20 Years Ago: Matt Williams’ Flirt with History was Going, Going, Gone

This week, MLB is ignoring the 20th anniversary of the 1994 baseball strike. But as Bud Selig is getting ready to retire, he cites the circumstances surrounding the 1994 baseball season as one of his great regrets during his tenure as Commissioner of Major League Baseball. 

There were labor issues between baseball and its players even before the 1994 season began. Team owners were maintaining that there was a worsening financial crisis in baseball, and they insisted that a salary cap was critical to the survival of smaller market teams. Players weren’t buying it, particularly because of an organized program among team owners in the late 1980s to reduce the amount of free agent contracts. This was called “collusion,” a process in which teams worked together to prevent a bidding war for the services of highly touted free agents. Three separate collusion claims were made on behalf of the players and it eventually cost major league baseball $280 million, which they paid to the players for the misconduct of the owners. As an interesting side note, Bud Selig, then owner of the Milwaukee franchise, was one of the owners implicated in the collusion allegations.

The 1994 labor dispute continued through the Spring and into the summer. No progress was being made. The players eventually voted in late July that they would walk off the job on August 12, 1994 if the issues were not resolved. And then they did just that, with the last game of the 1994 season played on August 11, 1994. No divisional races, no playoffs, no World Series.

The damage to major league baseball as an institution is well chronicled. When baseball resumed with its regular players in 1995 (after another fiasco in the early part of the season with replacement players), attendance around the country was down by over 20%. Baseball was facing a new financial crisis. The continued existence of small and large market teams was now really in jeopardy.

Many believe that the saving grace to baseball occurred three seasons later; that being, the Sosa/McGwire homerun duel of the 1998 season. To me, there is great irony in the fact that baseball’s meteoric return to prominence was steroid-produced, and has since been one of the great stains on the game and its records.

For any of you interested in reading about this very tumultuous time in baseball, there are resources galore that will tell the story. But I want to focus on something as simple as opportunities-lost.

The late great Tony Gwynn was hitting .394 when the game shut down that August. Many thought that he had a legitimate chance to be the first player since Ted Williams to hit over .400. The Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals) had baseball’s best record and, for the first time in their franchise history, they were the frontrunners for the World Series title. That opportunity was not only lost, but the loss in revenues and fan-base from the strike caused them to engage in a payroll dump in 1995, trading away the core talent of their team. And then there was later-to-become Diamondback third baseman, Matt Williams.

Williams was a prolific major league power hitter during his career but in 1994, he had become a true force in the middle of the Giant lineup. On opening day in early April, he hit two homeruns and drove in 5 against the Pirates. On August 10, 1994, the last game played that season by Williams, he drove in 3 runs against the Cubs, including going yard with his 43rd homerun of the strike-shortened season.

By mid-August, Williams was on pace to tie or break Roger Maris’ single season home run record of 61. From my calculation, had he played in every remaining game, he would have hit 61.4 home runs in 1994. Of course, what would have happened had the strike not occurred is pure speculation. Nonetheless, it is not speculation to note that Williams was deprived the opportunity to break a record that had stood for well over three decades, even if that single season homerun record has since become a joke after cheaters like McGwire and Bonds sullied the accomplishment.