September 3, 2012 by NowhereButPop
All of my life, for as long as I can remember I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of someone with great potential never actually realizing that potential. Everyone has a clichéd story that they resonate with; some people are intrigued by the underdog, others by the 180, and others by the fall from grace, just to name a few. For me, my story is falling just short of greatness. The very notion of someone on the precipice of a great achievement, only to be denied for whatever reason is just fascinating. I guess in a way I feel like I can connect to that. I know I have certain traits that would classify me as above average in certain categories, but I never feel as though I can reach my full potential. I know why, it’s out of both laziness and pride; if I can do things with minimal effort better than what others can do at 100%, why put more effort in? Don’t worry, the fact that I’m selling myself short is not lost on me. What it boils down to is that this is the story of greatness that didn’t become great. You know that you’re there, you can taste it, and you know that you deserve it, but there’s something that stops you from fully breaking out and grabbing it. Flawed greatness, it’s being great but not as great as one should be.
2001 was by far and away the worst year in the history of New York City. The tragedy of 9/11 will forever be engrained in the mind of my generation. I don’t want it to seem as though I’m trivializing it or putting this terrible and heinous attack on innocent lives in the same boat as a sports event, but seeing what baseball meant to New York afterwards, there is a connection. To get there first, we have to take a detour to football.
January of that year the Giants appeared in their third superbowl, their first in ten years, only to lose 34-7 to the Baltimore Ravens. I was 9, and two weeks earlier the Giants had beaten the favored Vikings 41-0, so I had every expectation to believe that they would win. What I didn’t know was that the season itself was the trial that the Giants weren’t expected to pass through. The journey to the superbowl was them realizing their potential as a team, only to fall just short in the superbowl. I had every thought that they would win (why wouldn’t they, the Yankees had won the every World Series they had played in since my birth). Instead of the Giants reclaiming the Lombardi trophy, 2001 began with a most upsetting and crushing defeat.
Then 9/11 happened and the entire planet was turned upside down. Nothing else seemed to matter except the devastation of the attacks and how to find the bastards that did this. Baseball came back two weeks later and to New Yorkers it served as an outlet, a way to channel our typical passion for sports along with our pain and hope. Having lost the first two games at home in the first round against the A’s, the Yankees were headed for an early exit in the hour in which they were needed the most. Then the unthinkable happened; the Yankees won game three by the score of 1-0 behind Mike Mussina’s superb pitching and Derek Jeter’s amazing flip play to Jorge Posada to tag out Jeremy Giambi and save the game. The Yankees then rallied to win the next two and advanced to the ALCS to play Seattle.
Unlike the year before where it took six games to dispatch the Mariners, this time around it only took five. The team that had won 116 games and was expected to win it all had been dispatched by the Yankees. Another trip to the World Series, their fourth such trip in four years. What better way to help a city recover than by winning the World Series in our darkest hour of need? We just needed one shred of hope and joy to look forward to, something to take our minds off of the terrible tragedy that had taken place.
To a ten-year old who was picked on because he didn’t follow sports as much as the other neighborhood boys, the outcome of the World Series was inevitable; the Yankees would win not only because they were the best team and had won every World Series they played in since I was born, no, this one they HAD to win. If there was a single championship in the history of the team that they had to win it was this one. To me, the Yankees were great because they were the Yankees, not because they had labored through the early 90s to build a championship caliber team. I didn’t understand the concept of working towards greatness, let alone falling just short especially in the context of the Yankees. My mentality was that since they had been great for as long as I could remember, they would continue to be great. Now that I’ve grown up a bit since then (well…hopefully, but I guess that’s not for me to judge) as much as I hate the outcome, I’m so intrigued by the story of the 2001 Yankees: a great team that fell just short. They weren’t the underdogs, they were a great team that did not reach their potential via a championship.
To this day I will always hate Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, and Luis Gonzalez (in increasing order) for depriving my team of its most needed championship, and in the case of Johnson for dominating everywhere he went except in New York. They were the ones who denied us in particular, c’mon the rest of the team sucked. Johnson and Schilling got the win in all four games, and Gonzalez got the game winning hit. Also that year Clemens was 20-3, while Mariano Rivera converted 53 saves. Of all the times to blow a save, it had to have been game seven of the 2001 World Series. I didn’t watch the end of the game, but my dad summed it up best “It was like watching a train wreck……but in slow motion”. And so as Luis Gonzalez was jumping for joy on his way to first base, the champs had been dethroned by a team whose fan base, could not by any stretch of the imagination have appreciated the championship at that time.
This is, in fact the opposite of the story that I was initially talking about. The 2001 Yankees is the story of the best being beaten, giving way for someone else to attain greatness. The opposite, as far as New York sports goes is 1994. With the Rangers who had won the Stanley Cup aside, 1994 is the story of two teams on the cusp of greatness who were denied from ever being such. This is the sad but true story of two teams falling short despite their vast potential to succeed. This is the story of the Knicks and the Yankees, which also serves as a paradigm to the careers of Patrick Ewing and Don Mattingly.
The 1993-94 NBA begins and ends with Michael Jordan despite his announced retirement. Everyone, especially in the Eastern Conference (which at this point in time was superior to the Western Conference) was ecstatic at the prospect of a completely level playing field. It’s that mentality right there that exemplifies Jordan’s spot as the greatest player in the NBA. Yeah his numbers are staggering, but up until then, and not since, has the presence of one player had such a stark impact on the league. Just by the absence of this one man, the playing field became level again, as though this one man was responsible for such an imbalance of talent in the league.
For New Yorkers in particular, this was the best news we had heard in almost ten years, since the fixing of the 1985 NBA lottery draft. Now, I’m well aware of the rumors about the NBA being fixed by the commissioner or by the networks. While there are some reasons that may make it seem so, the biggest counter argument as to why it’s not fixed is that if it were, then the Knicks by virtue of playing for New York would be a contender year in and year out. For those of you who don’t follow basketball this hasn’t been the case for over a decade. For the NBA to thrive and compete as a form of entertainment, three markets are needed: Los Angeles, Boston, and New York (in that order). The Lakers and the Celtics are the most storied franchises, similar to the Yankees. New York on the other hand is a basketball city. Right now, as I write this in 2012, New Yorkers are just waiting, nay dying, to have a good basketball team to root for. Look back to the 90s and you’ll see the Garden packed every night and the hype and excitement just permeating the city. We are a slumbering fanbase waiting anxiously to be awoken.
Barring Michael Jordan, there was absolutely nothing that made the Chicago Bulls special in the 90s. As the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons demonstrated, they were not capable of winning without Jordan. Now, if you put Michael Jordan on the Pacers, Heat or Magic during the 90s all three of those teams win six championships. What separates the Knicks from these three teams is that if they had Jordan, even with his two season sabbatical they still win at least six championships, maybe even eight. Their appearance in the 1994 finals was no fluke; they had the best record in the East, and their only roadblock, Jordan, was now out of the way. I sound like a broken record, but they had the potential to win it all both years of Jordan’s hiatus. But they didn’t, and that’s why we remember the 1993-94 season for the fact that it was their best chance at greatness and it slipped through their fingers. They didn’t miss an opportunity or let it pass them by, it fell through the crevices. Without Michael Jordan to stop them, the Knicks were hellbent on winning it all, and man did they play like it.
As if a second round matchup with the Pippen-led Bulls wasn’t bad enough, next up were the Pacers who took the Knicks to seven games. The image of Patrick Ewing running through the stand with 27 seconds left to play, hugging random fans and waving his hands in the air typified the season and all the struggles just to get to that point. Granted they were only up by one and Pat Riley was frantically trying to get Ewing back on the court. But at that moment we had won the championship, the series with the Rockets seemed like an afterthought. The reason why is because between the Bulls and the Pacers, the Knicks had defeated the two best teams in the league. Those two series in particular were the annunciation of the Knicks as a perennial team. It became fact that they were the best team in the league; now all they had to do was finish the run and it would all be set in stone. At that point everyone, not just us New Yorkers, knew that the Knicks had the potential to win.
It would seem though, that fate is not without some sense of irony. I think I lifted that line word for word from The Matrix but it’s applicable. After all the hype the Eastern Conference teams made about Jordan’s absence it would be a Western team that would win it all. How could we be so stupid? Of course the man picked ahead of Jordan would win it all. For all his talent as one of the premier centers in the game, Hakeem Olajuwon (I’m surprised that didn’t show up as a misspelled word in spell-check) was overshadowed for the first ten years of his career. First it was by the Showtime Lakers and their rivalry with the Celtics, then by the Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons, and then by Michael Jordan and his three-peat. It just comes full circle that one of the two people valued higher than Jordan in 1984 would then win it all in his absence.
After the first five games the Knicks had a 3-2 lead and had departed the Garden with a silent promise to bring a championship back home, on their return from Houston. It was just a matter of how many games it would take. While considerable attention was paid to the Olajuwon vs. Ewing competition, it appeared as though Olajuwon had outplayed Ewing. This really wasn’t the case; it’s just that Olajuwon carried that team there, whereas Ewing was sharing the ball with John Starks (a ballhog as game 7 showed), Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason. The team would be radically different without Ewing, but it was more egalitarian, more of a team effort than the structure of the Rockets. As a result Ewing’s numbers are deflated.
With hindsight being what it is, the only chance for the Knicks to win would be in game 6. If they lost game 6, then just by virtue of being the visiting team they would lose. Home field advantage in basketball is much more crucial than in any other sport. To give away the series lead going into a game 7 in Houston would be suicide. If there is an exact point where someone could say that it was at this moment that the Knicks would ultimately falter and not rise to their potential, it would be without a doubt John Stark’s blocked three point field goal that would have won the series in the final seconds of game 6. That’s what makes this story so tantalizing, the fact that there is an actual and discernible moment where it becomes evident that their full potential and hopes for a championship would go unrealized. After inbounding the ball to Starks, Ewing tries to set a screen to give Starks an open shot. There’s only one problem with this play: Ewing is guarded by Olajuwon, and so by approaching Starks, Ewing inevitable brings Olajuwon (one of the best shot blockers of his day) to Starks which allows him to block the shot and save the series for Houston. Now, would the shot have gone in if it was not blocked? Maybe I’m too biased or overly optimistic but I’d like to think that it might have. But instead we got a game 7……fuck.
Game 7 of the 1994 finals is akin to having your first love rip your heart out of your asshole for Knicks fans. It hurts to think about it because they actually had a chance. As much as I hate to play the blame game and castigate a hometown hero, if John Starks played like John Starks they would have won. They only lost by six and John Starks shot 2-18 including 0-10 in the fourth quarter. If Starks went 6-18, that’s it, they win by two. But he didn’t, and instead of passing the ball after noticing that he was missing….alot, he continued to shoot. Why? I don’t know, nor will I ever. The shots that he took in that game were ugly too; it’s as if his performance was a metaphor for the team. The talent and potential is there but just by a small and unforeseeable factor they couldn’t go all the way. Yeah, you can actually blame Starks for his dismal performance, but no all-star shooting guard is ever gonna think that he’ll have a day where he shoots 2-18, especially in game 7 of the finals. If any of them ever thought like that, then they don’t belong in the league.
What separates the 1993-94 Knicks from say the 2010-2011 Heat is that the Knicks slowly built up to that point, and when they failed to go all the way it was just by a twist of fate. They didn’t get dominated by the Rockets, nor did they not play up to potential. That was a series were they could have and arguably should have won. The 2010-2011 Heat had already crowned themselves champions before the season began. They were expected to automatically be great without any sense of effort or steady incline. Yet, when the time came to realize greatness, characterized by a championship victory, they were outplayed by an inferior team. They didn’t play to potential and therefore deserved to lose. The Knicks played to potential and lost even though they could have just as easily won with that same potential. That’s what every Knick fan instinctively knows when we lament over the 1993-94 season.
Remember losing the 1981 World Series after winning the first two games? Remember Dave Winfield batting .045 in those six games? Remember missing the 1985 playoffs by two games? Remember watching the 1986 World Series with misery in your heart and resentment in your eyes? Remember trading away Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps? Remember four consecutive losing seasons from 1989-1992? Remember hope turning to despair after a four games series in Toronto in 1993?
If you remember any of these, chances are you’re a Yankee fan, and an avid fan at that. Who else but the most devoted of fans would remember such watershed moments of the darkest time in team history? By 1994, the Yankees had not won a World Series in 16 years, had not been to one in 13 years, and had an ailing yet valiant captain waiting ever so patiently to have an October at-bat. A dynasty, the marquis franchise in baseball was all but broken by that point. The longest stretch without a World Series appearance and victory since 1923 crucially and pitifully defines what many Yankee fans consider to be the dark years.
Granted, I wasn’t alive and/or cognizant for the majority of these times, it still blows my mind that the Yankees, my Yankees could ever be so entrenched in a period of futility. 1994 stands out in particular because it represents two such contrasting and powerful concepts in the history of the Yankees. On the one hand it is the light at the end of the tunnel; the foreshadowing of the dynasty of the late 90s, in a word: hope. On the other hand, the 1994 season is the dreariest and darkest hour of the darkest period in Yankees history. The work stoppage wiped out any and all hope for a post season appearance, wherein the Yankees were strong candidates to represent the American League in the World Series. Now, nothing is a given, but they had the best record in the AL at 70-43, and would have faced the Rangers, who were leading the AL West with a whooping 52-62 record in the first round of the playoffs. I don’t know if they would have beaten the White Sox, who they would have presumably faced in the ALCS, or even the Expos, who most likely would have represented the National League in the World Series. But what makes it so intriguing is that they never had a chance to prove themselves, to test that potential. Whereas the Knicks did, yet failed to triumph, the ‘94 Yankees didn’t even have the opportunity to try and fulfill that potential due to a circumstance that was beyond their control.
The 1994 season was a wild one in general seeing as how Tony Gwynn could have been the first player in 53 years to bat .400, Matt Williams and Ken Griffey Jr. could have broken Maris’s single season home run record, Jimmy Key was on pace to win 25 games, and the Expos might still be in Montreal had there been no strike. For the Yankees, everyone, the players, the coaches, and the reporters all knew that the season that this team had would never be duplicated. It was now or never, and the strike took that decision away.
It’s difficult to imagine this now since the Yankees have won 5 championships in 16 years and have made the playoffs in every year but one since 1996. It’s probably easier for older generations to imagine, especially those who remember what it like to be a Yankees fan between 1965-1976. All those years of futility about to be washed away to usher in a new dynasty, yet such was not the case in 1994. Their best chance to win or even appear in the World Series in 13 years washed away. In those 13 years, this was the worst thing to happen, because it upheld all the shit that predated it. You ask any Yankee fan about 1994, and they’ll all say that the ’94 season was going to be it; this was the year that the Yankees would break the trend of ineptitude. In a sense it validated all the failures of the years before, as if it were only natural that a strike would ruin the Yankees quest for a championship, as it did in 1981 ironically enough, the last time there was a work stoppage.
I am, obviously, writing from the vantage point of hindsight, and knowing what I know now about the fate of the Yankees justifies my fascinated lamentation of a great team with absolutely nothing to show for it. But, at the time New Yorkers were the most unforgiving of fans because of the strike which took away our best chance to reclaim a championship. People were pissed off. As I’ve said you have 13 years of failure and ineptitude, which for New York fans expecting to win year in and year out is a lifetime. You also had the Mattingly factor, where Don Mattingly, the only silver lining of this time was denied his chance to make the playoffs for the first time. People were pissed for him, that he was screwed out of an inevitable playoff appearance. That’s how dedicated these fans were, knowing that he was the only thing to look forward to as a Yankees fan, the only thing we could give back to him in his most miserable hour as a player was our anger. My personal favorite though is the New York papers on the back page printing out possible matchups and what would have happened on a given day had there not been a strike. They were reminding us of what we missed out on due to greed. Jack Curry summed it up best that no one will know “how it would have felt in the Bronx in October 1994”. That is perfect. We don’t even have the feeling and fervor of having a team to root for in October. The Yankees didn’t fail the test to prove they were the best, they were denied from even taking the test.
Granted, had the strike not happened, then the Yankees might not have been the team they were from 1996-2003. Maybe it was because I was 5 in 1996, or maybe because I just didn’t pay much attention, but when I found out about the strike, no one ever mentioned how New York was hit the hardest by it, or that it affected the fans the worst here. It was only after I started reading up on it that I got all the finer details. The reason that the entire backlash was relegated to the 1995 season was that the Yankees won it all in 1996. What this means, to make it understandable to people outside of New York is that it erased an 18 years World Series drought, and supplanted a 15 year history of failure and loss marred by the strike of 1994. The thing is though, it wasn’t the same team. Mattingly had retired, Jimmy Key was replaced by Andy Pettitte as the ace, they had a working bullpen, and some kid named Derek Jeter was lining up to become the face of the franchise. The 1996 team was a talented team that went the distance. On paper the 1994 team wasn’t nearly as talented, but they made it work, we’ll just never know how far they could have gone.
What makes the 1994 Yankees even more interesting is that they serve as the first part of a trilogy. With the 1994 Yankees, we see a progression from the past, and then improvement in the future. 1993 starts off with the Yankees having finished in 2nd place to the eventual World Champion Toronto Blue Jays. What many people forget is that up until September of the ’93 season, the Yankees were in contention to win the division. And so with the Yankees leading the division by 6 ½ games the day the strike began, it represents the crushing of a hope that began in 1993 that had lasted and even reinvigorated a sleeping fan base throughout the 1994 season. When the 1995 season finally begins, a jaded and already cynical fan base have decided that the only way to earn their forgiveness is to win a championship. After winning the inaugural Wild Card on the penultimate day of the season (in Toronto ironically enough) the Yankees, and more importantly, Don Mattingly, finally reached the playoffs. This too ended in heartbreak as the Yankees would blow a 2-0 game lead over a Mariners team that was much more equal to the Yankees than most would admit. Even though it was only five games, Mattingly responded like a man on a mission. In five games he batted .417 with a home run and six RBIs, and that home run that he belted to right centerfield sent the crowd into a frenzy; I’ve never heard Yankee stadium so loud before, not even when Chambliss hit the series winning homerun in the 1976 ALCS. As was the tradition of New York sports at the time, his valiant effort was all for naught, and the captain retired after the 1995 series.
After a season that ended abruptly and miserably, followed by a season where the team finally made the playoff only to be eliminated in the first round, the Yankees finally reached the pinnacle of baseball, a World Championship. What better way to do it than by beating the heavily favored world champs? But they did it, and it all stemmed from 1994. Granted it was a different team but beginning in 1994 there is that progression towards a championship which is rarely seen in sports. For example both 1991 World Series teams finished last place in their divisions the year before. There was no progression, no working towards being better in that instance, but with the Yankees they had been working towards it for a few years, it just had to come two years later than most would have liked it.
 Fuck you Bobby Valentine.
 Rivera probably should have been the AL Cy Young winner over Clemens