Nineteen years ago this month, Baseball stopped. For what reason is still debated to this day, but in August of 1994, the players went out on strike. I had gone to Chicago to watch a Cubs game the day before. I remember Mark Grace saying the player’s going on strike was “a matter of principal.”
Of course, it wasn’t. It was an attempt to keep the Players Union’s winning streak going. It didn’t. The public had no sympathy for players making millions playing a game. It also backfired on the owners because the strike cancelled the World Series and went into the 1995 season with “replacement” players. A federal judge put a halt to the charade, effectively ending the war between the players and owners which had been going on since the late 1960’s. The judge’s name: Sonia Sotomayor, who some 16 years later, would become the first woman of Latino heritage to sit on the Supreme Court.
What changed in the aftermath of that strike/lockout? Nearly 20 years of labor “peace” and now, a distorted view of the game, it’s players and the so-called “Lords of the Realm.” The owners, fed up with Fay Vincent actually acting like a commissioner, (how dare he?) decided to stage a coup-de-tat and replace him with one of their own. Which was against the rules, but screw the rules. The man’s name was Bud Selig.
At the time, he was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, who had started out as the Seattle Pilots in 1969. How Bud came to own the Pilots in 1970 is still a bit murky, but by 1994, he was feeling the pinch of baseball’s out-of-whack economic system. Milwaukee had won a pennant in 1982, by ’94 baseball’s inequality was making it increasingly difficult for “small-market” owners like Bud to compete with teams like the Cubs, Braves, Yankees and Mets, each of whom had huge revenue streams through “superstations” like WGN, TBS and WPIX.
In 1994 “Used car Bud” was brought in as “acting” commissioner. As early as September of 1994, the players were ready to go back and complete the season. Bud said no. Then there was talk of a Montreal-New York World Series. Bud said no. Then, over the winter, it became apparent that the owners wanted to break the Union altogether, Bud ordered the teams to stock their teams with replacement players, the fix was in and the joke was on baseball. Sparky Anderson’s refusal to manage replacement players was the last straw for the owners, the strike then turned into a lockout and the players went to court to put an end to the nonsense.
Baseball came back, but not the fans. Attendance dropped off 40% from previous years in 1995 and the subsequent years didn’t show much improvement. Then came 1998, when Sammy Sosa, who was traded to the White Sox by a dry drunk Texas Rangers owner who later stole two elections and took us into two unnecessary wars (Gee, I wonder who Kent could be referring to?), and an already well-known slugger named Mark McGuire proceeded to bring in the asterisk era in baseball.
Sosa, who had never hit more than 40 home runs in his previous eight seasons, hit 66 in 1998, besting Roger Maris’s 61* by five home runs. It set the National League record, or would have had it not been for McGuire. McGuire was a known commodity when he was traded by Oakland to St. Louis in 1997, smashed 70. In 2001, a mere three seasons later, Barry Bonds hit 73.
In the 15 seasons since 1998, the record book has been altered to the point where in might never be able to look right again. 500 Home Runs used to mean automatic entry into Cooperstown. Not anymore. Ask Rafael Palmeiro. Break the all-time home run record? Sorry, Barry. Hit over 600 home runs, play on the most famous team in American sports? I highly doubt Alex Rodriguez will ever see the Hall, unless he buys a ticket.
And yes, the players who juiced and got caught and those who didn’t and either lied to Congress, “60 Minutes” and ESPN about it are most culpable, but the owners and the Commissioner who turned a (not so) blind eye to the fraudulent era are equally at fault, if not more so. Which brings us, in a most roundabout, zig-zag through every accusation, denial, investigation, conspiracy theories and indignation, to Monday and what baseball hopes will close the book on the “Steroid Era.” Or at least Bud does. In truth, I doubt it.
To the other extent, this is also about the biggest jerk going. Rodriguez’s claim that he is “fighting for his life,” is an insult to all those who ARE fighting for their lives. The kid with leukemia or someone with lymphoma or about to lose their house, for example? The mind reels from his selfish, obtuse, obsessed-with-himself attitude.
This is, in truth, about an old man on the verge of retirement who wants to set things straight. The 1994 coup-de-tat and the unnecessary strike which, to this day still haunts him. Fay Vincent stood up for “the good of the game,” Bud just saw a chance to break the union. Then, in order to restore baseball’s “greatness” he allowed McGuire, Sosa and Bonds (and others) to break records which were tainted and most fans don’t accept. The discomfort shown on Selig’s face as Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record is telling and tragic.
Rodriguez will lose his appeal. Quite possibly most of the 12 others will never play again. The game will survive. Bud will retire at the end of next season. As much as the press wants to make this about Rodriguez, Perralta and Cruz, it really is about a tainted legacy and an old man’s futile attempt to flush it down the toilet. He can’t.