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25 years ago, Royals fans were cheated out of a pennant race

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The Royals were playing their best baseball and then...baseball stopped.

Mariners v A’s Photo by Otto Greule/Getty Images

On Wednesday, August 10, 1994, Gary DiSarcina rapped a single off Rusty Meachem with the bases loaded to score Tim Salmon and win the game 2-1 for the Angels. It was a frustrating loss for the Royals, who had a baserunning blunder earlier in the game that cost them a chance for a big inning, and wasted a brilliant start from Tom Gordon. The Royals had been playing terrific baseball though, and they were scheduled to return home from their West Coast swing to host the Texas Rangers that Friday.

But when Friday came along, all the stadiums in baseball were empty. There would be no pennant race that weekend. The players had gone on strike.

MLB management and the union had forever been feuding, but the tensions rose as baseball became a much more lucrative sport with the rise of television revenues in the 1970s. The first ever player strike occured in 1972, costing two weeks of the season. The owners locked the players out in 1973 and 1976, and the players went on strike again in 1980 and 1981, the latter work stoppage costing two months of the season and causing a bizarre split-season.

A short strike in 1985 lasted just two days, and the owners again briefly locked players out in 1990, pushing the start of the season back a week. Owners had growing concerns about the rising costs of player salaries, and players were concerned that owners were manipulating the market to prevent them from getting their fair share, a concern that was validated by an arbitrator who ruled that owners had colluded against free agents in three consecutive off-seasons, in violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The 1994 season was the last year of the labor deal between players and owners, with owners looking to make changes. Having ousted former Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992 for being too sympathetic to the players, owners were represented at the negotiating table by lawyer Richard Ravitch, with Brewers owner Bud Selig and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf being the most aggressive hardliners to reform the economics of baseball. MLBPA chief Donald Fehr, who grew up in Prairie Village in the Kansas City area and earned his law degree from UMKC, would represent the players.

That spring, owners unveiled a new proposal that would guarantee $1 billion to players, eliminate salary arbitration, and allow restricted free agency after just four years of service time. But the plan would also reduce the players’ share of overall revenues from 56 percent to a 50/50 split, would require pensions and benefits to come out of the players’ half of those revenues, and most importantly of all, impose a hard salary cap to be phased in over four years.

The owners tied the salary cap to a new revenue-sharing system, due to concerns from smaller market clubs like the Royals that the bigger market teams were spending them out of competition. While the hard cap was proposed as a way to level the playing field, Fehr and others argued it was meant to drag down player salries.

In July, Fehr rejected the proposal and countered with a proposal that included a luxury tax. He also threatened that if there weren’t serious negotiations between the two sides, the players would go on strike in the middle of the season. That summer, owners withheld a payment to the player pension and benefit fund, only escalating tensions. The MLBPA set a strike date. If no deal was reached, the players would walk off the job after games were completed on August 11.

The Royals had entered the 1994 season hoping to win one more championship for Muriel Kauffman, the owner of the club and wife of founder Ewing Kauffman, who had passed away the prior fall. The club could boast two of the best pitchers in baseball in David Cone and Kevin Appier, as well as some decent arms in Tom Gordon and All-Star closer Jeff Montgomery. They had a slick defense with Wally Joyner, Chico Lind, Greg Gagne, and Gary Gaetti around the infield, and some speedsters in the oufield in Vince Coleman and Brian McRae. However the offense was pretty light, despite some pop from right fielder Felix Jose, catcher Mike MacFarlane, and the emergence of 26-year old rookie slugger Bob Hamelin.

The season began with a great big thud, with the Royals dropping five of their first six games, including a 22-11 drubbing at the hands of the Boston Red Sox. The team battled back to .500, where they spent most of the summer. Baseball had realigned divisions that year, with the Royals assigned to a new “Central Division” with last year’s American League West champs, the Chicago White Sox, a rising franchise loaded with stars in the Cleveland Indians, as well as the struggling Milwaukee Brewers and rebuilding Minnesota Twins. The White Sox and Indians were two of the best teams in the league, and they battled for first while the Royals watched from a distant third place.

The tensions were getting to manager Hal McRae, who had been lampooned nationally the previous season for a ridiculous post-game tirade against reporters. After fans booed him in a July game for a pitching change, McRae lashed out in post-game comments, saying “It’s ridiculous....If they are booing the strategy, they are the dumbest fans in the world....It’s wrong for me to say, and it ain’t going to help me, but I’m going to say it anyway. They can ride me out of this town and I’ll go out smiling.”

On July 22, the Royals were 50-47 with rumors that McRae could soon be fired. The Royals were 8 1⁄2 games out of first place, and 7 12 games out of the new “Wild Card” playoff spot that had been implemented that year. Pitcher Tom Gordon summed up the feeling, saying “what’s it going to take for us to get going?...I hear other teams talk about what it’s like to play on a contender. Well, I don’t know what it’s like. I’ve been here six years and we haven’t been close.”

The Royals beat the Tigers 4-1 the next day, then won 6-4 after that. Bob Hamelin hit a walk-off three-run home run against the White Sox to make it a three-game winning streak. Gordon went out and beat the first place Sox to make it four in a row. A Robin Ventura error led to a three-run eighth for the Royals in another win. David Cone completed the sweep with his 15th win, knocking the Sox out of first place.

But looming over everything was the work stoppage. With questions over whether there would even be a post-season, teams were reluctant to make any trades at the July 31 deadline. The Cubs reportedly nearly dealt away closer Randy Myers to the first place Yankees for a young infield prospect named Derek Jeter, but there was no guarantee Myers would be needed in October, so the Yankees nixed the deal. Additionally, teams were very hesitant to call anyone up from the minors, since players brought up would be part of the union and would have to go on strike if the players walked, while minor leaguers would continue their seasons.

Nontheless, the season continued even with the uncertainty and the Royals just kept on winning. They swept the Twins, then the Athletics, extending the winning streak to 13. Something was happening.

“It’s believing. When we get behind now, we talk about getting baserunners, not base hits. The chant in the dugout is, ‘We need baserunners.’ We’re pumped up. We’re executing. We’re pitching. We’re getting the clutch hits. The guys believe in executing and playing winning baseball.”

-Hal McRae

The Royals were supposed to head to Seattle next, but some tiles in the Kingdome roof fell, requiring the Mariners to move all their games to the road for a 30-game road trip. With the game moved to Kansas City, 25,000 fans walked up and bought tickets to watch the Royals blank the Mariners 8-0 to extend the winning streak to 14 and bringing them to just one game back of the first place Indians. It was the second-longest winning streak in franchise history.

The Royals finally fell to the Mariners the next night to snap the winning streak, then dropped the next two to tie for their longest losing streak of the season. After their walk-off loss to the Angels at the hands of Gary DiSarcina, they were 64-51, four games back of the first place White Sox, and three games back of the Indians for the Wild Card (had they been in the Western Division, the Royals would have had an 11.5 game lead - all the teams had a losing record).

The strike date was looming, but no one knew exactly what to do at that point. Rather than stay at his home in southern California following the Angels game, pitcher Mark Gubicza went ahead to Kansas City, ready to make his start that Friday. Some players and coaches were hopeful a last-minute deal could be struck. “I don’t think there’s going to be a strike, to be honest about it,” said skipper Hal McRae. But others were more pessimistic. “I think the season’s over” said Reds pitcher Jose Rijo.

Rijo would be right. Federal mediators were unable to bridge the divide, and with negotiations at a standstill, then-acting commissioner Bud Selig announced on September 14 that the remainder of the season, including the post-season, would be cancelled. It was the first time since 1904 there would be no World Series.

That December, owners unilaterally imposed their proposal with the new salary cap (which 21 teams were over) and restricted free agency rules which created an odd situation where teams bid on free agents despite uncertainty on what the new rules would be and when games would resume. The Royals hadn’t anticipated players like Brian McRae and Kevin Appier being eligible for free agency, but under the new rules, the Cubs were able to offer McRae a three year, $9 million deal and the Red Sox made overtures to Appier.

In January, Congress failed to pass legislation to end the strike and owners and players ignored President Clinton’s order to resume negotiating. The owners brought in replacement players - career minor leaguers, a few MLB vets who had been out of the game for awhile - to begin spring training. It would be a mess, with the Orioles refusing to hire replacement players (owner Peter Angelos was a labor attorney, and there was concern that playing games would end Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak). The Blue Jays were prohibited by Canadian law from using replacement players, so they planned to play the 1995 season at their spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida. A few MLB managers refused to coach replacement players, including Detroit’s Sparky Anderson and Toronto’s Cito Gaston.

In February, the National Labor Relations Board found the owners had illegally implemented their proposal, including the salary cap, causing owners to withdraw the new free agency rules and cap. They later found the use of replacement players to be an unfair labor practice, and filed an injunction to return the players under the terms of the old labor deal, an order that was issued by then-U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor just before the season was to begin with replacement players. The regular MLB players returned on April 2, and a shortened-144 game schedule was arranged for play to begin on April 25.

The 1994 work stoppage came at great cost. Financially, it cost the owners an estimated $580 million, and $230 million for players, with detrimental long-term impacts that took years to recover from. On the field, it cost fans a chance to see Matt Williams chase Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61 - he had 43 when play stopped, with 50 games to go. It cost Tony Gwynn a chance to become the first player in five decades to hit .400, as the future Hall of Famer was hitting .394 when games ended. It possibly cost fans a chance to see Michael Jordan in a Major League uniform, as the basketball star had been spending the year as a player in Double-A. It cost Montreal fans a chance at their first-ever pennant, as the Expos looked like the best team in baseball for much of the summer with a team loaded with young stars like Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, and Marquis Grissom.

And in Kansas City it cost us a chance at a pennant race. After 1994, the team would never be the same. Muriel Kauffman died just before the strike ended, leaving the team in the hands of a non-profit led by a Board of Directors directed by Wal Mart CEO David Glass. The team had to cut costs to balance the budget and make the franchise attractive for a sale, so star pitcher David Cone, the reigning Cy Young winner, was quickly dealt to the Blue Jays, and centerfielder Brian McRae was dealt to the Cubs, all for minor leaguers that would never amount to much. The franchise wouldn’t have another winning season for nearly a decade, and wouldn’t reach the post-season for two decades.

The 1994 team wasn’t great by any stretch, certainly an inferior team to the White Sox and Indians on paper. But games aren’t played on paper. The Royals were in it. And we were cheated out of knowing how it would have turned out.