Let’s revisit the 1994 Houston Astros.
Grab a coffee, put on your jeans jacket, grab your Nirvana “Nevermind” CD and jump in your Ford Bronco! Let’s take a time machine trip back to the year 1994.
Bill Clinton is the president of United States, and man-bear-pig believer Al Gore is the vice president. The biggest news stories from this year was figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s attack by buffoons that was orchestrated by Tonya Harding, Howard Stern talking someone off George Washington Bridge while on air, and the sad deaths of both comedian John Candy and rock-and-roll legend Kurt Cobain.
The Houston Rockets won their first NBA title, the New York Rangers won their last Stanley Cup, and the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills again in the Super Bowl. But we all know the biggest story of the year – on June 17, 1994 everyone in the world was watching superstar celebrity OJ Simpson driving around LA in his white Ford Bronco being chased by the LAPD for the murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Wow.
It was an incredible pop culture year. The biggest movies at the box office where The Lion King, Forrest Gump, True Lies, The Mask, and Speed. Forrest Gump would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture beating out Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. The biggest albums that year where Soundgarden’s “Superunknown”, Nine Inch Nails’ “Downward Spiral”, Green Day’s “Dookie”, Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy”, and Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged in New York”. Everyone at home was watching Seinfeld or ER or Home Improvement or updates on OJ Simpson. This guy named Jeff Bezos founded this company called Amazon that would later go on to take over everyone’s lives. And the biggest song from that year was “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz 2 Men.
Guys dressed up in flannel t-shirts with the buttons open and an undershirt, trying to look like a lead singer of a Seattle grunge band. Girls were either wearing blazers with loud prints or stylish corporate skirt suits. People were also not afraid to wear the leather jacket or acid washed jeans.
You had to memorize your home phone number and your friends phone numbers, or you’d never get ahold of anyone. You had to rewind movies when you returned them to Blockbuster, otherwise you’d get a $1fine. And if you were stuck at home on the weekend, you were probably sitting on your couch watching Beavis and Butthead or the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” music video on MTV.
The Astros wore the blue gray uniforms with the sleek gold star outline and were now managed by Terry Collins. They were coming off a disappointing 1993 season where they barely missed the playoffs, but Houston was ready to right the ship in ’94 as their first season playing in the National League Central. The Opening Day lineup was James Mouton, Steve Finley, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Luis Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti, Scott Servais and Andujar Cedeno.
The Astros pitching rotation was Doug Drabek, Greg Swindell, Darryl Kile, Pete Harnisch, Brian Williams and Shane Reynolds. John Hudek was the team’s closer with Todd Jones, Tom Edens, Mike Hampton and Dave Veres as key relief pitchers.
The Astros started the season very up and down, going 11-9 in their first 20 games. But the talk about them early on was all about Jeff Bagwell, who started the year hitting .360 in the month of April with an OPS of 1.046. Some people thought he could reach the 61 HR record set by Roger Maris.
In mid-May, the Astros were only 18-18, but then they finally got hot. From May 15 to June 5, Houston won 13 of 17 and went from 5 games back to 1 game up in the NL Central. During the month of June, while everyone was watching OJ’s white Bronco, the Astros relinquished that lead to the Cincinnati Reds, who were led by Barry Larkin and Bret Boone and Hal Morris and frankly looked unbeatable.
However, Houston caught some steam again by winning 10 of 14 and went into the All-Star Break with a 50-38 record (1 game behind Cincy). Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were named All-Stars and Jeff Bagwell continued to get MVP frontrunner talk.
The front office realized this team had a chance for the pennant, so in July they traded for Milt Thompson from Phillies, who at the time was a 10-year vet and a .283 career average from the plate. During this month, Collins decided to move Biggio from third in the batting order to first, a position he would not relinquish for another 10 years.
The Astros came out from the break, staying within striking distance of the Reds by beating the lesser competition in the NL. Then starting on August 2nd, the Astros went win six in a row and seven of nine. On Aug. 11, the Astros were 66-49 and (along with the Reds and Expos) had separated themselves from the rest of the NL pack.
Jeff Bagwell closed the last twenty games of the season hitting an absurd .463, with 10 home runs, 27 RBI and an OPS of 1.537. He finished the season hitting .363, with 39 homers, 116 RBI and a 1.201 OPS. He also had an 18-game hit streak, 34-game on-base streak, a three-homer game against the Dodgers and five multi-home run games all in that season. He was named a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Winner, and at age 26 was also the first Houston Astro to win the league MVP. Bagwell finished the season with a WAR of 8.2 and an OPS of 1.206 – one of the twenty best statistical batting seasons ever.
Perhaps the biggest travesty in baseball history. On Aug. 1, MLB owners and players came to a head from labor disputes which lead to the infamous strike that canceled the season. Decades of distrust and resentment between the owners and players finally led to stoppage motivated by greed and pettiness that truly betrayed all fans of baseball. Never before has a strike ended a season while it was being played. It would take years for baseball to earn back trust and popularity from fans.
The strike was a shame to all of baseball and ruined a lot of opportunities for teams, including our Astros. It ruined the chance for the Astros to win their first pennant. It also ruined a potential World Series run for the Cincinnati Reds, and the Pedro Martinez-Moises Alou-Larry Walker Montreal Expos.
The strike also ruined opportunities for individual players. Jeff Bagwell was on pace to hit 57 homers and have 165 RBIs, which would have been the greatest single season performance at the time. Same goes for Frank Thomas, the AL MVP who was also on pace for 55 plus homers and 150 RBIs. And the strike took away a chance for Tony Gwynn, hitting .394 at the time, the chance to be the first player since Ted Williams in 1941 to hit over .400 for a season.
When baseball came back from strike the following season, the Houston Astros couldn’t replicate their ’94 success. Bagwell came back down to earth after his monster MVP season, the Reds were too good and Houston got beat out by the Rockies for the Wild Card. It wouldn’t be until 1998 when Houston Astros were serious World Series contenders again.
The Houston Astros had a very good team that season and were one of the three best teams in the NL. While I had doubts that their pitching staff would have been good enough to get them to a World Series, the offense was way too potent and balanced to think they wouldn’t have a chance to win a ring.
But the real story this season was the mastery and genius of Jeff Bagwell. The kid from Boston that was traded to the Astros for reliever Larry Anderson and won the rookie of the year in 1991, fully blossomed into a mega-superstar in 1994. His MVP season was one the greatest displays of power, clutch hitting and fielding anyone has ever seen. He could do everything. The Hall of Famer would become the symbol and identity of the Houston Astros throughout the 90s and into the 2000s.