1994: Strikes, FBI investigations, and the collapse of a franchise.
For baseball fans and card collectors, the year 1994 brings up some pretty sour memories. America’s Pastime was sullied by greed and the fans paid the ultimate price. The arguments over whether it was the owners, the players or the unions can be made another day. I’m just here to deal in facts as I prepare to review one of the last great sets I collected in baseball before the MLB Strike of 1994. My “Dark Period” (a phrase coined by the FatPacks on Beckett Radio for that time in all of our lives when we stepped away from the hobby) began in the late summer of 1994 and continued until the mid 2000’s.
You see, the strike came at a terrible time for me too. I was 17 and there were already other things pulling at my attention; girls, cars, high school sports, etc. I was fading fast with everything else going on in my life so when the players went on strike, so did I. It took me quite a bit longer to come back to the sport too, as was the case for many other fans. The ’94 Strike wasn’t just a disagreement that got ironed out in a couple of weeks. This was the longest stoppage in MLB history and was the first major professional sports league to lose the entire postseason and not end the year with a Champion.
When it comes to a Champion that year, no one was more cheated than the Montreal Expos. In a “Seven Degrees of Donald Fehr” kind of way, it effectively ended baseball in Montreal. In turn, it ended one of the greatest uniforms in Major League Baseball. The Expos were already a small market team and their payroll could not handle the stoppage and subsequent backlash from fans that were being seen all across the MLB with a reduction of over 6,000 fans per game throughout the ’95 season. Payroll had to be adjusted, which meant several of their stars were moved; including Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker and John Wetteland.
To make things worse in 1994, the Expos had a 6 game lead over the Braves when the strike happened. Walker was headed for a 100 RBI season, Ken Hill was on pace for 23 wins, Moises Alou was hitting .339 and on pace for 200+ hits and the team itself was on pace to pull in over 2,000,000 fans for the first time in over 10 years. They also lost what appears to have been their best chance at playoff glory in their history, not counting the weird 1981 season in which the season was split into two halves. Again, this was due to another work stoppage. The collapse of the franchise didn’t happen until several years later but one of the firestarters can easily be traced back to the strike.
The strike began on August 12, 1994, and ran through the remainder of the regular season and offseason. The strike did not end until April 2, 1995. In all, 948 baseball games were canceled over a 232 day span. There were replacement players in Spring Training, replacement umpires on Opening Day protest at ballparks, signs, and banners from fans lamenting the greed seemingly shown by all involved, and the game suffered in a tremendous way. There were many pundits predicting that baseball would not recover and there are many fans who still haven’t returned to the sport as of this very day.
Before the strike in August, one of the strangest baseball stories of my generation unfolded in Cleveland, making 1994 even more bizarre. Albert “Don’t Call Me Joey” Belle was a tremendous slugger for the Indians and during a game against the White Sox in Chicago, the Sox manager challenged the bat Belle was using, which was subsequently confiscated and locked in the umpire’s dressing room, per MLB rules. The Sox manager had been informed by “someone” that Belle was using a corked bat but the challenge was only the beginning of the fiasco.
After the bat was locked in the umpire’s dressing room, the Indians instructed a relief pitcher to try and get to the bat and switch it with another, thus admitting that the original bat was corked. That relief pitcher was Jason Grimsley, who later admitted to his involvement, and the replacement bat was that of Paul Sorrento, who may or may not have been aware at the time of his involvement. Grimsley climbed up into the ceiling of the locker room, above the false ceiling tiles, and crawled to the umpire’s dressing room using a flashlight to find his way. He reached that locker room and switched the bats before returning to the bullpen. Though Grimsley worked pretty hard to make the switch, apparently he didn’t do it very cleanly and left clumps of ceiling tile in the locker room and twisted several metal brackets in the ceiling, which was noticed by a custodian during the 6th inning.
To further the botched switch, the umpire who confiscated the bat immediately noticed that the bats looked different and the replacement even had Sorrento’s signature. This led to an FBI investigation with fingerprint dusting around the ceiling and room where the bat was held. Three days later, after threats from MLB to seek charges in the burglary, the Indians produced the original bat. The bat was then processed through an x-ray machine and sawed in half in Belle’s presence to reveal that it was in fact corked. After all of that, Belle was suspended 10 games, which was later reduced to 7, which was later nullified by the strike. Grimsley didn’t officially come clean about his involvement until 1999. In the ’95 playoffs, Belle hit a home run against the Red Sox and his bat was again confiscated. Belle had the famous response of yelling at the Sox dugout and pointing at his bicep. This time, the bat was clean.
Ticket Holders – Toploader Rigid Vinyl
On to the baseball card set, I wanted to discuss, and it was a great one. Topps Finest was made available to collectors in 1993 and was dubbed one of the most important sets of the 1990’s by Cardboard Connection, CardboardPedia, Baseball Almanac and many others. The 1993 set introduced “Chromium” cards to the collecting world. Today, we have Prizm, Optic, Chrome, and others in the hobby but it was Topps Finest that turned collecting upside down with this fancy introduction.
The 1994 set was broken up into Series 1 and 2 with 220 cards in each. Series 1 had the Top 20 Rookies from 1993 and Series 2 had the Top 20 Rookies of 1994. There were also 40 top veterans chosen that were broken down with 20 in each series. Each box contains 24 packs of 7 cards each. There is also a Jumbo Card found in each box with a select group of players from each Series. I recently picked up a box of Series 1 and thought a cool trip down memory lane to the first Chromium product would be perfect, considering my recent break and review of 2017 Optic. Plus, Series 1 has Albert Belle so this should be a fun one!
The Jumbo Card was Jason Bere. He had some promise as a youngster, going 12-5 with a 3.47 ERA in his rookie season. He wasn’t able to sustain that for long.
The infielders included a nice selection of young talent and old school legends. Pat Listach was the Rookie of the Year in 1992 and was a hobby darling for a couple of years. Ivan Rodriguez and Ozzie Smith both landed in the Hall of Fame. Edgar Martinez and Alan Trammell have Hall of Fame numbers but aren’t there yet.
There were some stud outfielders in the box too. Andre Dawson was in his later years with the Red Sox, Strawberry with the Dodgers and Eric Davis was with the Tigers. But Deion, Reggie Sanders, Dante Bichette, Paul O’Neill and Moises Alou were young stars in the making.
I always enjoy finding Doc Gooden in retro packs. I did enjoy pulling Todd Van Poppel at one time too but he flamed out pretty quick. Juan Guzman is a forgotten man today but he was a dominant pitcher for a few years in the early 90’s.
The rookie class for 1993 wasn’t exactly loaded but a few of these players had pretty serviceable careers in the majors. Specifically, Jeremy Burnitz, Jeff Conine and Tim Salmon were above average at different points in their careers.
The veteran legends here are awesome! My favorites in this group were Ventura, Puckett, Maddux, Sandberg, Gonzalez, Bagwell and Carter.
My personal favorite player in the 90’s was Ron Gant for the Atlanta Braves. I am trying to collect every card made of #5.
In case you missed it in the veteran stack, I did find the Albert Belle I was looking for!
Topps Finest changed the hobby in a similar way that ’89 Upper Deck did but Upper Deck always gets more credit than Finest. Chromium-based products are as popular now as they have ever been and we have Finest to thank for their introduction to collectors. There was a lot to dislike about the 1994 baseball season but this set was not one of them.
Did you collect Topps Finest back in the 90’s? What are your memories of this set?
Ticket Holders – Vinyl