Sunday, August 11, 2019

The 1994 Yankees: What Could Have Been

Don Mattingly.

25 years ago today was one of the most heartbreaking days in baseball history, as the players went on strike, never to return. The World Series was cancelled, something that was unthinkable considering it had never happened before The strike even dragged into 1995, shortening that season to 144 games.

The Yankees were coming off a surprisingly strong season in 1993, when they were in the American League Eastern division race until the very end, but fell short to the Toronto Blue Jays, who were defending World Champions and went on to repeat.

That was the last year in which each league had just an East and West division and there was no Wild Card, something hard to conceive of when you have three divisions and two Wild Card now. Simply put, only four teams made the playoffs under that format compared to 10 now.

Entering 1994, expectations were high for the Yankees and they didn't disappoint, as they were in first place for most of the season and there was real hope they would win their first World Series since 1978.

The Yankees were 70-43, with a 6 1/2 game lead over the Baltimore Orioles (63-39) in the American League East. Toronto, the two-time World Champions, were in third at 55-60, Boston was 54-61, and Detroit was 53-62. When Tampa Bay was added to the A.L. East in 1998, the Tigers moved to the Central and the Milwaukee Brewers moved to the National League Central.

The Yankees were led by right fielder Paul O'Neill, who was hitting .359 with had 21 home runs and 83 RBI. First baseman Don Mattingly, in his next-to-last season, was hitting .304 with six home runs and 51 RBI. Left fielder Danny Tartabull, whose time as a Yankee is most likely remembered for his Seinfeld appearance as a hapless passenger in the car with George Costanza, had 19 home runs and 67 RBI. Third baseman Wade Boggs was hitting .342 with 11 home runs and 55 RBI.Catcher Mike Stanley was a .300 hitter who had 17 home runs and 57 RBI. Mike Gallego and Randy Velarde were their shortstops, Pat Kelly was their second baseman, and Jim Leyritz had 17 home runs and 58 RBI as a catcher/first baseman, a true utility player who had a picture at the time in Yankees Magazine, which was a weekly publication at the time, showing off all the different gloves he used.

The Yankees pitching staff was led by Jimmy Key, who was 17-4 with a 3.27 ERA, and he went on to win the clincher against the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 World Series. Jim Abbott (9-8, 4.55 ER) and is most remembered for his no-hitter on September 4, 1993; Melido Perez, Terry Mulholland, and Scott Kamienicki rounded out the rotation.

The remarkable thing is how they really didn't have a set closer, as Steve Howe had 15 saves, and Bob Wickman and Xavier Hernandez had six saves apiece. In a sign of how many games they won late, Wickman had a record of 5-4, Hernandez was 4-4, and Howe was 3-0.

Other pitchers for the Yankees that year included ex-Met Bob Ojeda, who made two starts, but gave up eight earned runs on 11 hits in three innings; Sterling Hitchcock was in his first full year as a Yankee and went 4-1 in 23 games, including five starts; and Jeff Reardon, who had 367 saves in his career and made 11 appearances, allowing nine earned runs in 9 2/3 innings.

On Thursday afternoon, August 11, the Yankees took on the Blue Jays, and I was at Yankee Stadium with my parents as the strike was looming just hours later, at midnight. Could this really be the last game? Would they really walk out over salaries when they already were making millions? Will we really not get to see this team in the playoffs after they were one of the worst teams in the league just three years before?

Toronto went on to win that day, 8-7, in 13 innings, and you could hear a pin drop at The Stadium when it was over, with people staying as long as they could to catch what could possibly be a last glance at the field for the season.

Melido Perez, who was 9-4 with a 4.10 ERA, got the start for the Yankees that day, faced off against 
Pat Hentgen, one of the Jays' best pitchers in that era, and he entered with a 13-8 record.
Toronto got on the board first when Ed Sprague hit a two-run triple in the second inning.

The Yankees took the lead when Wade Boggs got a sacrifice fly and then Danny Tartabull hit a three-run homer to give them a 4-2 lead.

In the sixth, the Jays got an RBI double from Mike Huff, followed by a sacrifice fly from Darnell Coles, in which one John Olerud scored, and then a second one came in on an error to make it 5-4.

The Yankees got the lead back in the bottom of the sixth when Pat Kelly got a two-run single off Hentgen, and that made it 6-5.

With Bob Wickman on for the Yankees in the eighth, Coles hit a ground-run double to score Olerud and tie the game at 6.

It stayed that way until the top of the 12th when Joe Carter, he of the famous walk-off home run to win the 1993 World Series, homered off Steve Howe to make it 7-6 Toronto.

The Yankees tied it in the bottom of the 12th when Luis Polonia led off the frame with a double and came in to tie it on a double play by Paul O'Neill.

Joe Ausanio, a 28-year-old rookie from Kingston, NY, came on to pitch for the Yankees in the top of the 13th, and Sprague led off with a home run. (side note: there was a day at The Stadium in August 1993 that a fan behind third base was berating Sprague the whole game - would love to wonder what that was about)

The bottom of the 13th went as follows with Darren Hall on for the Blue Jays: Don Mattingly walked and was pinch-run for by Gerald Williams. Daryl Boston then pinch-hit for Jim Leyritz, and he grounded out, with Williams moving to second base. Bernie Williams then struck out for the second out. Matt Nokes, who was the back-up catcher on that team and caught Jim Abbott's no-hitter, made the final out with a fly ball to center field.

The New York Times' coverage of the final game.

Bill Pennington covered the 1994 Yankees, and he recently wrote a book on the team's rise in the early 1990s, Chumps to Champs.

Pennington said of this team in an interview with this site in May, “The ’94 team is just a fantastic team, maybe the best team in the American League, possibly the Major Leagues. They seemed to be on the precipice of a playoff run until the strike comes, and that’s why I say the bittersweet quality, which extends on into ’95 because Gene Michael’s moved aside as General Manager and Buck 
Showalter is not brought back as manager, the whole scouting department leadership is fired. It’s crazy, but they got them to the doorstep to greatness."

If the 1994 season was played out and the Yankees went on to win the World Series, their dynasty likely begins then instead of 1996.

Then-General Manager Gene Michael told Pennington, in Chumps to Champs, that the ’94 team is largely forgotten because they didn’t get to win anything.

“That’s true, and that’s a really good point that Gene made," Pennington said. "People remember the ’94 team, you know, five years later, it would come up during the run, and in the 10th anniversary in 2004, it came up, but nobody brings that team up anymore. They are forgotten -he’s right, it’s like they never played, it’s like they never did anything.”

That is a real shame because if the 1994 Yankees went on to win a World Championship, they would have the place in history they deserved.

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