Twenty-two years ago today, Vicente Palacios picked up his lone save for the Cardinals in an 8-6 win over the Marlins. The significance is not that Palacios closed the game but more or less that he closed down the season. The following day, the players would strike which would result in a 232-day work stoppage – the longest in MLB history to date.
On the surface the strike didn’t have a profound impact on the Cardinals. They were 53-61 at the time, which was tied for third in the newly-minted NL Central. (The Cubs were in last, proving the new division format was working just like it was supposed to.) That put the Cardinals 13 games behind the Reds in the division and even further behind the Braves for the wild card. In essence, the season wasn’t going anywhere and nothing all that memorable was likely to be lost. (Unless you count GM Dal Maxvill, who was fired about a month later to give way to the Walt Jocketty era.)
The same could not be said for the Montreal Expos who had their dream season (74-40, six games up in the NL East) ripped away from them, and maybe as a result their franchise, too. And Cleveland. Poor Cleveland. The Indians were on pace to have their first winning season in eight years and their first postseason appearance since 1954 when the players walked. (I blamed the players at the time. My sense of workers’ rights and collective bargaining agreements was in a non-existent or barely-primitive state.)
But, per above, the Cardinals were enduring their seventh straight mediocre season. There was a backflip on Opening Day and that about did it for excitement on the field as one would expect from the decaying remnants of Whiteyball. The Cardinals didn’t have a single batter or pitcher in the top five of any major statistical category. At the time of the work stoppage, Mark Whiten (.293/.364/.485; 118 wRC+) was leading the team with a 2.7 fWAR, and Bob Tewksbury, having possibly his worst season with the Cardinals (5.32 ERA, 4.18), was their best pitcher. Ironically, being completely uninspiring may have been an unintended genius plan by the Cardinals to keep their fans from being too upset about the strike.
There were lasting effects though, both good and bad. Well, maybe there were. You have to look really hard to find them (I’m talking squinting here), but here goes.
For one, the strike may have cost Ozzie Smith a chance at 2,500 hits. He retired with 2,460. That season he had collected 100 hits in 433 plate appearances and it’s very possible he would have scrounged up 40 more. Not that it matters. He’s still in the Hall of Fame and widely regarded as one of the more iconic players in the history of baseball. Conventional wisdom says forty more hits doesn’t move the needle on his legacy at all. Fine. But 2,500 career hits is a club that has less than 100 members, 99, in fact, and I prefer my favorite player of all time in as exclusive company as possible. Instead, Ozzie ranks only 111th on the all-time hit list. (I wasn’t kidding about the squinting.)
Second, at the time of the strike Matt Williams was having a career year. A lot of players were - it was the mid-90s after all. But Williams had 43 home runs in just 112 games and 483 plate appearances, and was a legitimate threat to break Roger Maris’s record. (After 112 games in 1961, Maris had 41 home runs in 484 plate appearances.) Ken Griffey, Jr., wasn’t far behind with 40.
Forgetting Griffey for a second, let’s say there was no strike and Williams was the first to topple Maris. Fast-forward a few years and all of a sudden the great home run chase of 1998 isn’t, I don’t know, all that great? Mark McGwire chasing Roger Maris and a 37-year old record meant something on a romantic level. Mark McGwire chasing Matt Williams and a four-year old record would have had all the charm of the 2015 Washington Nationals. Thank you, strike.
Last point, and perhaps the worst one of all, without the strike there’s a chance the 2006 Cardinals would not be the immediate go-to example for “bad team wins World Series.” At the time of the strike the Texas Rangers were leading the AL West with a 52-62 record. The two last place teams in the AL East and Central would have been winning the West. In my perfect world the Rangers finish that season 74-88, hang on to win the West, and then steamroll through the playoffs.
That’s a scene. The masses would have been livid. Being the first year of the wild card and expanded division format, there would have been numerous calls to scrap the entire system. Most important, when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 after winning only 83 regular season games, the overall feeling would have been “Well, at least they were over .500 - I guess it’s legit.” And let’s be honest, winning the World Series is nice but it’s not complete until anonymous strangers recognize its legitimacy on the internet.
As surreal as canceling the World Series was, I’d like to say I was completely shook by the strike in 1994 but I wasn’t. I just filled in the blanks with my own Cardinals season on Ken Griffey, Jr., Presents Major League Baseball for SNES, and when an agreement was finally reached in March of ‘95, I gladly returned with no bitterness (although overall attendance was down 20%). Nothing felt different or off to me, but obviously I wasn’t thinking long term.