The saddest play in Rockies’ history took place twenty years ago today, and it might not have happened. It was a 13-0 loss against the Atlanta Braves—a game in which Greg Maddux tossed a Maddux, as he shut the Rockies out on 94 pitches. It was also a game in which the Rockies made four errors in front of 65,000 fans at Mile High Stadium. These facts suggest an emotional admixture of acceptance of Maddux’s greatness and slight embarrassment at baseball ineptitude. Despite the four errors, only one of the 13 runs scored against the Rockies was unearned. In any case, these things shouldn’t really elicit sadness.
The melancholy is situated in the context of the 1994 work stoppage. August 11 was the final game before the strike commenced, and the play that either did or did not take place that I sadly remember occurred in the ninth inning. Eric Young was up to bat with two outs (according to Baseball Reference, Eric Young led off the inning). Young put the ball in play, and first baseman Ryan Klesko ended up with the ball. The play-by-play indicates that he grounded out five to three, but that doesn’t jive with what I remember. I recall a confrontation on the base-path between home and first base. Klesko had the ball in his glove, but he was a bit too far from the bag to simply step on it for the out, so he decided to settle for the tag. Naturally, he waited for Young to come to him because he had nowhere else to go. On his way to first base, however, Young decided to stop. That moment when Young halted his progress to first base was filled with the sadness of an inevitable end. Young saw the conclusion of the game and the shortened season along with it. Then, in defiance of the momentum of baseball, he started going back to home plate. He didn’t turn around and run headlong back to home, as one would do while in a pickle between first and second. No, turning around would have been too awkward given the confines of the diamond. Instead, he trotted backward—balancing his severe challenge to the logic of baseball with a semblance of performing within its parameters. He was trying to escape the inescapable. I also remember Klesko hesitating. He knew what Young was doing, and Klesko didn’t want it to end, either. He loped after Young, reluctantly, and tagged him out, thus ending the Rockies’s and the Braves’ 1994 season in August (according to Baseball Reference, Dante Bichette ended the game after grounding out five to three).
Of course, the season would not be officially cancelled until September 14, but that play, whether it took place how I remember it or not, has always stuck with me as the pinnacle of baseball sadness. It simultaneously signaled the end of the season and the irrational desire to keep it going. At the time, I didn’t understand the complexities of labor disputes. I remember watching SportsCenter and wondering what “arbitration” meant. I also recall as a child blithely crossing a picket line while workers at the grocery store King Soopers were on strike, which is something I would never do today. The only thing I cared about in 1994, though, was whether or not there would be baseball. Now, I can recognize the work stoppage as a necessity. Given the revenue sharing among teams and autonomy that the union earned for players, I am able to acknowledge that the strike came with long-term, though flawed, benefits. The discontent fans expressed shortly thereafter has also probably contributed to the labor peace that has existed since then. If the massive disruption has in any way led to the prevention of many small ones since by lubricating the negotiation process, then the 1994 disaster has had a resonating purpose.
My counterfactual memory fits in nicely with the legacy of the strike. Baseball’s absence after August 11 and the cancellation of the World Series has fueled speculation about what might have been. The Rockies ended the day 53-64, so the hope was only that the team stave off finishing in last place for each of their first two seasons. It was different for other teams, especially the Montreal Expos. After August 11, the Expos had a record of 74-40. It was, by all accounts, the best team that Montreal had ever fielded. They were certainly the best team in the National League at the time, as the Expos had the best record in the NL by a margin of six games. The New York Yankees were the only other team in baseball with a winning percentage above .600, but even their 70-43 record fell a few games short of the Expos’ mark.
Jonah Keri’s recent book about the Expos (which I reviewed here) has a chapter dedicated to the 1994 team. What is most striking about the team is the palpable confidence the players and their manager Felipe Alou had. Many teams have finished the regular season with spectacular records, but not all of them have won the World Series. The Expos’ combination of talent, youth, and poise might have made the difference between the 2009 Yankees (103 regular season wins and a World Series title) and the 2001 Seattle Mariners (116 wins and a loss in the National League Championship Series). Or, bad luck and one or two uncharacteristically poor performances could have led to either playoff disappointment or elation for the Expos. Keri reports that former Expos play-by-play man Dave Van Horne still carries a list of all players on the Expos 1994 25 man roster in his wallet. It serves as a “reminder of a dream destroyed” (p. 312). In some way, however, the strike was a mixed blessing for the Expos. I am confident that the team and its fans would have liked to have discovered postseason failure or success first hand. However, the strike determined that nothing can take away the memory of possibility from 1994, and it’s a memory built on what did not happen. This is different from the remembrance of possibility that the 2001 Mariners have—they know what happened.
When looking up the play-by-play for the final game of the Rockies’ 1994 season for this piece, I was surprised to discover that Eric Young made the final out rather than the first. I also didn’t expect to see that his groundout went from third to first base. How did Ryan Klesko end up in the middle of the base paths to confront Eric Young? Was he pulled off of the bag toward the plate? If so, how did the ball get to first base so much quicker than the speedy Eric Young to set up the confrontation in between home and first base? I can’t find any video to either corroborate or challenge my memory. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. For twenty years that play embodied the saddest play in Rockies’ history because it unnaturally augured the end of the season in early August. It will continue to whether or not it took place the way I remember it. It’s perfect.