It’s Labor Day, which means a paid day off for many and much, much more for others. Sports and labor have been intertwined since payment became involved, and every major sport has seen a work stoppage.
Which brings us to 1994.
Owners and players battled over salary cap proposals and changes to free agency, and as they began the season, the threat of conflict loomed. The owners had approved a plan in January based off of a salary cap, but it required the MLBPA to approve it. As spring turned to summer, the two sides were no closer to an agreement, and on August 12, the players walked out. The rest of the season – including the World Series – was scrapped.
The strike interrupted what could have been a franchise-changing year for the Royals.
Entering 1994, the Royals would be without two Kansas City icons. George Brett had retired after the 1993 season and Ewing Kauffman had passed away the summer before. Without their franchise player and without an owner, 1994 didn’t seem like a season with any magic to it at all.
Gone, too, were the last remnants of the Bret Saberhagen trade, as Kevin McReynolds was traded back to the Mets for Vince Coleman, while Keith Miller was released in May. Gregg Jefferies had been traded to the Cardinals the year before for Felix Jose.
The only link the Royals had to the 1985 World Championship team was Mark Gubicza who, at 31, was one of the older members of the pitching staff.
Despite the post-Brett look to the team, they played well, mostly buoyed by a starting rotation of Kevin Appier, David Cone, Tom Gordon and Gubicza who went a combined 41-27 with a cumulative 3.85 ERA over 612 innings. They were led, of course, by Cone, who’s 16-5, 2.94 year won him the Cy Young Award (and the Royals won 74% of the games he started). Appier’s 3.83 was nothing to sneeze at either. Even Gordon (4.35) and Gubicza (4.50) finished better than league-average.
Behind them, the Royals had a strong defense which was necessary because the offense lacked punch at almost every spot in the lineup. Coleman offered speed at the top of the lineup, and with Brian McRae, the Royals led the league in stolen bases, but otherwise the lineup finished below average in every offensive category in the American League except doubles and triples.
Not even a Rookie of the Year campaign by Bob Hamelin could give the Royals any firepower. His 24 home runs helped the Royals finish one spot (and one homer) of the Twins, who hit 99 for last in the AL.
They didn’t seem like a team that would make a playoff push until July. The Royals were a modest 49-47 going into their July 23 game against Detroit, which they won 4-1. The Royals were 8.5 games back after the win.
Over the span of two weeks, the Royals would win 14 in a row, propelling them to within a game of first place. On August 5, they were the hottest team in the game.
A week later, they were on the picket line.
After their streak, the Royals dropped four of their next five, sitting four games behind the White Sox and three behind Cleveland.
Nobody will ever know how the final weeks of the season would have went. The Royals had no real fifth starter, using a mix of Chris Haney, Bob Milacki, Jose de Jesus and even tossing in Mike Magnante and busted prospect Jeff Granger into spot starts. If their top four would have held up down the stretch, would the bullpen have become a liability?
Jeff Montgomery was starting to show signs of wearing down and his 4.03 ERA after five sub-3.00 seasons was a warning sign (and Monty would never have an ERA under 3.43 again). Stan Belinda and Hipolito Pichardo, key setup men, had a combined 5.01 ERA.
The 1994 Royals undoing would have been their offense. They showed enough pluck to get by on pitching and defense, but without an above-average ability to get on base or get extra base hits, the Royals likely wouldn’t have generated enough runs to catch up.
But it would have been a lot of fun to see those last six weeks.
That’s the legacy of the 1994 strike. So many great storylines were dashed by the work stoppage, and its impact was felt the following season, as the 1995 baseball season was shortened as well. Baseball lost fans and it took Cal Ripken’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig and, a few years later, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire’s home run race to capture the fanbase again.
As for the Royals, 1994 stands as the closest they’ve ended the season to first place (the 2003 team was in contention later in the year but finished seven games back). It also represents the only season when the Royals secured two major end of year awards.
It will always be remembered, though, as the year of the strike, regardless of which team you follow.