My father has been a die hard Yankees fan his entire life, watching many amazing players go through the Bronx in the process. But, he has idolized one player more than any other: Don Mattingly.
The nine-time gold-glove winner and 1985 American League MVP is beloved by New Yorkers to this day. The one thing missing from Mattingly’s career and possibly the only thing that kept him from an induction in the Hall of Fame is a World Series Championship. Mattingly’s best chance may have been in the 1994 season (Yankees had the second-best record in baseball), which was eventually ended early due to a now infamous strike.
Baseball in the 1990s was plagued with players who, unlike my dad’s hero, used steroids to enhance their abilities or prolong their primes. In 1994 as injuries were rapidly catching up to one of the league’s stars in Mattingly (his second-to-last season) an increasing number of players had started using PED’s to ensure father-time wouldn’t do the same to them. But, even as steroids grew, there were still those who refused to “juice”.
In the 1994 strike shortened season three of baseball’s best clean hitters seemed to be on pace for historic seasons. What if the season was never shortened? Could that trio of amazing ability have deterred the steroid era from completely taking over the game and putting an asterisk on 1990’s baseball?
The first piece of baseball’s historic trio lies in the American League West and was one of the sports biggest and ascending stars. Ken Griffey Jr. was undoubtedly baseball’s best defensive center fielder; 1994 would be “The Kid’s” fifth straight Gold Glove award. This year Griffey would be in store for his best season at the plate yet, and probably the best of his career.
Griffey only got to play 111 games, but still managed to hit 40 home runs, which was good for second in the major leagues and with four home runs in 10 August games before the season shutdown, Griffey was showing no signs of slowing down and could have been leading by season’s end. The purest swing in baseball history also drove in 90 runs and had a batting average of .323 and an on-base percentage above .400.
Griffey was rapidly becoming one of baseball’s icons. With his aforementioned pure swing and radical play style in center he was hard not to love. 1994 was on its way to being the season that cemented him as a superstar. To be honest Griffey’s 1994 performance was his best season, even better than his 1997 MVP campaign.
The number 24 took the field for the Mariners 157 times during the 1997 season, compared to 111 during the 1994 season, but that obviously had nothing to do with Griffey. If he had played 157 games in 1994 Griffey was on pace for 57 home runs and 127 RBIs. That would give Griffey one more home run, but 20 less RBIs, which is a statistic largely dependent on the hitters in front of him. But, Griffey was a much more efficient and effective hitter in 1994, as his batting average and on-base percentage were significantly higher that season. Griffey also had a significantly higher OPS (On-base+Slugging) in 1994 in comparison to 1997.
1994 was on its way to being Griffey’s masterpiece. It was supposed to be his Mona Lisa. A true work of art from one of the sports greatest artists.
Griffey was utterly dominant, but he still only came second in American League MVP voting, losing out to Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox, who was also among the seemingly few sluggers left in the sport who stayed clean.
Thomas was arguably baseball’s most feared hitter at the time, the man nicknamed “The Big Hurt” looked like the most intimidating guy on most fields and had the power to back it up, knocking out 521 home runs in his Hall of Fame career. In 1994, Thomas had another season of pure dominance. In his second consecutive MVP season Thomas racked up 38 home runs and 101 RBIs.What was even more amazing was the efficiency in which Thomas put up his gaudy stat line. “The Big Hurt” did more than just hurt you with his power, he was also one of baseball’s smartest hitters. Thomas put up a career high .353 batting average, also leading the league in walks with an obscene 109 walks in 113 games, which results in an even more obscene and borderline video-game like .487 on-base percentage.
It’s hard to outshine Ken Griffey Jr., one of baseball’s most well-rounded players and one of its most likeable personalities, I mean he even had a signature shoe released in 1996, (if you have a pair size 11.5 please DM me on Twitter) but Thomas did it with relative ease. Even with these two all-time greats, baseball’s potential year of the clean-hitter still had one more man flirting with history: Tony Gwynn.
The Padres legend, like Griffey and Thomas would go on to be elected to the MLB Hall of Fame. While he was always one of the league’s toughest outs, he was never a tougher out than in the 1994 season. When the season was sadly shortened Gwynn was close to hitting .400, something that hasn’t been done since Ted Williams did it in the 1941 season.
Gwynn ended the season with a .394 batting average, which was easily the best in the major leagues that season. Gwynn’s an outlier out of the three superstars on the list, as the 15-time All-Star wasn’t in the prime of his career, Gwynn was 34 in 1994. Despite no longer being able to steal 40-plus bases or having the exciting play-style of either Griffey or Thomas, Gwynn was arguably the most fundamentally sound batter the game has ever seen. Gwynn rarely didn’t put the ball in play, surprisingly never drew more than 60 walks in a season during his storied career, even more amazingly, Gwynn never struck out more than 40 times.
Gwynn was just an expert hitter, there was nothing flashy about his game, but it was so sound it should be written in textbooks for little leaguers across the country to study. This lesson was never more evident than in 1994 when history was well within his grasp, but it stayed true up until his last season as a 42-year-old in 2001, when hit above .300 for the 19th straight season.
The only time Gwynn hit below that mark was his rookie year when he hit .289 despite not being called up until late July. It’s a legitimate possibility that if Gwynn had been given a full-season of baseball he could have broken that barrier and had 20-straight .300 batting seasons, something that is almost unheard of.
What is so amazing about Gwynn, like the two aforementioned hitters, is that every achievement he made, he did it the right way, Gwynn was steroid-free.
The fact that three of baseball’s greatest talents all had borderline historic years simultaneously is almost astonishing. What is definitely astonishing is that the league threw it away with a strike. What would have happened if play never stopped is forever unknown and up to debate by fans, journalists and historians alike until the end of time. But, what is known is that a chance at history was stripped away from three of baseball’s best and should be icons.
Post-strike baseball was in search of any storyline to attract fans and as a result the sport prioritized stars who were questionable at best, the best example of this being Sammy Sosa. The outfielder seemed to be on his way to an unremarkable career until a sudden, almost suspicious breakout with the Cubs in 1993, when he had 33 home runs and 36 stolen bases. Those numbers were career highs in both, while Sosa had speed, previously stealing 32 bases in the 1990 season, he had never displayed above-average power, his 1993 total more than doubled his previous career high. Despite this production Sosa would have to wait to get his first All-Star nod. Conveniently that wouldn’t come until 1995, the year after the strike ended.
Sosa is forever synonymous with 1990’s baseball because of the historic 1998 home-run chase with Mark McGwire, another steroid user. The media attention and god-like glory given to players like Sosa, McGwire, and even Barry Bonds made steroids attractive. But, what if 1994 could have changed that?
Three players were chasing history in the nation’s past-time and they would have become icons. Griffey, Gwynn and Thomas are all in Cooperstown, but still aren’t immortalized the way they rightfully deserve to be. But, if Gwynn had gotten to .400, if Griffey could have surpassed 60 home runs before McGwire, Sosa or Bonds and Thomas had continued on his rampant pace and broken a .500 on-base percentage, maybe, just maybe, they would be looked at as the defining stars as the 1990’s and not the steroid fueled stars who seem to be discussed to this day.