind of say-so in where his future baseball home would be there’s a very good chance the players would have been sated and not pursued anything more.
Instead they felt the need to push back, and eventually they positioned themselves to where any refusal by the owners to actively bid on free agents could be construed as collusion — which it likely was. Owners had essentially outsmarted themselves.
Flood’s dust-up with owners was necessary to bring baseball up to speed with other industries in regard to fair treatment of employees. But when the game then sped into the financial stratosphere players lost much of their support from Average Joes everywhere, who were forced to pay escalating prices on everything associated with baseball in order to help owners meet their steadily rising revenue demands.
Baseball lost a lot from that lengthy period of inactivity in 1994, and not just at that moment. There were far-reaching effects, one of which occurred four years later.
The home-run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the summer of 1998 captivated the nation and brought some of the straying masses back into the baseball-watching fold. It was the shot in the arm the sport needed to become revitalized, but it also led to other types of shots that weren’t so beneficial.
By now everyone knows of former player Jose Canseco’s accusations of rampant steroid use within the major leagues back then. But while he blew the whistle it was baseball’s leaders who were guilty of letting the game’s reputation get blown to bits.
Clicking turnstiles at ballparks caused everyone to turn a blind eye to what was happening all around them — Popeye lookalikes, muscles bulging at an almost freakish rate, hitting balls farther than they would have flown if shot out of a cannon. It didn’t matter if there was monkey business going on behind the scenes because there was good business being done front and center.
But without the 1994 strike, there would have been no need for a home-run battle to revive the National Pastime — and without that home-run battle no need to artificially inflate bodies and, along with them, every power-related statistic imaginable.
The numbers are a little less suspect these days, which has improved baseball’s image but pretty much verifies what Canseco said. And what’s sad is that even guys who stayed clean during that dirty period are likely to have their accomplishments questioned.
As for baseball as a whole, the major league strike of 1994 was actually something of a godsend. Minor league teams popped up everywhere shortly after that and most have remained in operation, although often under different ownership and perhaps even a different name.
What minor league baseball did besides give fans an outlet was remind them how important they were. Fan-friendly environments, complete with reasonable prices and scores of pregame, postgame and between-innings activities, were the minors’ calling card, and their success forced major league promotions departments to rethink strategies and put more emphasis on those paying customers who made overpayment of players possible.
Football long ago eclipsed baseball as Americans’ favorite sport, and basketball is a preferred choice in many areas as well. Baseball’s glacial pacing runs counter to today’s rapid-fire lifestyles and there’s nothing that can change that, so chances are good that the sport will never again elicit the kind of feverish devotion it once enjoyed.
Is all of that the fault of 1994? No, but that year certainly didn’t aid baseball’s cause in any way. A recent story quoting some former major leaguers whose last active season was 1994 reflected a continued sense of displeasure among them — one even said he no longer follows baseball at all despite spending 20 years of his life in it.
Baseball’s principals have seemingly learned from past mistakes, seeing as how strikes and lockouts have become increasingly rare. That hasn’t stopped the NHL and NBA from committing their own public relations disasters since 1994, but big money has a way of making human beings do ridiculous things.
Twenty years from now will 1994 still stand as a watershed moment in baseball? Until something worse comes along to tarnish it further, probably so.