Revisiting 1994

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The 1991 Super Bowl is my first sports memory, but I don’t actually recall watching a single play—not even the missed field goal by Bills kicker Scott Norwood at the end of the game. What I think I remember is my parents, with some family and friends, watching the game. Mostly, I remember my dad’s reaction after the miss (luckily, he was a Giants fan). I was three years old.

After that game, I’m not sure any sports moment stands out so vividly in my mind until the middle of the decade—maybe Michael Johnson’s gold shoes in the 1996 Olympics, or the Packers losing any number of playoff games to the Cowboys, or Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak in 1995. I didn’t really become a sports fan until I was seven or eight.  

All of this is to say that I don’t much remember the 1994 baseball season, or the strike that ended it on August 12. Nevertheless, that season’s always taken on some level of mystique in my mind, like it has for many other baseball fans. Just what could have been?

The Expos, with a young core of Larry Walker, Moises Alou, and Pedro Martinez, were 74-40, six games atop the NL East. Maybe they would have won a World Series in Montreal, forever changing the fate of baseball in that city. Maybe one of the White Sox or Indians, two teams battling in the AL Central, would have broken long World Series droughts. The first-place Yankees might have made the postseason for the first time since 1981.

On an individual level, it seems like every star of the 1990s had their best year cut short in 1994. Jeff Bagwell was slashing .368/.451/.750, with 39 home runs, when the season abruptly ended. In the American League, fellow first baseman Frank Thomas was out-hitting Bagwell, somehow. Matt Williams had 43 home runs in just 112 games. Had Williams kept up that pace, he would have flirted with the all-time single-season home run record, then held by Roger Maris. Williams had a 17-year career, but he would never again top 40 home runs. Ken Griffey Jr. had already collected 40 round trippers himself. Chuck Knoblauch had 45 doubles in 109 games, nine more than he’d ever get in a full season. Knoblauch, Walker, and Craig Biggio (the latter two had 44 doubles apiece) could have all made runs at Earl Webb’s single-season doubles record of 67, set way back in 1931.

On the pitching side, Greg Maddux was in the middle of perhaps the best season of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career. He posted a 1.56 ERA and reached 200 innings despite missing nine or 10 starts. In his eight outings prior to the strike, Maddux racked up five complete games and a 0.93 ERA.

Am I forgetting anything?

On August 11, a three-for-five day in an 8-6 win at Houston brought Tony Gwynn’s batting average to a sparkling .394, where it would rest for eternity. It might be the biggest ‘what if’ of the ’94 season. If given the chance to finish out the campaign, could Gwynn have become the first batter to hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941?

As good as Gwynn was, it probably wouldn’t have happened. You don’t need me to do the simple math, but since Gwynn was hitting just under .400 when the season ended, with a good fraction of the games filed away, he would have had to hit well over .400—roughly .415—down the stretch to reach the milestone. Hitting .400 ain’t easy; hitting .415 is even harder.

Just to check, though, I figured it’d be interesting to look at Gwynn’s performance in different seasons from August 12 onward. From 1993 through 1997, Gwynn hit over .350 in every season. That stretch is both Gwynn’s offensive peak and it surrounds 1994, so it’s perfect for further examination.

YearPAs (Aug 12 on)Slash Line
199389.383/.404/.494
19940???/???/???
1995194.377/.412/.481
1996188.371/.422/.435
1997167.340/.377/.464

Not surprisingly, Gwynn raked in August and September of every season listed above, but he still didn’t get all that close to .400 or .415. What about 1987, when Gwynn hit .370? He hit ‘just’ .376 after August 11. For the record, Gwynn’s highest second half average was indeed an even .400, in 1993, but he played just 47 games in that stretch, missing time to knee surgery.

Of course, none of this means Gwynn couldn’t have finished with a .400 or better batting average. In ’94, he hit .419 through the season’s first 29 games. In ’87, he hit a bonkers .473 in the month of June. In ’97, Gwynn had a .411 average on June 1, propelled by a bonkers squared 30-for-53 stretch to close out May. He was still hitting .402 on July 14, before slumping (.326) down the stretch. In a Hall worthy career, Gwynn hoarded bouts of otherworldly brilliance.

Gwynn had a couple of other factors working in his favor in 1994. As Chris Gaine wrote about at Complex Sports a few years back, most of the Padres remaining games were scheduled at home—where Gwynn, like most hitters, fared better—or against weak competition, with 24 of 45 would-be contests coming against teams in the NL’s bottom five in ERA.

In the end, the ’94 strike took away any chance for Gwynn to make a run at .400, and no amount of mathematical hijinks can save those lost games. Ignoring the ugly side of that labor dispute and its ripple effects—the demise of the Expos, the rise (and denial) of rampant steroid usage, etc.—maybe it’s better that we don’t know what would have happened. Gwynn’s .394—the highest average since Williams’ .406—was instantly etched in time as a magical number, perhaps the one most associated with a Hall of Fame career. Had he finished out the season with a ho-hum .377 average, it’d only be remembered as another batting title in a career full of them.

Strike or not, Gwynn’s run at .400 remains the defining memory of a legendary career. I don’t remember it, but I sure wish I did.

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