This is the first of a two-part series looking at the Montreal Expos of the past, and the viability and possibility of the city and club as an expansion market.
1994 is one of those years that just seems to be at the eye of so many different hurricanes. Politically, socially, culturally, and certainly on the sporting landscape. It was the year that Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president, the year of the OJ Simpson case, of tornado outbreaks and an epoch-shifting midterm election in the United States. It was the year of Woodstock ’94 (yuck), the founding of Amazon, the release of the first Playstation, and provisional peace in Northern Ireland. In sports, it was a Winter Olympics year, and a World Cup year, not to mention a year of memorable championships from the New York Rangers in the NHL, and the first of back-to-back titles for the Houston Rockets in the NBA.
So you could be forgiven for having overlooked the season that the Montreal Expos were having. To be fair, that was a near-annual habit of baseball intelligentsia: overlooking the Expos. Hell, we even did it in Canada. After all – the Blue Jays were coming off of back-to-back championships, and with Toronto being the epicentre of sports media in Canada, the afterglow that the city and franchise basked in is still a faint shine on the horizon some 26 years later. For their part, the Expos – the original Canadian MLB franchise, having been introduced in 1969 – had only made the postseason once in their then-25 year history (in the strike-divided 1981 season). By the early-90’s, however, the signs of an uptick were there: the club posted a stellar 94-68 record in 1993, missing out on the playoffs by just 3 games. It was during that 1993 season that the club made a then-unpopular trade, surrendering speedster second baseman Delino DeShields for a respected but relatively-unknown pitching prospect named Pedro Martinez.
Entering the 1994 season, the Expos knew they had a strong roster. Led by defending Gold Glove winners Marquis Grissom and (Canadian) Larry Walker, five 1994 NL All-Stars (including Moises Alou, who was in the throes of a .322/22HR/78RBI season at 107GP), and the aforementioned young stud Pedro Martinez in his first full season, the club recovered from a middling start, to torch baseball from June 1st onwards. In that span, the club went 46-18, putting themselves on top of the NL East with a baseball-leading 74-40 record. There were universal plaudits for the young, dynamic, exciting Expos roster, which featured six regulars with double digit home run totals (Alou, Walker, Grissom, Sean Berry, Wil Cordero, and Darrin Fletcher), and a pitching staff of three ostensible aces in Martinez, Ken Hill, and Jeff Fassero. Things were stacking up nicely for the Expos, who looked to carry the mantle of ‘Canada’s team’ from the back-to-back champion Blue Jays, into the Fall.
But, before we get to the sad part, let’s look at the bigger picture.
In the 16 years since the Expos left Montreal for Washington (becoming the first team since 1972, and the only team since, to do so), there has been a great deal of halcyon reminiscence of the club, and an equal amount of hand-wringing and consternation about the injustice of their move. This tends to crop up when the Blue Jays make their (celebrated) annual preseason return to Olympic Stadium in Montreal, games which are regularly sold out and which drum up a large amount of support for baseball (but not necessarily, it should be noted, for the once-hated Blue Jays).
On those days, articles are written, paraphernalia featuring the gorgeous baby blue, red, and white colours of the club (we’ll ignore the ugly and overwhelmingly-dated logo for a minute) is trotted out, and signs are wielded imploring for the return of the club. But let’s be completely honest, here: the Expos leaving Montreal was absolutely the right and necessary call in 2004. And a big reason for the move, dates back to that magically-tragic 1994 campaign.
When the MLBPA decided to stage a strike beginning on August 12th, it doomed that Expos roster to the teetering pile of sporting ‘what-if’s’ – right alongside ‘the Portland Trail Blazers choosing not to overlook Michael Jordan in favour of a centre’, and ‘Drew Bledsoe doesn’t get hurt in 2001’. Indeed, it’s not unrealistic to suggest that the 1994 Expos roster was at least among baseball’s best: they were six games up on the Braves, and with it being the first season of the Wild Card, a playoff position seems healthily likely. But there were other good teams in the league that season: the Chicago White Sox were a force in the AL Central, led by MVP Frank Thomas and his 38 home runs; at 70-43, the Yankees were at the beginning of their forthcoming championship cycle, and would’ve been a difficult out for any team; and even divisional rival Atlanta, who would go on to win the 1995 World Series, fielded a formidable roster. So the frequent assertion on the part of Expos fans and romantics that the team would’ve somehow automatically won the 1994 World Series is, at best, naive. After all: the Seattle Mariners tied an MLB record with 116 wins in 2001, and they didn’t even make it to the World Series. The Expos were on pace for something like 104-106 wins (by winning percentage extrapolation), and while that would’ve put them in rarified air in terms of regular season records, there’s no reason to believe that such a winning percentage was automatic either.
I say this as someone who grew up in a household with a big Expos influence. I didn’t grow up an Expos fan (nor as one of the Blue Jays), but – as a lover of my country – I celebrated Joe Carter’s home run, and was proud of any instance in which I saw scrappy Canadian clubs taking it to the big-market American ones (the infamous ‘kid brother’ complex that Canadians hold for Americans seldom fails). I also had a grandfather and an uncle who were big Expos fans, and I fondly remember the bizarrely-stylized ‘eb’ logo – which I confused for some kind of multicoloured caterpillar looking backwards – adorning hats and on the front of newspapers from the day. And, like many baseball fans, I miss it. I’m reminded of it when Tim Raines, on the back of a groundswell of support from Canadian media, entered the Hall of Fame with an Expos cap in 2017; I’m reminded of it whenever Vladimir Guerrero is mentioned in this country – and I should note that I’m similarly miffed that he wasn’t the last Expo to enter the Hall-of-Fame with the ‘eb’ logo on his cap; and I’m reminded of it when our Prime Minister jokingly mentions absconding from Washington with his ‘beloved Expos’ on a state visit.
But lost amidst those warm memories and cozy feelings of nostalgia, are the cold realities that saw the Expos leave Montreal in the first place – realities that, in many ways, still exist. And many of those problems started with the way the 1994 team ended.
After the players strike, the Expos saw the heart of that fantastic, perhaps pennant-destined core vacate the premises. As much as this was heart-breaking from a fan standpoint, the financial free-fall that this precipitated is what is most noteworthy here. Much-maligned owner Claude Brochu, citing a lack of provisions in the new collective bargaining agreement for salary caps or robust revenue sharing, ostensibly demanded that the club cut payroll to reach their cratering bottom line. General Manager Kevin Malone was forced deal away the likes of ace Ken Hill, Grissom, and closer John Wettland, with returns of varying quality. Beloved outfielder Larry Walker, who had shown frustration with the club several times over his early career, but who had also declared a desire to stay, was allowed to leave to Colorado in free agency, for no return. With little-to-no leverage on the negotiation front, the shameful fire-sale of those three players, and the milksop allowance of Walker to leave with no contract offer made, showed many in the baseball world that the Expos were in a precarious position.
From that point forward, the downhill ride picked up speed. They finished last in the NL East in 1995, with a 66-78 record. What’s worse, the club haemorrhaged support. The decrepit Olympic Stadium venue – which had experienced fires, structural failures, and lampooning for its ghastly sight-lines and unseemly aesthetic shortfalls – underwent a series of tweaks and renovations in order to become more viable, but the team’s attendance plummeted amidst an atmosphere of anger and resentment at the club’s fire sale. The 1996 season saw a return to form with an 88-win campaign, done on the back of stellar pitching and a career season from otherwise-forgettable outfielder Henry Rodriguez – but subsequent seasons saw another fall. The rise of exciting young All-Star Vladimir Guerrero accompanied the trading of Pedro Martinez to Boston in 1998, and it wasn’t until 2002 that the club would see another winning season.
More to the point of the club’s stature in Montreal, there is a decided irony in the romanticism of the franchise by Canadian sporting media and fans, when taking into account just how much of a ‘persona non grata’ the club was in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. When the club was repeatedly denied provincial funding for a much-needed new stadium construction in downtown Montreal, a desperate ownership consortium sold the club to New York art dealer (and future World Series winner) Jeffrey Loria. While Loria said all of the right things from the outset, the writing was on the wall for the club in Montreal. With an ownership structure that depended on investment from minority owners who were local – and who largely seemed disinterested in funnelling cash into a failing enterprise – Loria tried and failed on several occasions to elevate the club’s stature in the city by increasing payroll and financing an infusion of talent. When it became apparent that Olympic Stadium itself was a bugaboo for potential free agent acquisitions – who frequently cited its ghastly atmosphere and safety concerns – Loria went to Major League Baseball and the Quebec Provincial government for investment opportunities in the vaunted downtown stadium venue, but was again denied. It was likely at this point that he saw that the end was nigh (if he hadn’t already), and the countdown to midnight began. The club was almost contracted by Major League Baseball (along with the Twins) in 2001, but were saved by a court injunction issued on behalf of the Twins, and the league’s weird obsession with needed even numbers for scheduling purposes. Loria sold the club to Major League Baseball, and with attendance numbers reaching record-lows, a broadcasting deal that was laughable in terms of its revenue-generation, and a complete kibosh on any new stadium plans, it was clear that the club was on its way out. I can remember it being an annual September ritual in the early-2000’s for Canadian sports media not to dissect the Expos on-field performance over the preceding season, but to immediately ruminate on whether we had seen the club’s last game in the city.
Ironically, the 2002 and 2003 seasons in Montreal were both winning ones, as MVP-quality campaigns from Guerrero, alongside some astute depth pick-ups and stellar pitching (hello spritely 29-year old Bartolo Colon) saw the Expos to consecutive 83-win campaigns. But on the relocation front, the league’s decision to move a handful of the team’s home games to San Juan, Puerto Rico for the purposes of revenue generation were the lowering of the coffin into the grave, and when Major League owners voted not to authorize Expo call-ups in September (when the club was still in the thick of the playoff race), along with the understandable exodus of Guerrero to Anaheim in free agency, even the most die-hard of Montreal fans had enough of the club. Their final game in Montreal saw 31,395 fans at Olympic Stadium – the most the club had seen in years. On that night, while there was some positive sentiment and warm remembrance, the game was also almost stopped on several occasions when Expos fans resorted to throwing golf balls onto the field in protest of the pending move. The fait accompli was sealed a few days later, and the 35-year chapter of baseball in Montreal came to an end.
On This Date 09/14/2003: HOF @VladGuerrero27 hit for the cycle!
The Expos won the ballgame 7-3. @JoanNiesen @ExposBlog @TheHealy6 @Montreal_Expos @AnnakinSlayd @expomick @WillBurge @expos_exposed https://t.co/pDjkYmrsng pic.twitter.com/yxl4suMoV3
— Brad Badini ⚾️ (@celeBRADtion) September 15, 2020
Nostalgia has a tendency to cloud our better judgment in certain situations, and certainly no moreso than in the way that the move of the Expos is remembered. While the ill-will that the franchise had generated in the decade following that celebrated 1994 campaign was legion, Major League Baseball simply could not find local ownership that was willing to do what was necessary to keep the team in the city. Moving the club in 2004 was a necessity for the health of the league, and while it was heartbreaking to longtime fans, it didn’t necessarily register on the richter scale of Montreal sports at the time. It is only in recent years, with the resuscitative efforts of Canadian sports media, baseball purists, and a robust and healthy Canadian dollar, that the possibility of a (warmly welcomed) return of the sport to Montreal has been broached.
In the second part of this series, we’ll look at the present state of baseball in Montreal – where the city has improved in its infrastructure, what ownership of an expansion team in Montreal could look like, and whether the market is as viable as some of the other potential expansion candidates in the likely event that MLB expands in the decade ahead.