Like a congresswoman tacking some pork onto an otherwise necessary bill, my wife has combined the simple task of putting away the Christmas ornaments with the daunting chore of preparing to move from Florida to Pennsylvania in May. So now I am compelled to do both simultaneously, while the limitless nature of the assignment ensures that it can never be completed. This is how I came to find the October 31, 1994 issue of Sports Illustrated in a box in our storage room off the patio, along with some original NES games and controllers. How such a box survived three previous moves is quite a mystery, but I sure am glad it did. I was again holding in my hands what may have been the first SI issue I ever owned after graduating from the Nickelodeon-ish SI for Kids. I was probably more excited to see it this time than I had been the first time; I took a seat on a pile of rolled-up sleeping bags and prepared to travel back in time.
The newsstand price has almost doubled from the $2.95 that my mom or dad or granddad paid in ’94, while the price of the “serious, full-blooded” Nikon N50 has fallen a bit. An amusing vision of the future shows a dude kicking back, beer in one hand, remote in the other (the more things change the more they stay the same), watching seven huge boxy TV sets at once. “Is this progress at its best or a pileup on the information superhighway?” the caption asks, in terminology that VP Gore certainly would have approved of. The column is about the imminent debut of seven new cable channels including the Golf Channel for $6.95/month, a Classic Sports Network, ESPN3 (now ESPNews) and “a motor-sports network.” It may have literally blown the author’s mind to see the smorgasbord available in 2010.
As I read, my mind reverted further and further into the days of Neon Deion and The Great One and the Mailman, and I began to see the stories in front of me as current events. I wonder whether Major League Soccer can succeed in the United States, I thought. A golfer smoking on the course – so what? The Lions lost the Wild Card playoff game last year, and now they’ve started 3-4 – their coach is sooooo gonna get fired.
What brought me back was Tom Verducci’s cover story about the Japan Series. This, of course, was the year that the MLB players strike left North American fans without a Fall Classic. It was also the year before Hideo Nomo signed with the Dodgers; Japanese baseball was still largely unknown in this hemisphere. The cultural differences (young girls presenting a bouquet of roses to each manager, players sequestered from their families the night before a game) were striking. The professional cheerleaders, “like at a big-time college football game,” were most anomalous to Dan Gladden, the former Twin then with the Yomiuri Giants. But the game was the same, and it was probably like manna to the starving seamheads without any websites or MLB Network to turn to in that dark October. If played in America, the ’94 Japan Series would be remembered as a classic – two games went into extras and another was a 1-0 duel. A crafty veteran named Hisanobu Watanabe, who by all accounts could have been a very good major league pitcher in the ’80′s, enjoyed one last moment in the sun for the Seibu Lions and became the first Japanese player to appear on the cover of SI. The vaguely familiar former Mariner Henry Cotto hit two homers as the Giants won it in six.
I had a neighbor named Mitchell, about my parents’ age, who had been a huge Mets fan before the strike. But he was so disgusted with the political hogwash surrounding that whole debacle that he swore he’d never care again, and he never did. I spent the next several years trying to convince him of the game’s inherent goodness – that 2,131 consecutive games meant something, and that Mark McGwire wasn’t “trash” but a true American hero. But Mitchell had been wounded too deeply, I guess, and he turned all of his devotion (and dollars) to our local independent league team.
The strike didn’t really bother me at the time, perhaps because my passion for the game was still so nascent. I enjoyed ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts of Triple-A games. I enjoyed going grocery shopping with my mom because she always let me get a pack of Fleer or Topps. I enjoyed hitting the virtually infinite supply of walnuts that fell from the trees in our yard, pretending I was in the majors (I think I hit 219 homeruns one season, and ruined several articles of clothing which were splattered by the sticky yellow goop). And PBS rolled out Ken Burns’s Baseball, one two-hour “inning” every week throughout that fall. I recorded and absorbed the entire series, forming the foundation of my knowledge of baseball history in the process.
The truncated ’94 season, like a bad relationship, is almost too painful and vulgar to so many fans to even speak about in their presence. We’ll never know whether Frank Thomas or Ken Griffey Jr or Matt Williams would have reached the untouchable 61 homers. We’ll never know if Greg Maddux could have challenged Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA, or whether Tony Gwynn could have hit .400. We’ll never know how a playoff berth may have altered the future of baseball in Montreal, or a Yankee pennant may have precluded the hiring of Joe Torre. But for me, 1994 was special – the year I took my love of baseball to the next level, on the way to the almost unhealthy obsession it would soon become.