Had events gone differently 20 years ago tomorrow, the Washington Nationals might still be the Montreal Expos.
Buck Showalter might be in the Hall of Fame.
Peter Angelos might be viewed as a heroic figure.
The Steroid Era might have been largely avoided.
And Major League Baseball might still be right up there with the NFL in terms of popularity.
Twenty years ago tomorrow I was at Camden Yards to cover a Baltimore Orioles game that wound up ending prematurely by rain, appropriate given that the entire 1994 season ended prematurely thanks to bitter labor strife that led to the mother of all strikes.
The TV news program "Nightline" was also at Camden Yards that night and Angelos, the Orioles' owner for only about a year, proposed a way to avoid the strike, saying owners should acquiesce and pledge not to impose a salary cap and to open up their books to the players.
Sounds reasonable enough in hindsight, but his fellow owners wouldn't hear of it. So the next day, Aug. 12, 1994, saw the beginning of a strike that wiped out the rest of the season and the World Series, raged into the following spring, and angered fans to the point that many quit baseball cold turkey. They stopped going going to games, stopped watching on TV and stopped a big percentage of the next generation from becoming fans, hastening a slide in popularity that continues.
How different things might be today had the players and owners reached an agreement and avoided the strike. OK, given all that Angelos had a hand in over the next decade or so, he probably wouldn't be a hero today even if he helped save that season. But imagine all that might have happened.
The 1994 season was shaping up as rather remarkable.
The best record in baseball belonged to the Montreal Expos, a dynamic team loaded with talented young players like Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, Cliff Floyd, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, John Wetteland and others. Ownership began dismantling the team that winter, attendance tanked and a decade later the Expos relocated to D.C. But what if the season had continued and Montreal had won it all?
Maybe attendance would have spiked. Maybe the team would've been kept together and remained a perennial winner. Maybe Martinez would have spent the rest of his career in Montreal (significantly changing the future of the Boston Red Sox). Maybe MLB would still have a team in Montreal and Washington would either still be without or perhaps have a different team. Tampa Bay maybe?
The New York Yankees had the best record in the American League. What if the Yankees had won it all?
Having guided the team to its first title since 1978, Showalter certainly wouldn't have been fired after a Division Series loss in 1995, so perhaps he, not Joe Torre, would have been around as the Yankees won four of the next five championships and perhaps he, not Torre, would have been in Cooperstown two weeks ago for the Hall induction ceremony.
What else was going on when the season was halted? Matt Williams (43 home runs) and Ken Griffey Jr. (40) were in hot pursuit of Roger Maris' single-season home run record, Tony Gwynn (.394 batting average) was threatening to become the first player since Ted Williams to bat .400, and numerous others -- like Frank Thomas, Kirby Puckett, Kenny Lofton, Greg Maddox and Mike Mussina -- were in the midst of amazing seasons.
Average attendance was at an all-time high. The game was thriving. Had the season played out perhaps those trends would have continued.
Instead, when baseball returned, attendance plummeted. That made it easy for desperate owners to look the other way as steroid use became rampant, happily enjoying the spike in popularity provided by strongmen Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing and passing Maris in 1998. Their steroid-fueled excellence spurred on Barry Bonds to use chemistry to assist him in authoring the greatest offensive years in history, rewriting a previously sacred record book.
Had baseball not needed the boost, perhaps the sport would have put in place strict rules regarding performance-enhancing drugs years earlier. And perhaps the threat of severe punishment would have motivated Bonds to stay clean -- and he would be revered today. Ditto Roger Clemens. And Alex Rodriguez. (OK, nothing would've dissuaded A-Roid).
But, overall, baseball history and, really, the entire sporting landscape would have been significantly altered had the strike been avoided.
Of course, it might not all have been for the better. The Texas Rangers were leading the AL West even though they were 10 games under .500 and a team winning a division with a 76-86 record might've led to knee-jerk rules changes. Worse, Cal Ripken Jr. could have twisted an ankle during a September game and never have passed Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games, depriving the sport of one of its greatest nights. Heck, Michael Jordan might've stuck with his second career as a baseball player, never returned to the NBA and never led a second Chicago Bulls three-peat.
It's enough to make your head spin. That's why you can't really play the "what-if" game. It's fun to do, though.
Bob Blubaugh is the Times' sports editor. His column runs every Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7895 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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