Hello again to all of you fine folks out there who take the time to read my musings on baseball. It is going into the last month of the season and my beloved Orioles are not only in first place, but they also have the best record in the American League! Quite a pleasant surprise.
The last time Baltimore won a championship was in 1983, 40 looong years ago. I can dream, right! Took a trip to Pittsburgh over the July 4th weekend to PNC Park and checked off MLB stadium #6. It was a beautiful ballpark and lived up to the hype. This month, I am going to look back at a controversial part of baseball history and focus on the players’ strike and steroid era between 1994-2004. There is a lot to go into here, so this might be a two-part article.
Remember when we had 3 channels, and you watched an hour show only to find out it was continued until the following week?
In 1994, MLB players went on strike in protest of a proposed salary cap that was to be implemented the following year. There had been a long history of animosity between the owners and players when it came to compensation, mainly due to the reserve clause. This rule gave the team the first chance at retaining a player for whatever they decided was fair pay. The player had no say on what team he could play for and could only switch cities if his owner decided to allow negotiations with another club. The owners took full advantage and paid the players as little as possible. An all-star named Curt Flood refused to suit up for the St Louis Cardinals and only had one choice. He had to either play for the team that held his rights or sit out. Flood took MLB to court over a player’s right to offer his services to the highest bidder. It took two years to reach the Supreme Court and they ruled in favor of Flood, opening the door to free agency. It was too late for Curt though as he was essentially made a martyr and never played in the MLB again. The owners now had to compete salary-wise with other franchises to keep their stars and that drove the contracts much higher, cutting into profits. Business folks don’t generally like to pay any more than they have to with a few exceptions, and they never got over it.
In 1994, the players were not about to agree to anything capping their earnings potential and the owners contended that the amount of money the players were getting would put some teams out of business. The season was shut down in August, right in the middle of it and continued until the World Series was cancelled. It lasted until the following March. The owners were entrenched and were willing to play the next season with “replacement players” who did not belong to the union. The baseball fans were enraged by rich players and even richer owners taking their sport away. The impasse finally was somewhat resolved in April 1995 and MLB started a shortened 144 game season in May.
Baseball fans (including this one) were very unhappy. When the season finally started, the few fans that showed up were ready to show their displeasure with the whole sordid affair. They booed and threw objects at the players on the field and hung banners around the stadiums referring to how greedy both sides were. In New York, three men wearing t-shirts with GREED printed on them rushed the batter’s box and tossed $160 in one-dollar bills at the players’ feet.
There is no other sport that treats its hallowed records with more reverence than MLB. The strike put a halt to the pursuit of a mark that was thought to be untouchable. Lou Gehrig was one of the 10-15 greatest players of all time, and he played in an inconceivable 2130 consecutive games. That is almost 14 seasons without missing a single contest. Gehrig played through injuries that would have put most men on the bench. Even though he was one of the best players ever, he thought if he didn’t play every day, someone would take his place. Wally Pipp was the Yankee 1st basemen in Gehrig’s rookie year and had a migraine headache and told the manager that he couldn’t play that day. Lou made the start and Wally Pipp never played 1st base again for the Yankees. The streak only ended when Gehrig was stricken with the disease that would bear his name, ALS. As it progressed, Lou couldn’t figure out why his skills were diminishing. Being a very team-oriented person, he went and told the manager that he was harming the Yankee’s chances and needed to see the doctor. Someone else would have to play 1st base that day. The streak ended and he got the terrible diagnosis soon after. How many games would have been added to the record if he didn’t get sick? He was only 36 years old.
Cal Ripken Jr. was called on in his rookie year of 1982 to take over at shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles. He did not miss a game until September of 1998. Ripken was not a top 10 all-time player like Gehrig, but he was a superstar in his era, leading the Orioles to a World Series title in 1983 and providing steady to outstanding production for most of his career. There were several instances when Cal was injured enough for most players to take a day off, but he wanted to play and his presence in the lineup even injured was better than most big leaguers. Gehrig had pulled himself from games on some occasions after an inning or two that kept the streak alive, but Ripken competed in an astounding 8264 consecutive innings! Divide it by nine and you will get your answer.
On the night of his 2131st consecutive game, he hit a home run and when the game became official after the completion of the 5th inning, the crowd in attendance went berserk. They kept cheering even after Ripken answered two curtain calls. Eventually, he circled the entire field, high fiving everyone that he could. 20 minutes later, the game resumed. The streak ended at a mind-boggling 2632 games when Cal told the manager on the last day of the season that he was sitting out and ending the streak. This event in 1995 after all the animosity due to the strike helped baseball fans and the media fall in love with the game again. A few years later, an epic home run chase between two suspiciously muscular sluggers would be the talk of the sports world. Please join me next month as I investigate the era of performance-enhancing drugs that forever changed the sport. I leave you this month with a quote from the great Tommy Lasorda: “There are three types of baseball players: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happened.”