Sometimes you think things cannot get any worse. Killer bees, for example, had to believe they would forever hold the title of being the most menacingly named stingers in the history of the United States.
And then along came the murder hornet.
It sounds nastier, it looks nastier and it is nastier.
For baseball, it is difficult to imagine anything more awful than the labor dispute that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. It was American greed at its worst and it went on for eight months with the owners even staging six weeks of a bogus spring training before the sides grudgingly came to an agreement that allowed a 144-game 1995 season to be played.
What could be worse than that?
The answer: the inability to play a modified season for financial reasons amid the worst pandemic in more than a century.
Former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. remembers the 1994-95 strike very well. He was 29 years old and had earned a bench role with the Cleveland Indians after being dealt by the Phillies for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb in November 1993.
“It was devastating to me as a player,” Amaro said. “I finally had a chance to make some hay and I was playing for one of the best offensive teams in the history of the game and I had hit home runs in the last two games [Aug. 8-9, 1994] and then all of a sudden there was no baseball.”
Instead, there was the mother of all work stoppages and before it was over, Amaro would find himself being pulled in opposite directions. His father thought his son’s best chance to establish himself in the big leagues might be by crossing a picket line. Amaro was concerned enough about where a player of his low stature fit into baseball’s future plans that he voiced his concerns in a letter to then-union chief Donald Fehr.
“I really thought the middlemen in baseball were being weeded out and I expressed that concern to Donald,” Amaro said. “Today I guess that would be the guys making between $3 [million] and $6 million, and I think they are being weeded out in favor of younger players.”
Amaro never heard back from Fehr, but when he arrived in Orlando, Fla., for a union meeting that March, he was met by Fehr assistant Tony Bernazard.
“He told me to calm down and relax and there was no reason to rile things up,” Amaro said. “I said, ‘Dude, I’m a nobody.’ ”
Phillies center fielder Lenny Dykstra was known as “The Dude” at the time and he was very concerned about not receiving the full $6.2 million he was due that season. While other stars of the game gave their full support to Fehr during the Orlando meeting, Dykstra attempted to voice a dissenting opinion. He was loudly shouted down until teammate Dave Hollins stood up and sternly uttered four words: “Let the man speak.”
Amaro was seated next to Hollins.
“Look, it’s one of the most powerful unions we have ever seen and it arose because the players got screwed for a long, long time,” Amaro said. “At that point, the players wanted to turn the tables. The one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is that David Montgomery was part of so many of the negotiations over so many of the years since then, and he always tried to do the best he could for the greater good of baseball. I think he had a lot to do with keeping the labor peace and not having him around now hurts. That’s just my opinion.”
Montgomery, the Phillies’ longtime president, died last May after a long cancer battle and now baseball is confronted with its greatest labor strife in a quarter-century.
In fairness to the union and the owners, they have been confronted with a much more difficult situation than the NBA and NHL. Those leagues had already staged the majority of their seasons with full revenue, so they can focus the bulk of their negotiations on player safety while staging a modified postseason.
Baseball also has to figure out the best way to pay the players without fans in attendance, which they are obviously having a difficult time doing. The two sides were already nearing what figured to be a contentious labor negotiation after the 2021 season, and the pandemic has accelerated that confrontation.
“I don’t want to minimize what the pandemic has done to the rest of the world because compared to that, what’s happening in baseball is really insignificant,” Amaro said. “But as an industry, this could not have happened at a worse time. You were a few weeks from the end of spring training and baseball wanted to try to get away from the Houston Astros mess and looked forward to opening day. No one has ever had to deal with anything like this, and with the next CBA coming up nobody wants to give anything up. And then you have so much other minutiae with the health and travel that it really makes the entire thing very difficult.”
That said, Amaro is hoping that a settlement is reached and that some good for the future of the game can come of it.
“On one hand, this could be the worst thing that has ever happened, but on the other hand some great things could come out of it,” he said. “The game has a chance to make things better for the fans.”
Amaro believes more teams making the playoffs and a universal designated hitter would be steps in the right direction.
“I’m a little concerned about the way the game is being played and the decline in fandom, so let’s try to make things better,” he said. “I do believe [union leader] Tony Clark and [commissioner] Rob Manfred are good people and they both want to see the game back on the field.”
That would obviously be in their best interest. Otherwise, they could become known as baseball’s murder hornets.