You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

MLB’s no-end-in-sight lockout is a dangerous game of chicken. Just ask the 1994 Yankees | Klapisch

NJ.com logo NJ.com 1/23/2022 Bob Klapisch, nj.com

You don’t have to be great with numbers to know Major League Baseball has precious few days to end the current lockout. By week’s end the calendar will officially become the game’s enemy, pushing back the start of spring training and by extension, Opening Day. It’s a disgrace waiting to happen.

We would gladly excoriate Rob Manfred and Tony Clark and all the zealots on both sides who are sabotaging the 2022 season, but that would be too easy. You already know the usual suspects. These geniuses seemed determined to destroy the sport.

The pursuit of the biggest piece of the pie apparently matters more than the sanctity of a 162-game season. Do they care? I’m not the only one who wonders. Maybe the owners and players association should consult the ‘94 Yankees and ‘94 Expos – the majors’ two best teams that year who were on a collision course for the World Series that was never played.

A labor dispute shut down the industry on August 12, a setback from which it took years for MLB to recover. No one wears those battle scars like Buck Showalter, whose Bombers were projected to win 100 games and, according to computer simulations, a world championship.

The same emeritus status goes to Paul O’Neill, the American League’s ‘94 batting champion, who had a shot at .400 according to similar calculations. Just like Tony Gwynn, who was batting .394 at the time, the Warrior would have been baseball’s first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941.

That’s what prompted me to call both Showalter and O’Neill this week. Together they sounded the alarm about the current lockdown.

“If they want to end this thing, they should put the ‘94 Yankees in the (negotiating) room,” Showalter said. “We could explain how fragile a baseball season is, and that you have a responsibility to protect it. The Expos would tell you the same thing. You can’t take it for granted that fans are always going to come back.”

There’s a glimmer of hope here: An important face-to-face bargaining session is scheduled for Monday in Manhattan. It’s the first time since the lockout began on December 2 that Manfred and Clark and their lieutenants will exchange proposals in person. It doesn’t matter who you’re rooting for, just keep your fingers crossed both sides don’t waste 90 minutes talking over each other and then re-activate the deep freeze.

O’Neill speaks for all of us when he says, “This thing has to end. I’m watching this as a fan and not as a former-player, but it can’t go on. One way or another it has to be resolved.”

It doesn’t take much coaxing for Showalter and O’Neill to enter the time tunnel 28 years ago. Both remember vividly a) the disappointment when play was suspended on August 12 and b) the shock waves after commissioner Bud Selig canceled the remainder of the season on September 14.

“I was speechless,” O’Neill said. “No one thought the season would end like that. Even when we went out, everyone thought we’d be back on the field at some point.”

Showalter remembers watching Selig deliver the doomsday proclamation on TV, looking at his wife and saying, “Is (Selig) kidding me? This is actually happening?”

Gone, in a breath, was the Bombers’ body of work. Even though Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte had yet to make it to The Show, the Yankees were a powerhouse, leading the American League with a .619 winning percentage, six games ahead of the second-place Orioles. The Bombers were second in the league in runs, leaders in on-base percentage and were heading to the playoffs on the shoulders of ace Jimmy Key.

Showalter recalls the unique vibe of that ‘94 crew, which he said, “had the feeling ‘no one is going to beat us’ the whole year. Some seasons are like that, a magical feeling where everything clicks. That was us.”

Would the Yankees have beaten the Expos that October? With a .649 winning percentage, the Bombers’ National League counterparts looked even more fearsome than the Yankees. Among Montreal’s stars were a 22-year-old Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill, Moises Alou, Larry Walker and John Wetteland.

So which of these heavyweights would’ve prevailed? According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Yankees had a 36.2% chance of winning their first World Series since 1978, the highest probability of any playoff team that year. That scenario opened the door to a butterfly effect for Showalter and the franchise as a whole.

Would Showalter, as a reigning world champion manager, necessarily have been fired after the ‘95 Division Series loss to the Mariners? It’s possible Buck would’ve banked enough equity with George Steinbrenner to survive the season-ending defeat in the Kingdome in Game 5.

If so, Joe Torre might never have been hired in 1996. And it’s just as conceivable that, had the ‘95 loss been regarded as a stumble instead of a catastrophic failure, Steinbrenner would’ve held off on acquiring Tino Martinez from Seattle.

Showalter tries to avoid that rabbit hole, even though it might’ve been his best chance for a ring in a 20-year career. Instead, you get Buck’s boiler plate answer that Torre’s succession, “was meant to be” and that he has no lingering regrets about his fate.

“I was naïve to believe it was all going to work out that year, but I’m not bitter about it,” Showalter said. “I try to remember the good times and how much fun we had. And getting to the playoffs in ‘95 proved we were no fluke in ‘94.”

O’Neill lives by the same half-full Zen, especially when I told him about FiveThirtyEight’s vision of the last six weeks of the ‘94 season. Their computers suggested O’Neill would’ve conceivably climbed from .359 to .400 with the additional 49 games.

Granted, the odds weren’t great – the likelihood was only 0.1%. But a skinny fraction was enough to elicit a laugh over the phone from O’Neill.

“Four hundred? That sounds pretty good,” he said. “I’ll take that.”

Thank you for relying on us to provide the journalism you can trust. Please consider supporting us with a subscription.

Bob Klapisch may be reached at bklapisch@njadvancemedia.com.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From NJ.com

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon