1995 Thanks to Cal, Hideo—& Sonia, Too

Its player strike finally settled, baseball faces a monumental task to bring back the fans—and makes solid headway with the record-breaking performance of Cal Ripken Jr., Hideo Nomo's sensational debut and the Cleveland Indians' first pennant in over 40 years.

Cal Ripken Jr. takes a victory lap in the middle of his 2,131st consecutive appearance to break Lou Gehrig’s iconic record; it was the high point in a post-strike campaign in desperate need of positive vibes.

When baseball loyalists awoke from their winter hibernation in the spring of 1995, they wondered if all they had remembered from 1994 was nothing more than a long nightmare.

It was no nightmare.

Worse, it was still happening.

While the fans were sleeping, negotiators for major league owners and players were wide awake, still trying to hammer out a new labor agreement and end the strike that killed the 1994 major league season—and now threatened the 1995 schedule. Yet zilch progress was made, even after the owners softened their stance on a salary cap in the form of a luxury tax, designed to transfer revenue from teams with the highest payroll to those with the lowest. More sobering was that both sides remained as contentious as ever. The incivility reached a low point when Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf—a militant salary cap proponent accused by some of pulling puppet strings over interim commissioner Bud Selig—compared union boss Don Fehr to Jonestown cult leader/mass murderer Jim Jones.

Not even President Clinton, opening up his Cabinet and pulling out Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to get hands-on in the negotiations, could get either side to budge.

As Florida and Arizona began warming up for spring training, the owners—having declared an impasse and unilaterally imposing their own conditions, salary cap and all—were determined to get the 1995 season in with or without the striking players. So they called in the replacements—or, as defined by unionspeak, the scabs.

Made up of minor leaguers, amateurs and aging former big leaguersAmong those attempting a comeback amid the younger replacements were Oil Can Boyd, Guillermo Hernandez and 48-year-old Pedro Borbon., the replacements received $628 a day and generated reaction from curiosity to scorn from the very few who showed up to spring training games. The landscape of an upcoming replacement regular season was peppered with landmines. Baltimore owner Peter Angelos refused to use replacements, insisting that no game involving his Orioles would go on without a striking Cal Ripken Jr.—closing in on Lou Gehrig’s mark for consecutive games played. Sparky Anderson, a player’s manager, refused to lead Detroit replacement players and was obliged with a leave of absence by Tiger management. And Dunedin, Florida readied to be the regular season home of the imitation Toronto Blue Jays, as Ontario law forbid strikebreakers from being used within its borders. The Jays’ replacement ballpark, with 45,000 less seats than Skydome, was not considered a threat to sell out.

Since 1969, when the first weeks of spring training were interrupted with a partial player strike over pension amounts, baseball has endured through nine work stoppages—the most recent of which was its most crippling, wiping out parts of two seasons and the 1994 postseason.

With prospects for a 1995 season with the “real” players looking bleak, no progress being made at the bargaining table and the two sides sniping at each other as intensely as ever, the madness made of male baseball millionaires and multi-millionaires over eight months would finally be brought to its knees…by a woman.

On March 31, in response to a National Labor Relations Board charge of unfair labor practices by the owners, U.S. District Judge (and future Supreme Court justice) Sonia Sotomayor heard both sides speak their mind. Then she spoke hers: Return to the old bargaining agreement until a new one could be reached. Unlike all previous third party interests involved with the strike—from fans to mediators to the President—Sotomayor’s edict carried legal weight. Elated, the players agreed to return to work, while the owners—stripped of their ace card—now threatened a lockout. But faced with millions of dollars in potential fines if they defied Sotomayor's orderThe owners filed an appeal to Sotomayor’s ruling, but the U.S. Court of Appeals told them, in effect, to get lost. and let the replacements play on—something resembling the New York Mets and Florida Marlins were in uniform and hours away from playing the replacement season opener in Miami—they had no choice but to fold.

Thus, baseball was back on.

A belated, shortened spring training period for the returning players was followed by a reduced 144-game regular season schedule. But at least it would be played—as would the World Series, after a forced one-year layoff.

Opening Day 1995 arrived on April 25—and the fans, who got nothing to say for eight months, were ready to let baseball have it. The Atlanta Braves, who before the strike were drawing average crowds near 40,000, had only 24,000 show up for their home opener. In their second home game, Atlanta starting pitcher Tom Glavine—the team’s union representative—was unmercifully booed by his own fans. Same thing for Pittsburgh rep Jay Bell at the Pirates’ home opener; when the Bucs started booting the ball around in the fifth inning, disgruntled fans threw sticks they had torn from freebie pennants and littered the field, causing a 17-minute delay. In Kansas City, a Royal hitter fouled a ball into the seats. A young fan caught it and threw it back on the field, to the elated cheers of the crowd. And a group of fans invaded the Shea Stadium infield in New York and tossed dollar bills at Met players. Bret Saberhagen, pitching on the mound for the Mets, said he would have picked the money up had they been $100 bills.

When only 31,000 showed up for Milwaukee’s home opener, Brewer owner and interim commissioner Bud Selig blamed wintry 40-degree temperatures. What he didn’t acknowledge was that the previous season’s home opener was played before a sellout crowd in weather ten degrees colder.

Fans were slow to return back to major league ballparks following the 1994-95 players strike. Only three teams—Boston, California and Cleveland—improved on their per-game average over 1994, the latter two just barely. The other 25 franchises posted significant drops.

If the fans’ hatred was enough to scare the owners and players, then their indifference—best reflected in a whopping 20% per-game drop in 1994 attendance—was far more frightening. At least those expressing their vitriol at the ballparks were showing up. Had they lost the others for good? And what could possibly bring them back?

Rising high above baseball’s ambitious multimedia marketing campaign to win the fans back were a couple of inspiring, individual stories that connected with and captivated the nation.

From 1990-93, Hideo Nomo led Japan’s Pacific League in wins and strikeouts. He suffered shoulder problems in 1994 and was unsatisfied with the latest contract offer by his team, the Kintetsu Buffaloes. So he decided to try America, where only one other Japanese player—Masanori Murakami, from 1964-65—had previously played in the majors.

Signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers for a miniscule $109,000 salary dwarfed by a $2 million signing bonus, Nomo was winless in his first six major league starts, dogged by wildness that frequently got him in trouble. In his seventh start, Nomo found his control and locked in through the summer, going 9-2 over his next 13 starts with 119 strikeouts and just 50 hits allowed in 103.1 innings.

The majors’ second Japanese player—and the first in 30 years—Hideo Nomo achieved instant stardom in Los Angeles with his unusual pitching style and overall effectiveness; his success finally opened the floodgates for ballplayers from the Orient.

There was more to the modest, 26-year-old Nomo than just success and international appeal; his pitching delivery was one of the most unusual in modern times, a tornado-like windup in which he raised his arms high and spun slowly to a stop with his back completely facing the batter, before twisting back and firing away. Nomo’s sudden stardom made him the Dodgers’ second foreign pitching sensation in 13 years (following Mexico native Fernando Valenzuela in 1981), earned him a start at the All-Star Game (where he pitched two scoreless innings for the National League) and received the ultimate status of the day, as a poster boy for Nike.

Nomo’s star lost some of its luster late in the year as his pitching became erratic, but his 13-6 record and NL-high 236 strikeouts were just enough to send the Dodgers over the top to win the NL West by a game. His memorable debut was also just the tonic baseball needed to revive its rock-bottom image.

The game would be the benefactor of more public relations goodwill—not by an overseas savior, but a blue-eyed, blonde-haired hero about as home-grown as it got.

Cal Ripken Jr. had not missed a game for the Baltimore Orioles since May 29, 1982. Much had happened since in Baltimore: A world championship, a 21-game losing streak, hundreds of roster moves, seven managerial changes and a new ballpark. But one thing remained constant: The everyday appearance of Ripken, the perennial all-star shortstop and all-around good guy. And now, the 35-year-old Ripken—his hair graying and thinning, but athletically still quite durable—was within tantalizing reach of one of baseball’s most hallowed and seemingly unbreakable records: Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game mark of 2,130.

Unlike with most records, Ripken’s scheduled 2,131st straight appearance had a fixed date: September 6 at home against the California Angels. Oriole baseball in general was already a hot ticket since Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened, so one could only imagine the bribes being offered to ticket holders for Ripken's record-breakerPundits such as Larry King and the New York Times’ Robert Lipsyte ludicrously argued that Ripken should sit down after 2,130 games and let Gehrig keep a share of the record..

Ripken would not disappoint those who shelled out major bucks to watch him achieve one of baseball’s ultimate milestones. He had already homered the night before as a thank you for those who came to watch him tie Gehrig’s mark, and in the fourth inning of game number 2,131, he homered again. But the real fun began a half-inning later, in the middle of the fifth. It was at that moment, when the game was declared official, that Ripken’s passing of Gehrig was secure.

As giant, single-digit banners were unfurled to spell “2,131” on the old B&O warehouse behind Oriole Park’s right field bleachers, the game was stopped and Ripken, prodded by his teammates, took a lap around the field, receiving high fives from anyone he was able to get close to—the fans, field employees, and players from both teams. At 22 minutes, it was a work stoppage fans were happy to experience; among those in the crowd were Bud Selig and Don Fehr, two gentlemen who saw first-hand a desperately needed feel-good event in a game they had nearly destroyed.

For the sake of baseball’s future, here was hoping that the emotion of the moment would be forever etched upon their souls.

The majors’ slightly shortened season made for a jumble of deluded pennant and wild card races in baseball’s brave new world of split divisions and expanded playoff participants. But when all was said and done and the contenders had spoken, righteousness prevailed as the teams with the two best records made it through to the World Series.

While Cal Ripken Jr. and Hideo Nomo received all the adoration, Albert Belle remained alone despite his monstrous efforts to lift the Cleveland Indians to a terrific 100-44 record and rare AL pennant. His brooding and often confrontational disposition had much to do with it.

A year earlier, the Cleveland Indians had begun to flex their muscles after four decades of dormancy, making a serious bid for a postseason that never happened. The abandoned 1994 season would be more than a fleeting chance for the Indians; they were, in fact, warming up for 1995.

The Tribe’s 100-44 recordThe Indians finished a record 30 games ahead of second-place Kansas City, although in the old two-team AL format, they would have placed 14 games over New York. was the best put forward by a major league team since…the 1954 Indians, who finished 111-43. The Indians played superior clutch baseball by winning 25 games in their last at-bat, and showed dominance by leading the American League in all things offensive—from batting average to home runs to stolen bases to Albert Belle tantrums to ethnic caricatures (the Chief Wahoo cap logo, increasingly derided by Native American groups). They had six everyday players hitting over .300—one of which was the irascible Belle, who played as angrily as he seemed to live, leading the AL with 50 homers, 52 doubles, 121 runs scored and 126 knocked in. Cleveland pitching had the league’s best earned run average (at 3.83) and featured a tremendous 1-2 bullpen duo with set-up artist Julian Tavarez (10-2, 2.44 ERA) and closer Jose Mesa (46 saves in 48 opportunities and a terrific 1.13 ERA).

The Indians took the newly-required extra mile to the World Series, first dismissing the AL East-winning Boston Red SoxThe Red Sox’ two big boppers, Jose Canseco and AL MVP Mo Vaughn, combined to go 0-for-27 against Cleveland. in three straight in the first-round Division Series (ALDS), then cooling off the red-hot Seattle Mariners—who overcame a late 13-game deficit to win their first-ever AL West title—in a taut six-game ALCS.

Rightfully hooking up with the Indians at the World Series were the Atlanta Braves, who breezed through their two rounds of NL playoff competition. The team’s offense, a youthful and balanced group with adequate punch—in spite of the majors’ third worst batting average at .250—awoke and hit .331 in its first-round, three-games-to-one triumph over NL wild card entry Colorado. But at the NLCS, it was Atlanta pitching—once again the core of the Braves’ overall success—that completely silenced NL Central champion Cincinnati, who scored only five runs and hit .209 in a four-game Atlanta sweep.

Greg Maddux remained the star of stars in the Braves’ vaunted rotation. Clearly in his prime, the 29-year-old right-hander won 19, lost just twice, and produced a sizzling 1.63 ERA that ran counterMaddux’s notable feats of 1995 included earning his 17th straight victory on the road, setting a NL record. to baseball’s emerging era of bloated offense. Maddux’s 23 walks over 210 innings was apt tribute to his pinpoint accuracy.

Baseball reclaimed the October stage it abandoned the year before, and although the players were asked to bend over backwards to try and win the fans back, some at the World Series apparently didn’t get the memo. Albert Belle, for one, was in top form before Game Three when, for no particular reason, he decided to chase NBC sideline reporter Hannah Storm out of the Indians’ dugout with a profanity-laced tiradeBelle later apologized, but was walloped with a $50,000 fine—the largest in major league history.. And before Game Six—with the Braves at home leading, three games to two—Atlanta outfielder David Justice blasted his own fans as being unsupportive and overcritical, adding that they might “try to burn our houses down” if the Braves failed to win.

Promptly booed in pre-game introductions, Justice made amends and went from villain to hero in Game Six with a sixth-inning solo home run that became the game’s only tally. Making it stand up was Tom Glavine—the other post-strike target of Atlanta fans—who allowed but a bloop single over eight impeccably pitched innings before Mark Wohlers closed out the Indians—and the 1995 season—in the ninth.

The Braves’ first championship in 38 years—and their first in Atlanta—would be their one and only triumph within an extended run of success under manager Bobby Cox that began in 1991 and continued into the 21st Century. They would discover with cold reality that, in baseball’s new frontier of wild cards and multiple playoff rounds, being the best team over 162 games—or 144, in the case of 1995—doesn’t get you as far as it used to.

1996 baseball historyForward to 1996: Here's at Spittin' at You, Kid Roberto Alomar takes center stage in the worst way, only to have it stolen by a Jersey kid in a classic case of poetic justice.

1994 baseball historyBack to 1994: The Year That Should've Been Record-breaking quests, unlikely team revivals and an entire postseason are done in by a devastating player strike.

1990s baseball historyThe 1990s Page: To Hell and Back Relations between players and owners continue to deteriorate, bottoming out with a devastating mid-decade strike—souring relations with fans who, in some cases, turn their backs on the game for good. Recovery is made possible thanks to a series of popular record-breaking achievements by "class act" stars.

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1995 Standings

National League East
Atlanta Braves
New York Mets
Philadelphia Phillies
Florida Marlins
Montreal Expos
National League Central
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astros
Chicago Cubs
St. Louis Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates
National League West
Los Angeles Dodgers
Colorado Rockies (w)
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
American League East
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees (w)
Baltimore Orioles
Detroit Tigers
Toronto Blue Jays
American League Central
Cleveland Indians
Kansas City Royals
Chicago White Sox
Milwaukee Brewers
Minnesota Twins
American League West
Seattle Mariners
California Angels
Texas Rangers
Oakland A's

1995 Postseason Results
NLDS Atlanta defeated Colorado, 3-1.
NLDS Cincinnati defeated Los Angeles, 3-0.
ALDS Cleveland defeated Boston, 3-0
ALDS Seattle defeated New York, 3-2
NLCS Atlanta defeated Cincinnati, 4-0.
ALCS Cleveland defeated Seattle, 4-2.
World Series Atlanta (NL) defeated Cleveland (AL), 4-2

It Happened in 1995

Offering More and Giving Less
The Baseball Network, a unique television alliance in which Major League Baseball controls all ad revenue and shares them with participating networks NBC and ABC, gets its one full year under the sun—and proves to be a disaster. It focuses on regional coverage not just for regular season games but, inexplicably, the postseason as well—meaning TV viewers can watch one League Championship Series, but not the other that’s being played simultaneously.

The networks are as unhappy as the fans, with NBC President Dick Ebersol going so far as to say his network is “treated like scum” by baseball and vows never to broadcast the sport again. Ebersol will apparently have a change of heart; NBC will become part of a more traditional—and more choice-oriented—TV package starting in 1996 that includes Fox and ESPN.

Mickey Mantle, 1931-1995
After a long and very public battle against liver cancer, Mickey Mantle dies at the age of 63 in Dallas on August 13. Mantle had been recently given a liver transplant, angering some who felt his fame had put his name ahead in line of lesser-known patients with a better chance of survival.

A Perfect Nine, But Not a Perfect Ten
Montreal pitcher Pedro Martinez retires all 27 batters he faces through nine innings against the Padres at San Diego on June 3—but he’ll have to face more as a scoreless game enters extra innings. Martinez allows a double to the 28th batter, Bip Roberts, and is removed; but he’ll get credit for the win as Mel Rojas saves a 1-0 Expo win.

The Switch-Pitcher
Another Expo pitcher, 39-year-old veteran reliever Greg Harris, does something no major leaguer has done in 107 years: Pitch both right-handed and left-handed in the same game. Using a special, six-finger mitt, Harris faces four Cincinnati batters in the ninth inning of a September 28 game at Montreal. Throwing right-handed, he retires two batters; as a southpaw, he retires another but walks Hal Morris. The Expos lose to the Reds, 9-7.

Dodger Blues
On August 10, the St. Louis Cardinals defeat the Dodgers at Los Angeles, 2-1, in a game stopped in the bottom of the ninth and forfeited to the Cardinals, the first National League forfeit in 41 years. Reason: It’s ball night at Chavez Ravine, and three Dodger ejections late in the game—the last being given to manager Tommy Lasorda—enrage the sellout crowd into throwing their souvenirs on the field. Umpires later claim that the fans littered the field at the urging of Lasorda, which he vehemently denies.

Two Long
Detroit Tiger teammates Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, the inseparable middle infield combo playing in their 19th year together, break a major league record when they appear in their 1,915th game alongside one another in a 9-0 loss at Chicago on August 31. It will be Whitaker’s last year in the majors; Trammell, a future Tiger manager, will retire a year later.

Record Breaker’s Dozen
The Tigers and White Sox set an all-time record on May 28 when they combine to hit 12 home runs at Detroit. Despite out-homering the White Sox 7-5, the Tigers lose the game, 14-12. Nine doubles are added to the offensive display, setting another one-game record with 21 total extra-base hits. Seven years later, the same two teams will group up to tie the home run mark.

A Surprise Start in More Ways Than One
Paul Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, demoted to the bullpen after piling up a NL-high 13 losses, is given an emergency start August 29 when scheduled starter Danny Neagle has to sit out with an eye infection—and comes to within one strike of throwing a no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies. Wagner’s bid is broken up by a Andres Galarraga single on a 3-2 pitch, but he will get the shutout win—only his third victory of the year—by a 4-0 score.

The Steroids Must be Kicking in
Ken Caminiti of the San Diego Padres becomes the first player ever to hit home runs from both sides of the plate three times in a year. Making his feat all the more intriguing is that all three occasions come within a four-day period—September 16 and 17 against the Chicago Cubs, and September 19 against the Rockies, a game in which he will knock in eight runs.

Super Utilityman
Mike Benjamin, a seven-year veteran for the San Francisco Giants who has specialized in keeping the bench warm, makes the most of a chance filling in for the injured Matt Williams and goes on a record-setting spree. Over three games played between June 10-13, Benjamin will collect a major league record 14 hits. In his six previous years he had averaged 16 hits a season and batted .186.

These Things Happen in Threes
Following on the heels of similar incidents in Montreal and Seattle, Toronto’s Skydome becomes the latest domed facility to be plagued with falling debris. Several acoustic panels drop into the stands during the seventh inning of a Blue Jays’ game against Milwaukee, injuring seven spectators. Unlike the mishaps at the other two stadiums, Skydome will be declared safe to inhabit shortly after the incident.

Why is the Umbrella Vendor So Lonely?
The San Diego Padres become the first major league team (excluding teams based indoors) to play 1,000 straight home games without a rainout. The string will continue until May 12, 1998, when rain finally stops the proceedings.

Off the Bench and Into the Record Books
The Rockies’ John Vander Wal sets a major league mark by collecting 28 pinch hits over the season. The left-handed hitter bats .347 for the year overall with 35 hits and five home runs.

Slowing Down, But Not Out
Tim Raines, whose speed has lost a step but is still tough to nail on the basepaths, sets an American League record by stealing 40 straight bases without getting caught. Playing full-time for the White Sox at age 35, Raines—once a cinch to pocket 60 stolen bases in a season—only grabs 13 on the year.

New Ballparks

Coors Field, Denver “You’ve been traded to Colorado.” These are perhaps the most dreaded words a pitcher can possibly hear these days, but you can’t blame mile-high Coors Field for any altitude sickness they may come down with. The NL’s first baseball-only facility to be built since Dodger Stadium 32 years earlier, Coors Field is the latest in a series of new ballparks with old-fashioned tastes, a cornerstone of gentrification in a once-derelict section of downtown. Designed by Oriole Park at Camden Yards architect HOK Sport, Coors Field was originally slated to seat 43,000—but was upped to 50,000 after the masses frequently filled much-larger Mile High Stadium, the Rockies’ temporary quarters.

The field dimensions are among the most spacious in the majors—topping out at 424 feet just right of center field—but make no mistake, Coors Field is no pitcher’s paradise. Every out is earned and no lead is safe, and the explosion of offense can be just as exhausting as the thin air. But just so fans don’t miss the ever-changing score, they can walk the main concourse that entirely circles the ballpark and never lose sight of a pitch. As if pitchers needed to be reminded, the seats in the upper deck’s 20th row are painted purple because they rest at 5,280 feet—exactly one mile—above sea level.

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