The 1994 White Sox, and a season ended too soon

Tragic end: Hall-of-Famer Frank Thomas’ best career season was wiped out by the 1994 MLB strike. We can only guess how the 1994 season would have ended for him and the White Sox. (@TheBigHurt_35)

The 1994 season was expected to be the season.

With most of the team intact from the 1993 Chicago White Sox squad that made it to the ALCS, great expectations were placed for this team to make it to the World Series — perhaps even win it for the first time in 77 years.

The White Sox certainly didn’t disappoint — they led the division for much of the season. And on August 11, the last date the team actually played, the White Sox owned a 67-46 record — good enough for first place atop the American League Central and the second-best record in the American League.

But as good as this team was, the Sox weren’t a sure-fire lock for the playoffs however per the below standings:

AL EastAL CentralAL West
Yankees70-43White Sox67-46Rangers52-62
Orioles63-496.5Cleveland66-471Athletics51-631
Blue Jays55-6016Royals64-514Mariners49-632
Red Sox54-6117Twins53-6014Angels47-685.5
Tigers53-6218Brewers53-6215

The 1994 season was the first year of the wild card, and at this time, only one wild card would enter the playoffs. Thus, when looking at the playoff picture, six teams were in the picture for four AL playoff spots (Yankees, White Sox, whoever won the sordid AL West, Cleveland, Orioles and Royals). With the Sox’s tenuous lead on Cleveland, and with the White Sox going 10-10 over its last 20 games while Cleveland was beginning to hit its stride, a wild card was beginning to look like a distinct possibility for the South Siders. And if Cleveland were to eventually surpass them, the White Sox would be only 3 12 to 4 games ahead of their nearest wild card competition (Orioles and Royals).


The 1994 White Sox

The White Sox’s 67-46 record put them on a pace for a 96-66 season, which would have topped the previous season’s mark of 96-64.

The offense

The White Sox offense was anchored by eventual league MVP Frank Thomas, who up to that moment had been batting a ludicrous .353/38 HR/101 RBI. Supporting Thomas was Julio Franco (.319/20/98), Robin Ventura (.282/18/78), Darrin Jackson (.312/10/51), Ozzie Guillén (.288/1/39) and Tim Raines (.266/10/52). The White Sox’s .287 team batting average ranked third among all MLB teams while their 5.60 runs per game ranked fourth.

Here’s the position-by-position list of the Sox regulars in 1994:

C Ron Karkovice .213/.325/.425, 11 HR, 29 RBI, 32 BB, 68 K
1B Frank Thomas .353/.487/.729, 34 2B, 1 3B, 38 HR, 101 RBI, 109 BB, 61 K
2B Joey Cora .276/.353/.362, 13 2B, 4 3B, 2 HR, 30 RBI, 8 SB, 38 BB, 32 K
SS Ozzie Guillén .288/.311/.348, 9 2B, 5 3B, 1 HR, 39 RBI, 5 SB, 14 BB, 35 K
3B Robin Ventura .282/.373/.459, 15 2B, 1 3B, 18 HR, 78 RBI, 61 BB, 69 K
LF Tim Raines .266/.365/.409, 15 2B, 5 3B, 10 HR, 52 RBI, 13 SB, 61 BB, 43 K
CF Lance Johnson .277/.321/.393, 11 2B, 14 3B, 3 HR, 54 RBI, 26 SB, 26 BB, 23K
RF Darrin Jackson .312/.362/.455, 17 2B, 3 3B, 10 HR, 51 RBI, 27 BB, 56 K
DH Julio Franco .319/.406/.510, 19 2B, 2 3B, 20 HR, 98 RBI, 8 SB, 62 BB, 75 K

Franco was the only player on a pace for 100 strikeouts, although Karkovice and Ventura were nearly at that pace. Also, of the regulars, four players walked more than they fanned. Aside from Karkovice, everyone hit for respectable batting averages. Three hitters were on pace for well more than 100 RBIs (prorated for a 162-game season: Thomas 145, Franco 141, Ventura 112) while only Thomas was on pace for 30-plus homers (Franco was on pace for 29 over a full season).

Thomas was an offensive monster, at or near the top in most offensive categories in the AL: BA (third), OBP (first), SP (first), OPS (first), offensive bWAR (first), total bWAR (fourth), HR (second), RBI (tied for third), hits (fourth), walks (first), doubles (tied for thired), XBH (tied for first).

Here’s what his stats would’ve been over a full season, which is totally amazing since this is before the Steroid Era came into play:

572 AB, 152 R, .353/.487/.729, 49 2B, 1 3B, 54 HR, 145 RBI, 156 BB, 87 BB, 10.2 offensive bWAR

The bench was void of superstars, but were valuable contributors nonetheless — especially as pinch-hitters. The most notable of these included Mike “Spanky” LaValliere (.281/.368/.331), Norberto Martin (.275/.317/.366), Warren Newson (.255/.345/.363) and Craig Grebeck (.309/.391/.361).


The pitching

While no single starting pitcher particularly stole the spotlight during the 1994 season, the White Sox’s all-around solid rotation that featured Black Jack McDowell, Jason Bere, Wilson Alvarez, Alex Fernandez and Scott Sanderson posted a combined 3.96 ERA, a WHIP of 1.326 and a win-loss percentage of .593, finishing in the top five in the majors in each category. Sanderson was the only White Sox starter to finish the season with an ERA of more than 4.00. Setup man José DeLeon and closer Roberto Hernandez were cornerstones in the bullpen.

Jack McDowell 10-9, 3.73 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 181 IP, 127 K
Alex Fernandez 11-7, 3.86 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 170.1 IP, 163 IP, 122 K
Wilson Alvarez 12-8, 3.45 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 161.2 IP, 108 K
Jason Bere 12-2, 3.81 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 141.2 IP, 127 K
Scott Sanderson 8-4, 5.09 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 92 IP, 36 K
Roberto Hernandez 4-4, 14 SV, 4.91 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 47.2 IP, 50 K
Jose DeLeon 3-2, 2 SV, 3.36 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 67 IP 67 K
Kirk McCaskill 1-4, 3 SV, 3.42 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 52.2 IP, 37 K
Dennis Cook 3-1, 0 SV, 3.55 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 33 IP, 26 K
Paul Assenmacher 1-2, 1 SV, 3.55 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 33 IP, 29 K

The White Sox really didn’t receive many contributions from anyone else. What little help they had came from the likes of Dane Johnson (6.57 ERA, 2.19 WHIP in 15 games) and Jeff Schwarz (6.35 ERA, 2.21 WHIP in nine games) out of the bullpen.


Cleveland

Not to discount the 1994 Royals, whose pitching staff (consisting of David Cone, Mark Gubicza, and Tom Gordon) far exceeded its limited firepower, Cleveland was the most significant threat to the White Sox in 1994. The team’s lineup included a wealth of offensive talent:

C Sandy Alomar .288/.347/.490, 15 2B, 1 3B, 14 HR, 43 RBI
1B Paul Sorrento .280/.345/.453, 14 2B, 14 HR, 62 RBI
2B Carlos Baerga .314/.333/.525, 32 2B, 2 3B, 19 HR, 80 RBI, 8 SB
SS Omar Vizquel .273/.325/.325, 1 HR, 33 RBI, 13 SB
3B Jim Thome .268/.359/.523, 20 2B, 1 3B, 20 HR, 52 RBI
LF Albert Belle .357/.438/.714, 35 2B, 2 3B, 36 HR, 101 RBI
CF Kenny Lofton .349/.412/.536, 32 2B, 9 3B, 12 HR, 57 RBI, 60 SB
RF Manny Ramirez .269/.357/.521, 22 2B, 0 3B, 17 HR, 60 RBI
DH Eddie Murray .254/.302/.425, 21 2B, 1 3B, 17 HR, 76 RBI

While Cleveland’s pitching staff was the weak link on this team, all they had to do was just keep them in games, given all the offensive firepower. For the most part, they did just that:

SP Dennis Martinez 11-6, 3.52 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 176.2 IP, 92 K
SP Charles Nagy 10-8, 3.45 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 169.1 IP, 108 K
SP Mark Clark 11-3, 3.82 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 127.1 IP, 60 K
SP Jack Morris 10-6, 5.60 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, 141.1 IP, 100 K
SP Jason Grimsley 5-2, 4.57 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 82.2 IP, 59 K
RP Jeff Russell 1-1, 5 SV, 4.97 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 12.2 IP, 10 K
RP Jose Mesa 7-5, 2 SV, 3.82 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 73 IP, 63 K
RP Eric Plunk 7-2, 3 SV, 2.54 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 71 IP, 73 K
RP Derek Lilliquist 1-3, 1 SV, 4.91 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 29.1 IP, 15 K
RP Steve Farr 1-1, 4 SV, 5.28 ERA, 2.09 WHIP, 15.1 IP, 12 K

While the White Sox were scuffling, Cleveland was on a roll. After starting the season 14-17, the team had gone 52-36 leading up to the strike, which was the best in the American League during that time. Also, Cleveland had outscored their opponents by 136 runs over that stretch, also the best in the league.

During this period, the rivalry between the White Sox and Cleveland teams only escalated. This was never more evident than on July 15, when Albert Belle’s corked bat was confiscated, but ingeniously replaced by Belle’s teammate Jason Grimsley. The incident led to a pivotal, seven-game suspension of Belle. Here’s a fascinating video (nearly eight minutes in duration) of the entire episode, courtesy of Fox Sports:

Ultimately, all the games and associated hijinx were all for naught. After the last games were played on August 11, the stadiums were silent. No cheering of the fans. No beer vendors yelling, “Ice-cold beer here!” No celebrating game-winning heroics or screaming at the television for blown leads or plays botched. The only sounds were the yelling and disagreements between MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr and MLB ownership, led by commissioner Bud Selig and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.


What if?

Now I have never been one to play the “what if?” game. It is a lazy, speculative, and downright silly ploy. And most the time, people like myself are simply wrong. But in the case of the 1994 strike potentially depriving the White Sox from a World Series title opportunity, it really is hard to ignore the facts above regarding the Sox hitting and pitching numbers. The White Sox truly did rank among the baseball elite. The Yankees were really the only team in the AL that year that stood pace with the South Siders for the entire season.

To say the White Sox were not legitimate contenders in 1994 would simply be illogical. One may cite the fact that the White Sox finished the season with an underwhelming 10-10 record in their last 20 games, or that Cleveland had climbed to within one game of the White Sox by the time the strike had hit and a leapfrog in the standings was inevitable. Others may even argue that their favorite team was bound for World Series glory, not the White Sox.

The truth is no one will ever know what would, or could, have happened in the last 49 games of the 1994 regular season. For all we know, the injury bug could have nipped and the White Sox could have experienced total collapse. Or maybe they could have caught fire and ran away with the division, then went on to roll through the playoffs and into the World Series like they did in 2005. No one knows.

Did you notice all the “could’s”? That there is speculation. You don’t know. I don’t know. We’ll never know. Only one thing is for certain, not experiencing a World Series title in my lifetime sure did make the taste of victory in 2005 a whole hell of a lot sweeter.

For many players, this would’ve been the last, best chance to participate in postseason play. The 1995 squad fell to 68-76, and aside from an 85-77 campaign in 1996, the team wouldn’t finish .500 again until the playoff year in 2000.

So ultimately, there will be never be a 1994 pennant flying above the stadium. No parades celebrating a division championship, ALCS or World Series title for that year. No special 25th-year reunions celebrating what could’ve been.

Simply put, that’s tragic.

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Despite my entire family being Cub fans, I grew up listening to Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall on the radio as I listened to the entire season of the South Side Hit Men of '77. While it's true I have a myriad of other interests (American history, classic literature, classic rock, classic country, blues, jazz, gardening, family,etc.--not all in that order), few things aside from family surpass my interest in all things baseball--especially the White Sox.

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Thanks for this, WSM. I was still in Indy at that time, and in a bit of a lull with my baseball fandom, but still annoyed and angry over the work stoppage. Long time gone, now, bu it did nothing but increase my support of unions, even for rich, lazy ball players.