San Francisco Giants first baseman Matt Williams was on pace to hit 61 home runs. San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn was flirting with a .400 batting average. Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas had an outside shot at baseball's first Triple Crown since 1968.
That's where baseball was a year ago today -- on its way to one of the most exciting offensive seasons in history. But a year ago tomorrow, the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike and the sport headed into an economic and political storm that still has not abated.
It was Aug. 12, 1994, a date that will live in infamy for baseball fans, who did not know at the time that the strike would wipe out the rest of the season and force the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904. Regular-season play did not resume until late last April, after 18 games had been shaved off the 1995 schedule and -- with them -- any chance for the kind of statistical suspense that had promised to make 1994 so special.
"It's been quite a year . . . a very difficult year," said acting commissioner Bud Selig. "I hope that all the parties have learned something."
What has been learned? The players and owners both found out that the patience of the fans was not unlimited. Attendance was off substantially during the early months of the '95 season, as much as 26 percent across the board. Television ratings for the All-Star Game were down as well, apparently proving that even the sport's most popular players were not immune to simmering fan discontent.
Everybody lost. The owners ran afoul of the National Labor Relations Board and were forced to withdraw an implemented settlement that would have imposed a salary cap. The players ended up taking a pay cut anyway, because the financial damage caused by the strike forced many teams to reduce payroll. The average salary dropped about 9 percent, even before it was prorated to account for the shorter schedule.
"Painful? Yes," Selig said. "Traumatic? It has been terribly difficult. But from a different perspective, it will not have been in .. vain if people learn from it. If we forge a new relationship for the next generation, it will have been worthwhile."
That remains a very big if. Twelve months after the players walked out, there still has not been substantial progress toward a new collective bargaining agreement. Negotiations have resumed behind the scenes -- and sources claim that there have been some positive developments -- but there remains the possibility that the 1996 season could be threatened if negotiations remain stalemated into the winter.
Once again, baseball's anti-trust exemption has come under review in Congress, but there is little reason to think that the owners suddenly will give in to political pressure and abandon their desire for cost control. It seems more likely that they will resume full-scale negotiations soon and make another attempt at unilateral implementation if a settlement is not reached by the end of the year.
The rest of the '95 season apparently is safe, but only because anything else would be MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). The game is beginning to pique the interest of the fans again, even though three of the six division races are all but over and only one of the others is close enough to create any suspense.
Attendance remains down sharply, but the percentage of the decrease has dropped from a high of 26.1 percent in late May and early June to 18.8 percent as of yesterday. Still nothing to brag about, but the significant improvement of attendance figures in August could signal a softening of fan resentment or it could reflect interest in baseball's expanded playoff format.
This is the first year that the wild-card races are meaningful. The new format was in force in 1994, but interest in the final playoff berth never got a chance to develop. This year, the possibility of a wild-card berth could heighten fan interest in several teams that would already be out of contention under the old format.
The Milwaukee Brewers, for instance, are only 1 1/2 games out of a possible wild-card berth, even though they are 17 games behind the runaway Cleveland Indians in the AL Central. The Philadelphia Phillies have slumped so badly (11-30) that they have little chance of catching the pitching-rich Atlanta Braves, but a good week would put them right in contention for the NL's extra berth.
The Orioles also have to be thankful that they don't necessarily have to make up a daunting divisional deficit to get into the postseason, but they already were one of the attendance strongholds of the American League.
Both the owners and the players have made attempts to reconnect with the fans, the owners by experimenting with new rules to pick up the pace of games and the union by encouraging players to make an extra effort to reach out to the public, but it will take more than that to put Major League Baseball back together again.
"I think things have improved," Selig said, "but understand, we're not deluding ourselves. We have an enormous amount of work to do. It is in both parties' best interest to come to an agreement."
A look at how this year's average attendance per game compares to the average in 1994. Attendance averages are through Wednesday.
League .. .. .. .. .. .. 1995 Avg. .. .. .. .. 1994 Avg. ... ... ... Diff.
American .. .. ... .. .. 25,001 .. ... ... ... 29,956 ... .. ... ... -4,955
National .. .. ... .. .. 25,421 .. ... ... ... 32,122 ... ... ... .. -6,701
Majors ... ... ... .. .. 25,211 .. ... ... ... 31,040 ... ... ... .. -5,829
AL largest drop: Texas (-11,263)
AL largest gain: Boston (+387)
NL largest drop: Atlanta (-11,755)
NL smallest drop: S.D. (-2,512)