1994: What could have been


Say whatever you want about the 1994 baseball season. Seriously: Anything at all. You won't be wrong.

Twenty years ago, baseball played a season that wasn't. Or a season that kind of was. There were at least 112 games per team -- some played a few more -- but no resolution. There were MVPs and Cy Young Awards, but no World Series winner.

Labor issues stopped the game on Aug. 12 and the season was forsaken entirely on Sept. 14. It was the baseball equivalent of an abandoned manuscript found in Salinger's basement, and it doesn't take much imagination to turn the game's roughest first draft into a fairy tale: Tony Gwynn would have become the first player since Ted Williams to hit .400; Matt Williams would have broken Roger Maris' single-season home run record; the Expos would have won the World Series and the team would still be in Montreal, playing in a state-of-the-art downtown ballpark.

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An enduring image of the man: Tony Gwynn sitting at his locker before and after games, talking about hitting while holding a bat in his hands. He adjusts his grip constantly, with nervous energy, as if he expects a fastball to come through the clubhouse at any moment and wants to be ready when it does.

Gwynn was healthy in 1994, a 34-year-old hitting savant free of the knee problems that chased him into his early 30s. He told anyone who would listen that he thought he was entering the sweet spot in his career, when the mental and physical sync up to allow his body to fully exploit his vast store of knowledge.

"He'd walk around the clubhouse in spring training saying, 'I feel good. I feel good,'" says Padres teammate Bip Roberts. "Everything he hit jumped off his bat. That's when guys started talking about it in the clubhouse and on the bench: He just might hit .400. I'm telling you, we saw it early."

It took a jeweler's eye to discern the difference between Gwynn at his spectacular best and Gwynn at his normal best. He hit .358 in 1993 and .368 in 1995, so it wasn't as if '94 was a wild outlier. Still, there was something different about the way the ball left his bat and found untended outfield ground. It was the year Gwynn went from a master to a sorcerer. That difference, molecular but noticeable, was the reason it seemed possible, from the first day of spring training, that he could be the first to hit .400 since Williams in 1941.

"Everything he hit was a bullet," Roberts says. "A slider to his back foot? He'd find a way to get a hit off that. The best lefties, the best righties, relievers -- didn't matter. He was 34 and he felt good physically. If you feel really good and healthy at 34, you're a better hitter than you are at 21. I think he could tell it was different, too. He was so motivated. His energy level was so high from spring training on."

Matt Williams hit two home runs on Opening Day against Zane Smith of the Pirates. He figured he just got lucky, swung where the ball was pitched, ran into a couple, guessed right. Something like that.

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