1994 was shaping up to be a banner year in Cleveland baseball.
The season started on a beautiful April day at Jacobs Field, the Indians’ new home, a state-of-the-art baseball-only ballpark at the corner of Carnegie Ave. and Ontario St.
And “for the first time since the Pleistocene,” as the Sporting News put it, the Indians were contenders. The American and National Leagues reorganized into three divisions that year, which was supposed to be the first year a wild card – the team with the best record that didn’t win its division – made the playoffs. With a record of 66-47, the Indians were leading in the American League wild card race on Aug. 12, 1994, just a game behind the White Sox for the American League Central Division lead.
And then it all stopped.
For the eighth time in 22 years, Major League Baseball had a labor-related work stoppage. This time, it was a strike by the players, whose contract had expired at the end of the previous year. There were decades of ill will between players and owners, who had recently thrown Commissioner Fay Vincent over the side in favor of one of their own: Brewers owner Bud Selig. There was a spring training lockout in 1990 – not long after owners were found to have colluded to depress the free agent market.
And of course, there was the familiar moan of “Only in Cleveland.” It wasn’t the first time labor issues played havoc with what could be a special baseball season in Cleveland; in 1981, a strike delayed and actually endangered the playing of the All-Star Game at Municipal Stadium. But this was worse.
“This couldn't come at a worse time for Cleveland fans,” wrote The Plain Dealer columnist Joe Dirck. “The Indians are locked in a riveting pennant race, their first in decades, and playing to sold-out crowds every night in their brand-new park. Even if the strike ends, as some predict, by Labor Day, and the Indians go on to win the division, the achievement will have been tainted, the title forever burdened by an asterisk: strike-shortened season.”
As it turns out, the idea that the strike would end by Labor Day was a rosy scenario at best. Nine days after the holiday, Selig canceled the remainder of the season – including the postseason. That year, the Indians had sold more than 2.9 million tickets – a team record, surpassing even the 1948 championship season – and more than a million would go unused due to the strike.
The strike presented a tantalizing game of “What Might Have Been.” The best record in the majors belonged to the Montreal Expos, who had never been to a World Series. They never would get there, and a decade later decamped for Washington D.C. The San Francisco Giants’ Matt Williams (who would be a key contributor for the Indians in 1997) was on pace to break the single-season home run record, and Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres was on his way to being the first .400 hitter in more than 50 years.
And what of the Indians? Sure, they made two World Series in three years after the strike ended in 1995. But would 1994 have been the magical year instead of 1995 – and ended with a championship?
We’ll never know.