The once high-flying Yankees have hit a bit of a skid lately in their goal to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1981. They lost their third straight game yesterday afternoon in a hard-fought battle with the Blue Jays, who have struggled most of the season but are still the two-time defending World Series champions. We can only ponder if the Yankees might be headed to a second straight late summer swoon--tied for the AL East division lead with the Jays last year as late as Labor Day, they eventually lost the title by seven games. For captain Don Mattingly's sake, we can only hope that this is not the case, though a larger threat looms to ruin the Yankees' season than mere games.
The dispute, centering on the owners' demand to create cost control by putting a limit on player payrolls, was so severe that negotiators for the two sides didn't even bother to meet and barely spoke to each other yesterday.
There were early reports, later denied, that some owners had made suggestions intended to generate movement on their side. Barring a change in the owners' position, which has occurred in previous shutdowns, or a collapse of the players' solidarity, which never has happened, the strike threatens to wipe out the last 52 days and 668 games of the regular season and, for the first time, the playoffs and the World Series.
The charismatic Melido Perez took the hill for the Bronx Bombers today, and he was as unpredictable as ever. After a refreshingly quick top of the first inning in which Toronto went down easily on three straight grounders, the Yankees' nemesis of the day, Ed Sprague caused some havoc in the second. Last year's batting champ John Oleurd had lined a one-out single right and Perez lost outfielder Mike Huff to a walk on a full count. Perez fanned Darnell Coles, but Sprague laced a long fly to center over Bernie Williams's head for two RBI and extra bases. Although the former catcher is not normally fleet of foot, he made it all the way to third with a triple. Pat Borders grounded out to end the frame, but the Jays were on the board.
The two-run deficit wasn't large, but with Toronto's burgeoning young ace Pat Hentgen on the mound, it seemed like it might be a challenge for the Yankees to catch up. Indeed, Hentgen breezed through the lineup on his first try. However, the second time the league's leading offense faced him, they solved him. The third inning one-out rally started with an unlikely source--ninth place hitter Pat Kelly. The second baseman reached on a perfectly placed drag bunt toward the third base side, hit so slowly that Sprague could only pick it up. Leadoff man Luis Polonia followed with his 20th double of the season, a smash down the left field line played well by Darnell Coles, who kept Kelly from thinking about coming home.
It was all for naught though, as Wade Boggs brought Kelly in with a sacrifice fly. That brought the league's leading hitter, Paul O'Neill, to the plate. The former Reds right fielder has been even better this year than he was in his Bronx debut season of '93, and he carried a formidable .364 average into play today. In this scenario though, O'Neill's admirable plate discipline (and then-.465 on-base percentage) was on display, as he worked a walk against Hentgen to pass the baton to the slugging Danny Tartabull. "The Bull" has taken a small step backward since his 31-homer '93, but he squared up a 2-1 mistake from Hentgen and crushed it well over the left field wall to give the Yankees a 4-2 lead.
"There is no doubt in my mind the players are united, as always, and the owners are united this time for a significant series of reasons," Bud Selig, the acting commissioner, said. "But having said that, now we have to figure a way to solve this thing."
No one had a clue how to do that yesterday, as the 10 games on the schedule slipped past and brought the players closer to their strike deadline.
Perez cruised through the next two innings with hitless frames, but a leadoff single by Paul Molitor in the sixth began to unravel him again. He struck out Joe Carter, but caused further problems by walking Olerud and falling behind 3-1 on Huff. In a favorable count, Huff belted a double to center field, scoring Molitor and sending Olerud to third. Coles then lifted a fly ball to Polonia in left field. Olerud tagged up to score the tying , and Polonia's throw went wild, bringing Huff home as well with the go-ahead run.
Facing a deficit again, the Yankees did not wait long to rally. With two outs in the home half of the sixth, Hentgen walked backup catcher Jim Leyritz, who entered the game when hard-hitting Mike Stanley had to depart due to injury in the middle of the fifth. Williams grounded a single up the middle, and Hentgen inexplicably walked Mike Gallego to load the bases. Once again, the unsung hero Kelly came up with a big hit, lining a single to center to score Leyritz and Williams, putting the Yankees back on top. Hentgen was uncharacteristically shaky this afternoon, surrendering six runs on seven hits and three walks in six innings.
The Mets approached the strike with a 15-inning 2-1 loss at Philadelphia last night. The game at Oakland between the Athletics and the Seattle Mariners, which ended at 12:45 A.M. E.D.T., might have been the last in a season of remarkable individual performances, including Tony Gwynn's pursuit of a .400 batting average (he's hitting .394) and a core of sluggers chasing home-run records.
If the dispute were to be resolved in time only to play the post-season, the new expanded playoffs would start with Montreal at Los Angeles and Cincinnati at wild-card Atlanta in the National League and in the American League the Yankees at wild-card Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox at Texas.
After a strikeout and back-to-back walks in the seventh, Perez's day was done as well. Buck Showalter called on the reliable young starter-turned-reliever Bob Wickman to strand the runners, and the sinkerballer did what he does best. The likely future Hall of Famer Molitor could only muster a weak grounder to second, and Carter lifted a lazy fly ball to left-center to end the inning.
An inning later though, Wickman was immediately touched up for another booming triple to center, this time by Olerud. He had to stay put on a grounder, but Coles hit the next pitch for a ground-rule double to score Olerud an tie this see-saw affair at six runs apiece. Wickman and Blue Jays reliever Danny Cox kept the game tied as the game moved to extra innings.
In Washington, President Clinton urged both sides to find a way to get back together and finish the season.
"There are a lot of little kids out there who want to see this season come to a close," he said, "and there are a lot of not-so-little kids out there who know that this is the most exciting baseball season in 40 years."
In the tenth, Toronto threatened after a leadoff single by Carter knocked Wickman out, bringing closer Steve Howe into the game. He struck out Olerud, but allowed Carter to get into scoring position on a single to right. Fortunately, the veteran worked out of trouble by retiring Coles and Sprague in order to end the inning. A couple innings later in the 12th though, Carter victimized him again, this time in a more serious manner. The '93 World Series hero crushed a homer down the left field line, much like his series-winning blast, and Toronto was back on top by one.
The Yankees weren't finished yet. Cito Gaston asked Darren Hall to close out the victory, but the Yankees were uninterested in going quietly. Polonia led off with his second double of the day, and Boggs beat out a slow roller to shortstop for an infield single as Polonia moved to third. Although O'Neill grounded into a double play to halt the rally, the tying run scored and the see-saw affair soldiered on to the 13th inning, as if begging the baseball season not to end.
At Yankee Stadium, Steinbrenner offered mixed views on the dispute. Referring to Ravitch's contention that a salary cap is needed to maintain competitive balance between wealthier clubs and poorer clubs, the Yankees' principal owner said, "It's difficult to argue competitive balance in view of Montreal having the second-lowest payroll but the best record in baseball."
But he added: "The thing is to enable them to keep some of those players, to have the financial wherewithal to do it. We don't want to happen to Montreal what happened to Pittsburgh, where they couldn't afford to keep those players."
Showalter did not have many reliable relievers rested and ready to go, so in came Joe Ausanio and his ERA north of five. Sure enough, Sprague took his third pitch deep to left field for a solo homer to lead off the top of the 13th. Ausanio got the next three Toronto batters in order, but the Yankees were yet again in a hole.
This time, Hall did not let them rally. He walked Mattingly in what might be the Captain's final at-bat of the season, but the Yankees were unable to do much else, even with the faster Gerald Williams pinch-running for the 13-year veteran who has yet to play October baseball despite a brilliant career. Pinch-hitter Daryl Boston and Bernie Williams went in order, leaving the game up to another pinch-hitter, Matt Nokes. If the catcher had found a Hall pitch he liked, the Yankees might have won on a walk-off, but alas, he flew out to center to end the game. The Yankees fell to 70-43, though they are still six and a half games up on the Orioles in the AL East. There might still be hope yet for Donnie Baseball's first playoff game and, perhaps with some luck, a run to his first World Series. We can only imagine what kind of ovation he would receive from the Yankee Stadium faithful.
And yet we can only hope that we even see baseball again in 1994.
Despite the prospect of having no more games this season, Bill Giles, the Phillies' managing partner, left his team's game before it was over, walking out in the 11th inning with the game tied, 1-1. Giles explained, "I have to get up early and drive to Vermont to go fishing."
With the two sides in baseball's labor dispute far apart and rigid in their positions, major league players went on strike after last night's games, shutting down the season with the eighth work stoppage in 23 seasons.
The 1994 Yankees never got to play in the postseason. The promising Montreal team never played in a playoff game for the rest of their history, a sad story expertly told by Jonah Keri in his book. The recently deceased Gwynn never got to finish his run at .400. Matt Williams and Ken Griffey, Jr. never got to finish their runs at Roger Maris's single-season home run record. This game was the last Yankees game my dad would read about in his life. It was the middle of August.
May Major League Baseball and the Players' Union never let such an embarrassing atrocity happen again.
Italics text is excerpted from Murray Chass (yes, he used to be good) at the New York Times, August 12, 1994.