It should come as little surprise that we’ve spent much of this awkward, disappointing baseball summer talking about what happened 20 years ago.
Like a warm security blanket, the 1995 Tribe has become the franchise’s (and, honestly, fans’) go-to in times of stress and worry. Consequently, an onslaught of recognitions and tributes online and at the ballpark have rained upon us like locusts the past few months.
All of which is understood and, to be fair, well-deserved. The 1995 season was a biblical epic, a once-in-a-generation experience that simply blows away all subsequent seasons – and most that came before. We both want and need to remember.
But now that the commemorative t-shirts have been washed a couple of times, it’s time to ponder another Tribe anniversary.
It was 21 years ago this week that Major League Baseball hit control-alt-delete on the 1994 season and shut itself down amid arguably the most bitter labor dispute in the history of sports.
This is one of the rare occasions in which a universal sports tragedy is less painful in Cleveland than everywhere else. For Tribe fans, what was lost in 1994 is little more than a prologue to what came next and often drowned out by the penitent hallelujahs to 1995.
But for just a moment, let’s consider what might have been for the Indians and tackle the question that’s now old enough to buy itself a drink: were it not for the strike, would the 1994 team have been the one to break the Indians’ four-decade postseason drought rather than their 1995 successors?
Again, generally forgotten (almost certainly deliberately to avoid irritating old wounds) is how wonderful the 1994 season had been up to August 12. From the opening of brand-new Jacobs Field to the exciting young roster loaded with homegrown talent to the arrival of veterans Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray, it was perhaps the most anticipated season in team history.
After a ho-hum first six weeks, things really started cooking. A 10-game winning streak in June propelled the Indians to a five-game lead in the just-created American League Central Division, and they spent the next two months jousting with the Chicago White Sox in a deliciously tight race.
They were on pace to post the franchise’s best record in 39 years and had stood atop the division for 63 days. And best of all, they were drawing more than 39,000 fans to Jacobs Field each night. Adding more flavor to the marinade, this season marked the introduction of the “wild-card” playoff spot, so Indians fans – who hadn’t experienced a single pennant race in 35 years – now found themselves embroiled in two at once.
When the curtain dropped on August 12, the Tribe stood at 66-47, a single game back of Chicago in the division, but two-and-a-half up on Baltimore and three up on Kansas City for the wild card.
The Indians had 49 games left to play over the next 52 days. And for 21 years, we’ve wondered…what would have happened next?
STATE OF THE TRIBE
Let’s start by examining what kind of shape the Indians were in at the time of the strike.
Since their 10-game winning streak in June – which had coincided with a downright ridiculous 18 straight wins at Jacobs Field – the Indians had essentially played .500 baseball, posting a record of 25-22. Their comfortable lead had evaporated, and it was unclear whether they were capable of finding that gear again.
On the other hand, they’d showed mettle with the pressure on. They held their own in two key series with Chicago, splitting each four-game set on consecutive weekends in July, then took three of four from fellow wild-card contender Baltimore at Camden Yards.
As we well remember, this was a team built on offense, and the Tribe’s sluggers showed no sign of tailing off. The Indians led the league in hits, runs, batting average, doubles, home runs, and slugging percentage. They were averaging better than six runs per game and had posted their best team batting average since 1936.
Albert Belle – who’d just finished a six-game suspension for corking his bat – was hitting .357 with 36 homers and 101 RBI (and was on pace for an incredible 52-homer, 145-RBI season). Kenny Lofton was at a career-best .349, Carlos Baerga at .314. The rest of the cast was essentially the same as it would be in 1995, and its capabilities are well remembered. No question this was a championship-caliber offense.
The mystery lies in how the Tribe’s pitching would have held up. The lynchpin would have been a wobbly starting rotation, which, keep in mind, had not yet welcomed Orel Hershiser into the fold.
Middle of the pack statistically in 1994, the Indians’ pitching staff was about to run a gauntlet. Mark Clark, who led the staff with an 11-3 record, was hit by a line drive three weeks before the strike and broke his wrist. It turned out to be not as bad as initially thought, and the Indians seemed optimistic that Clark would have been able to return to the rotation in September.
Then, just three days before the strike, the Indians released Jack Morris, who’d been brought in with Martinez to provide veteran stability to a young and unstable rotation. Rumors flew that the Indians got tired of Morris leaving the team between starts to oversee the wheat harvest on his Montana farm. The Indians denied that was a factor, though the timing seemed odd to release him for any other reason, especially entering a stretch drive with another starter out (and considering John Hart didn’t pull the trigger and deal for Danny Jackson or Bob Tewksbury at the trading deadline).
On the other hand, Morris’ numbers hadn’t been great in what turned out to be his final season: a 10-6 record, but with a 5.60 ERA, and he’d been at 8.67 over his last five starts.
More by desperation than design, the Indians were about to thrust a pair of unproven youngsters from triple-A Charlotte into the spotlight: 23-year-old Chad Ogea and 22-year-old Albie Lopez. Ogea we remember almost exclusively for his heroics in the 1997 World Series, when he turned in a would-have-been-MVP performance. Take away that week and he was strictly serviceable in five seasons with the Tribe: 31-23 with a 4.61 ERA (although it’s worth noting that Ogea did post an 8-3 mark with a 3.05 ERA in 20 appearances in 1995). Lopez was another prospect who occasionally showed potential but never quite panned out: 12-14 in five Indians seasons with a 5.99 ERA.
So going into the final seven weeks of the season, the Tribe’s starting rotation would have been:
Dennis Martinez (11-6, 3.52 ERA)
Chad Ogea (0-1, 6.06 ERA)
Charles Nagy (10-8, 3.45 ERA)
Albie Lopez (1-2, 4.24 ERA)
Jason Grimsley (5-2, 4.57 ERA)
Martinez and Nagy had been strong all season and Grimsley (all but forgotten were it not for his Mission: Impossible routine with Belle’s aforementioned corked bat) had joined the rotation in June and been decent – which was all that was really required with an offense as potent as that of the ’94 Tribe.
So the primary question boils down to whether or not Ogea and/or Lopez could have stepped up down the stretch. Assuming Clark would indeed have been ready to go for the final month, only one of the two young pitchers would have been needed for the final leg of the pennant race. But could they have helped keep the Tribe in it until then? Or if not, as a last resort, could Julian Tavarez (at the time, still considered a starter), Alan Embree, or Dave Mlicki have been called up and plugged their thumb in the dike?
The other weak link was the Indians’ bullpen. Keep in mind this was a work in progress, not yet the well-oiled machine anchored by Jose Mesa redefining himself as the team’s closer in 1995. In fact, in 1994, they didn’t have a true closer. They’d only collected 21 saves to this point, led by Jeff Russell (ERA of 4.97) and rookie Paul Shuey (ERA 8.49) with just five apiece.
’95 stalwarts Paul Assenmacher and Jim Poole had yet to be acquired and Tavarez was still working his way up through triple-A. The key cogs in ’94 were Mesa and Eric Plunk. Mesa led the ‘pen in appearances with a solid 3.82 ERA and seven wins, and Plunk was even better, going 7-2 with a 2.54 ERA. Rounding out the group were Steve Farr (5.28 ERA) and the only lefty in the group, Derek Lilliquist (4.91).
If Ogea and Lopez were question marks, the bullpen was an ellipses. In a tight pennant race with close games every night, it’s difficult to imagine a bullpen with this many holes coming through consistently.
And yet, it had been an issue all season, and the Tribe was still in the thick of it.
Ever since Major League II had come out the weekend before the season began, Indians fans had been prepared to adopt the Chicago White Sox as the team’s new rival. And indeed, they were a worthy one, having won the AL West the previous year.
There was no drop off in ’94. Led by triple-crown contender Frank Thomas, the White Sox boasted a dangerous offense, albeit not quite as loaded as the Tribe’s.
What separated Chicago from the pack was its pitching staff, which had allowed the fewest runs and hits in the American League. Four Chicago starters had 10 victories and ERAs under four, led by Jack McDowell and Alex Fernandez, who had combined to go 10-1 with a 2.12 ERA in July. The White Sox also had a strong bullpen, one that included closer Roberto Hernandez, who would save more than 300 games in his career.
Though the Indians wouldn’t play Chicago again in 1994, the White Sox were tailor-made for a pennant race and held a 7-5 edge over the Indians in their season series.
Baltimore was another team that had the pitching to excel in a stretch drive. Mike Mussina (16-5, 3.06 ERA) was beginning to emerge as one of the AL’s top pitchers, while Ben McDonald (14-7, 4.06) was enjoying the finest season of his career. Lee Smith, baseball’s all-time saves leader, anchored a solid bullpen and had already saved 33 games.
The Royals had been wallowing around the .500 mark before ripping off a 14-game winning streak just before the strike to pull back into both the division and wild-card races. And they’d proven to be a thorn in the Indians’ side, beating them in four of their five meetings.
Just like the Tribe’s other nemeses, KC was built on pitching. David Cone, in his final season in royal blue, was the centerpiece and had been dominant (16-5, 2.94 ERA). The rest of the staff was solid, but not special, while the offense boasted little firepower. Of the quartet of contenders, Kansas City seems the most likely to have faded.
So the stage was set: three teams with strong pitching staffs going against the league’s best offense.
Here is where things looked really promising for the Tribe.
Of the Indians’ 49 remaining games, 30 would have been played at Jacobs Field, where the Tribe was 35-16 in 1994. Even better, 25 of the 49 would have been against teams at least 10 games out of both the division and wild-card races at the time of the strike. (By comparison, the Orioles would have played 23 games against teams out of contention, the White Sox 20, and the Royals just nine.)
There were 15 series to go, all against opponents the Indians had already faced on at least two separate occasions earlier in the season. The Indians had a winning record in 1994 against their opponents in 13 of the 15 series and held an overall winning percentage of .610 against their remaining opponents.
There were six games against Oakland, against whom the Indians were 6-0 that year, and seven against the California Angels, whom the Indians had beaten all five times they’d played. Plus, there would be three games each with Boston (7-3) and Detroit (8-2).
The only worrisome aspect about the remaining schedule were four games against the New York Yankees, who’d defeated the Indians all nine times they’d played in 1994. And adding an unexpected challenge – particularly with the Indians’ precarious pitching situation – in those last seven weeks, the Indians would have to play four makeup games.
Aside from the New York series – which would be during the final week of the season and had the potential to torpedo the Tribe’s playoff chances – the key moments would have been a pair of series with the Royals: August 30-September 1 in Cleveland, then a four-game set in Kansas City starting on Labor Day.
Everything would have wrapped up at Jacobs Field the first weekend of October, when Baltimore came to town for what may have been a three-game showdown for the wild-card spot.
Even all these years later, it’s impossible to imagine what that final weekend would have been like and not feel cheated.
There are far too many variables to try to nail down a truly mathematically sound prediction for how many games the 1994 Indians would have won.
The most logical approach would be to base it on the established trends of the season. If they held true to their ’94 winning percentage against their remaining opponents – weighting the percentages appropriately for how many times they’d play each team – the end result would be 31 wins over the final seven weeks, giving the Indians a total of 97.
Do the same for the other contenders and you wind up with:
White Sox 94-68
Now, that’s leaning a bit generously toward the Indians since you mathematically assume they’re going to win all 13 games they were to play against Oakland and California. But it also assumes they’d lose all four to the Yankees and at least five of their seven against Kansas City. Overall, it forecasts a 15-9 record in this batch of games – roughly half of the remaining schedule – which is a reasonable prediction.
Bottom line, it would have been a tight race. One that likely would have come down to that October weekend, when, fittingly, the Indians and Orioles would face one another in Cleveland while the White Sox and Royals toiled in Kansas City.
However it turned out, the strike denied Tribe fans from what would undoubtedly have been a marvelous pennant race – something they really never got to enjoy during the glory years of the late 1990s.
And how the Indians would have potentially fared in the postseason is an entirely different cocktail of incalculable what-ifs.
Had the Indians qualified for the playoffs in 1994, it’s possible they could have made some noise and provided, to borrow Tom Hamilton’s phrase, an “October to remember.” But it’s difficult to imagine them surviving a series with the Yankees, who had simply owned the Tribe that year – and would continue to have their number throughout the remainder of the decade.
Of course, the Indians did upset the Yankees in the 1997 Division Series, so anything was possible.
But because of the strike that began 21 years ago this week – and still has us asking unanswerable questions – nothing was.