Baseball seasons have ended early twice in history. Both times the Cleveland Indians were on the verge of the playoffs.
We already discussed the early end to the baseball season 100 years ago.
Today let’s discuss one that hurts a lot more, (perhaps because none of us lived through the 1918 one), the 1994 season.
A team on the verge of something big
In 1993 the Cleveland Indians finished 76-86, good for sixth place in the AL East. There were signs, however, that things were improving.
Left fielder Albert Belle hit 38 home runs and led the league in RBI (129). Belle finished seventh in MVP voting. Center fielder Kenny Lofton finished 15th in the MVP race, and first in stolen bases with 70. Carlos Baerga had 200 hits for the second consecutive season and finished 11th in the MVP voting.
In addition, 22-year-old Jim Thome, who had been up and down between the majors and AAA, proved he was here to stay with an OPS of .859.
21-year-old Manny Ramirez made his debut. The results weren’t great (.170 batting average), but he showed promise on September 3, when he hit two home runs at New York (Huzzah!) leading the Tribe to a 7-3 victory.
The problem with the 1993 Indians wasn’t hitting. It was pitching.
Quick trivia question:
Who was the top starter for the 1993 Indians?
That pretty much sums it up.
The Indians made some moves prior to the 1994 season to fix things. Dennis Martinez signed a free agent contract. He became the de facto ace of the staff. Charlie Nagy was healthy, he was the number two starter. Jack Morris was also signed as a free agent, and he lasted until he decided he didn’t want to fight through a labor stoppage, and he would rather retire and move to his farm in Montana (stay tuned, it’s a future story).
On the bright side, he didn’t retire in the middle of the game. Come on Vontae, even Browns don’t do crap like that. (Is it just a Bills thing?)
The biggest offseason move
The biggest move the Indians made between 1993 and 1994 was the move to Jacobs Field. The new stadium generated new revenue and allowed the Tribe to add marquee free agents, something I wasn’t used to seeing. In addition to Dennis Martinez the Indians added veteran first baseman/DH Eddie Murray.
The Indians were still under .500 on May 12 (14-17). Then they got hot. A six-game winning streak, a few wins and losses, then an eight-game winning streak, some more wins and losses, then a ten-game winning streak. By June 20 the Tribe was 16 games over .500 and in first, 4.5 games ahead of the second-place Twins. The Royals and White Sox were also having good seasons.
A second quick trivia question:
Who was the fifth place team in the AL Central at that point?
By July 17 the Indians found themselves 18 games over .500, but tied for the divisional lead with the red-hot Chicago White Sox. Minnesota faded to fourth, 11 games back. Kansas City was third, seven games behind.
For the next month the Indians and White Sox were nip and tuck for the division lead. Kansas City, meanwhile, was heating up. On August 6 the Indians were .5 games behind the Sox, and 1.5 games ahead of the Royals. This being the first year of the Wild Card, it looked like two teams from the AL Central would be in the playoffs.
If of course, there were playoffs. Because the labor negotiations were also heating up, in a bad way.
In June the owners withheld a $7.8 million payment to the players pension and benefit plans. This led to a decision by the players association: August 12 would be the start of the strike.
Several negotiation sessions were held with players, owners and even federal mediators. Each time I hoped it would lead to a solution, because my Tribe was so close to the playoffs for the first time in my life!
Even the Indians were hopeful. On September 1 they traded for Dave Winfield.
In the end, the Indians and I would have to wait for one more year. The season was canceled on September 9.
Yeah, but would they have made the playoffs?
Almost certainly. I remember seeing an article in the USA Today where someone did an analysis that showed the Royals would have caught the Indians before the end of the year.
As of August 12 the Indians had played 62 games on the road (31-31) and only 51 games at home (where they were an otherworldly 35-16). With the extra 11 games at home over the rest of the season, they would have been hard to catch for the Wild Card.
The Royals had played 59 at home and 56 on the road. The White Sox were also dominant at home (34-19), and had seven extra home games left. It seems like the Indians and White Sox were headed for the top two spots in the division.
The only other team with a shot at the Wild Card was the Orioles. They had also played more on the road by the point the season was canceled. But in a bizarre twist, the Orioles were much better on the road (35-22) than they were at Camden Yards (28-27).
So yeah, I’m saying the Indians would have made the playoffs. And since Jose Mesa was neither a starter, nor a closer, I’m penciling them in for a 1994 World Series trophy, beating the Montreal Expos four games to two.
Who knows if the Indians would have made the playoffs? All we know for sure is that we would have had interesting September baseball in Cleveland in 1994 for the first time in many years.
The Milwaukee Brewers were the other team in the AL Central. They moved to the NL in 1998. Tampa went to the East, and Detroit moved to the Central.