Over the past few weeks, many Yankees fans have had difficulty choosing a team to support. Even though much of the on-field play has been exciting, I don’t think I’m reaching when I say that I’m not the only one who has had difficulty actually feeling happy when the remaining teams find success.
Maybe that says more about me than I’d like to admit, so in an effort to look at the glass half-full, I’d like to take a moment to remind everyone that it could be worse. No, I don’t mean that the Red Sox could still be playing; I mean that we could have no World Series at all. Although it may have been a long time ago, the absence of a World Series in 1994 still stings all baseball fans, but Yankees fans in particular. It was Lucy pulling the ball away from Yankees fans playing the part of Charlie Brown, if there ever was such an instance.
The oft-overlooked context about the 1994 campaign for Yankees fans is just how bad the Yankees were not too long prior to that season. Starting in 1986, the Yankees went five consecutive seasons with fewer wins than the season before, bottoming out with a 67-95 campaign in 1990 — worst in the American League. If there was an award for the worst Yankees team of all time, the 1990 club would absolutely be a finalist.
If you’re not old enough to have lived through the dark days of the Stump Merrill Era, or if you’ve smartly erased it from your memory bank, the Yankees being MLB’s joke may seem odd to you. Trust me, it was even more disheartening to those who suffered through it (Mets fans made fun of us and our team – that’s how bad it was).
As someone whose parents grew up in the Bronx, it was ingrained in me (along with most fans of my era) that this was the franchise of Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle — I had grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles who saw those greats in person. Even in the era when the likes of Mays, Snider, and Jackie were playing in the same city, the Yankees were still the gold standard. Heck, even my own first clear memories of games were when guys named Guidry, Munson, and Reggie were leading the Yankees to even more championships. It was just a given that the Yankees were going to be winning on a regular basis — how an organization could ever fall so far was simultaneously confusing and depressing.
Then in July of that awful 1990 season, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was suspended from overseeing the day-to-day operations of the club due to various departures from what would be considered normative behavior. (Actually, “bizarre” was the term that then-MLB commissioner Fay Vincent used to describe Steinbrenner’s behavior.) This was key in the sense that the team had made 7 changes at the GM level and 14 at manager in the previous 9 seasons, which was certainly part of the problem. When scouting guru Gene Michael took over as GM on day one of the Steinbrenner suspension, a legendary rebuild began.
Michael started with addition by subtraction, parting ways with 10 of the top 12 WAR producers on the 1990 team within two years. By 1993, Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill, Jimmy Key, Mike Stanley, and Mike Gallego had been added, and a 24-year-old Bernie Williams was given the full-time center field job for a team helmed by Michael lieutenant Buck Showalter. Within three seasons, the Yanks went from league doormats to an 88-win team, which was third-best in the AL that season.
Then things really came together for the team in 1994. By August 11th, the team held the AL’s best record and a 6.5-game lead in the AL East. Stanley had a 141 OPS+ (eventually joining Bill Dickey as the only Yankees catcher to post consecutive seasons of better than 140 OPS+), O’Neill was sitting on a 177 OPS+ and was leading the league in hitting at .359, and Boggs was on pace for a 6.5 WAR season. With the AL’s best offense (per OPS+) and one of the AL’s better staffs led by Key, the team was well on its way to the postseason and likely would have been the favorite to represent the AL in the World Series.
We all know what happened next. If I go into too much detail, my wife won’t let me drive for awhile and all sharp objects will be removed from my home, so the short version is this:
On September 14, 1994, with the MLBPA on strike, acting MLB commissioner Bud Selig canceled the remainder of the season, including all regular-season games, postseason games, and even the World Series. It would be the first time since 1904 that no World Series would be played in MLB. Two World Wars couldn’t stop the World Series and neither could an earthquake – but Bud Selig could and did so “for the good of the game” in his words.
What led the future Hall of Famer Selig to this decision? Essentially, the MLBPA would not agree to a salary cap and Steinbrenner wasn’t sharing enough of his money with Selig, so with the best “long-term interests of baseball” in mind, the World Series was gone.* Bud bemoaned a lack of on-field parity in MLB while 13 different teams won World Series in the previous 16 years – Kansas City, Minnesota, and Cincinnati among them.
*No, it wasn’t much more complicated than that – read Jon Pessah’s “The Game” for the sordid details.
Small markets apparently had no shot — on the field or in the bank accounts — against the bigger markets according to Bud. Never mind the fact that Cincinnati and Cleveland were outdrawing the Yankees in attendance in 1994, and Montreal had MLB’s best record with its second-lowest payroll. MLB was also headed for financial Armageddon according to Bud ... even though league revenues were 50-percent higher than they were only five seasons prior.
With the cancellation, out went the Yankees’ first legitimate shot at a World Series in the ‘90s, which would have been monumental with beloved captain Don Mattingly. It also would have been their first playoff appearance in 13 years, and a Fall Classic win would have been the first in 16 seasons. Bud played the role of Lucy pretty well.
Although the Yankees certainly would return to glory with a vengeance later in the 90s, legitimate hopes for another great season were unnecessarily dashed. Although I’ve rolled my eyes numerous times this World Series, the memory of 1994 should remind us it could be worse — because having no World Series certainly was.