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There were two stories that dominated the season and they would be intertwined. The Major League Baseball Players Association and the baseball owners finally took their feud too far. It was bad enough that games were missed in 1972, 1981 and 1987. But the two sides shut out baseball fans for the final two months of the 1994 campaign as well as the entire postseason. To some fans, who had watched the sport they loved deteriorate into a grudge match between squabbling millionaires, it was the final straw. Many swore they'd never return to the ballpark. Who knows how many have made good on their threat.

What made it doubly frustrating for Houston fans was that Jeff Bagwell had four months that were better than any six-month season a Houston player had ever had. Bagwell made Houston's record book obsolete in a single season - and he never got to finish it. Jeff became the first Astro to win the Most Valuable Player award and the strike may have helped.

Bagwell finished the year with a .368 average, destroying the club record of Rusty Staub (.333 in 1967). He slammed 39 home runs, smashing the club record of Jim Wynn (37 in 1967), and drove in a league-leading 118 runs, eclipsing the club record of Bob Watson (110 in 1977). Keep in mind that Jeff accomplished these single-season records without benefit of the final seven weeks. Bagwell led the National League in runs (104), slugging average (.750), extra base hits (73) and total bases (300).

The players strike began on August 11th but Bagwell's season ended a few days earlier when he was hit by a pitch and broke his left hand. It would not have recovered in time to play again had the season continued. The final weeks might have allowed someone like Barry Bonds or Matt Williams of the Giants, Mike Piazza of the Dodgers, Larry Walker of the Expos or Fred McGriff of the Braves to overtake his numbers and claim the honor. We'll never know.

The campaign began with a new manager, a new closer and a new look. Gone was the color orange from the Houston wardrobe. Gone was the letter "H" from the caps while the star had been redesigned to look, as one writer put it, like Ken Caminiti diving to his left. The new skipper was Terry Collins who tried to push his players more than Art Howe had done, with mixed results. The new closer was Mitch Williams, a lefty who had done well for the Phillies in winning the league title but fell flat in the World Series, prompting his trade for Doug Jones.

Williams' nickname was "Wild Thing" and it was deserved. His fastball flew all around the plate while he dramatically fell off the mound with every pitch. He had a penchant for walking opponents and then getting out of his own jams. Williams arrived to cheers on Opening Day and left to a chorus of boos as he gave up two runs in the 12th inning against Montreal. Then Caminiti bailed him out with a game-winning double for a 6-5 comeback. Frustrated at his poor showing, Williams retired after 25 games.

This provided an opportunity for John Hudek. A 27-year-old career farmhand, Hudek did so well as a closer that he was named to the All-Star team along with Bagwell, Caminiti, infielder Craig Biggio and pitcher Doug Drabek. He saved 16 games with a fine 2.97 ERA but proved to be a one-year wonder.

Drabek led the team with 12 victories during the abbreviated season, posting a 2.84 ERA. The other big-name pitcher, Greg Swindell, struggled to an 8-9 season.

Biggio was no slouch either. He led the league in doubles (44) and steals (39), a combination than would earn him more notoriety in later years. Craig batted .318. Kevin Bass delivered a solid .310 average as a reserve while Sid Bream, given the thankless job of backing up Bagwell at first, had a superb year hitting .344 in mostly pinch-hit duties.

But Bagwell was the show all season. Jeff launched two homers to help beat the Braves, 7-6, on June 12th. He banged two homers in one inning and three for the game during a June 24th, 16-4 mauling of Los Angeles. The Astros overcame an 11-0 deficit on July 19th, scoring eleven of their own in the sixth inning to stun the Cardinals, 15-12. Bagwell had his 29th homer in that one. On August 6th, Jeff broke Wynn and Watson's marks on the same night during a 12-4 thrashing of the Giants. It was a five-RBI performance.

The Astros battled neck-and-neck with the Cincinnati Reds for the lead in the new Central Division. For the first time, a team could make the playoffs without winning the division, going as the "wild card" team with the best record among non-divisional winners. At the time the strike was called, Houston had played one more game than Cincinnati. The Astros finished at 66-49, one loss more than the Reds. They were 2-1/2 games behind Atlanta in the Wild Card standings.

All of this failed to matter after the strike ended the season. There would be no playoffs. It left the Astros and their fans with a terrible case of "what if" to ponder.

By Astro Daily
 

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