MLB, Washington Nationals

Nationals have a chance to avenge the lost Montreal Expos World Series

As the Washington Nationals prepare for the franchise’s first World Series appearance, here’s a look back at the 1994 Montreal Expos, the team that never got that chance.

“Montreal Expos clinch 1st World Series appearance in 25 years.”

Oh wait, I’m sorry, I think the headline is supposed to read this way: “Washington Nationals complete sweep of St. Louis Cardinals to clinch 1st World Series appearance.” Yep, that’s right. My bad.

Oh, what could have been.

Yes, it’s true that the Washington Nationals, the team formerly known as the Montreal Expos, are heading to the World Series for the very first time after completely dominating the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS. And they certainly deserve it. You want to be hot coming into the MLB Playoffs and the Nats are certainly that.

After winning their final eight games of the regular season, Washington squeaked by the equally-hot Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Wild Card Game and then took out the Dodgers in the best-of-five NLDS, winning twice in Los Angeles, the last victory coming by way of a dramatic 10th-inning grand slam in Game 5. Tack on the four wins over the Cardinals and the Nationals are heading to the Fall Classic having won 16 of their last 18 games. So again, they certainly deserve this first-ever trip to the World Series.

And yet I just can’t shake the fact that things shouldn’t be this way. It’s not that I’ve got anything against the Nationals. I don’t. I actually find it quite amazing (and hilarious) that a team that really wasn’t supposed to compete this year after losing Bryce Harper this past offseason is now all set to play for their first-ever title. But that’s what great pitching and team chemistry will do for you.

No, it’s just that this was supposed to happen 25 years ago when the Washington Nationals played in a different country, wore different shades of red, white and blue and rocked that amazing Expos logo, the logo I was so thrilled to see return this past summer, even if only for one game. And for those who want to argue that the Nationals and Expos are two completely different animals, I’m keenly aware of that fact. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the exact same franchise, a franchise that 25 years ago was in position to keep the Commissioner’s Trophy north of the border for a third straight year (don’t forget how good those Blue Jays teams were in ’92 and ’93). Only they never got that chance.

Oh, what could have been.

Baseball (and really just sports in general) has never been short on feel-good stories. Even in just the last 15 years, we’ve seen championships won in Boston, Houston and on both sides of Chicago, championships that I perhaps never thought I’d see in my lifetime. That’s not even mentioning the countless personal stories that make this game so great. The 1994 Montreal Expos were one of those feel-good stories. Unfortunately, there wasn’t even a chance for a happy ending that season.

The threat of a players’ strike loomed over the majority of that ’94 campaign but the Expos came to play ball. Montreal won 94 games in 1993, finishing three games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East. With not even one wild card then (the Giants would have taken that spot with 103 wins…that’s another crazy story), the Expos missed the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season but there was plenty to be positive about heading into the 1994 season for manager Felipe Alou, who still holds the franchise record for wins with 691.

Those Expos were young and exciting and had a core that could have kept them competitive for years to come, assuming they would or could have eventually paid everyone anyway, which was one of the big problems with the collective bargaining agreement that caused the ’94 strike in the first place. With only a $19 million payroll, the second-lowest in Major League Baseball, Montreal was loaded with a talented lineup that could provide plenty of offense and were just as solid defensively.

Leading the way was the manager’s son, Moises Alou, who had a breakout year (.339, 22 HR, 78 RBI) and would finish third in the 1994 NL MVP voting behind Jeff Bagwell and Matt Williams. But he was only one part of a dynamic outfield that also included Marquis Grissom (.288, 36 stolen bases, 96 runs), who had finished in the top 10 in MVP voting the previous two seasons, and Larry Walker (.322, 19 HR, 86 RBI), a future NL MVP who was in his fifth full season in Montreal and had two Gold Gloves to his credit to along with a budding offensive role. All three were just 27 during the ’94 season.

More youth and talent crowded the infield as well. 21-year old Cliff Floyd played first. 26-year-old Mike Lansing was at second. 22-year-old Wil Cordero was at short and the oldest starter in the field, 28-year-old Sean Berry manned the hot corner. Behind the plate was 27-year-old Darrin Fletcher. Of those eight starters in the field, only Berry and Lansing were the only two to never make an All-Star Game appearance and even those two combined to play about two decades of big-league ball.

Even the bench had a future All-Star sitting on it in Rondell White. Combined with veteran catcher Lenny Webster and Randy Milligan, who had once been a 20-homerun guy with the Orioles, there was plenty of people on hand to frighten an opposing pitcher.

As for the Expos pitching staff, it was just as solid. 28-year-old right-hander Ken Hill enjoyed the best season of his career in 1994, going 16-5 with a 3.32 ERA and finished second in the Cy Young vote, losing out to Greg Maddux, who won his third straight and would win again the following year. The trade of Delino Deshields in the offseason had also brought in a 22-year-old righty from the Dodgers that went 11-5 with a 3.42 ERA and averaged a strikeout per inning. His name? Pedro Martinez. Jeff Fassero, Butch Henry and a young Kirk Rueter, only 23 at the time, rounded out the rotation that was really only second behind that insane group of pitchers in Atlanta.

But it wasn’t just the starters that were a threat. The Montreal bullpen was loaded as well. Closer John Wetteland led the way and had 25 saves in the shortened season after putting up a combined 80 in his first two years with the Expos. Mel Rojas was the setup man but could also save games when needed, recording 16 of his own that year. Gil Heredia, Jeff Shaw and Tim Scott were fantastic in their own right and were a big part of the 3.57 team ERA that season, which tied the Braves for the lowest in baseball.

Much like the 2019 Nationals, the 1994 Expos didn’t get off to the greatest start, even with all of that talent. They won just four of their first 13 games and were already eight and a half games back of first place on April 18. Obviously not where you want to be. But then things started to click a little bit. Montreal reeled off five consecutive wins, all on the road, and following a Pedro loss to his former team, won six more in a row, putting them right back in the thick of things.

A 4-3 win over the New York Mets on May 11 put them in solo second place in the NL East and after June 1, it was on. The Expos…yes, the Montreal Expos became the hottest club in baseball. They won 12 of 14 to start the month, putting them at 40-24, just two games back of the division lead. A walk-off win against the Braves on June 28 left them just a half game out of first and they took the NL East lead a few weeks later on July 10 with a sweep of the Padres in San Diego.

Back and forth the Expos went with the Braves until they really turned it on. Following an unfortunate sweep at the hands of Barry Bonds and the Giants, Montreal went on a tear beginning on July 18. With talk of a strike getting louder and louder with each passing day, the Expos continued to just go out and play ball, showcasing their talented roster in city after city on the road as home fans began to finally take notice as well.

The Expos were never known for having great attendance but this team was turning heads. That series at home in late June with Atlanta averaged just under 44,000 people per night and more than 34,000 per game showed up for their final home series of the season against the Cardinals. Montreal took three of four from St. Louis in that series, chalking up one of just three losses in their last 23 games before the players walked off the job on August 12. The Expos had the best record in baseball at 74-40, held a six-game lead over the Braves and seemed destined for a magical run into October.

But it never happened.

There was slight hope that baseball could return in 1994 but with day that passed, that hope continued to fade away. On August 31, federal mediators couldn’t get the job done in a long session and no further talks were scheduled. Bud Selig, who was then the acting commissioner of Major League Baseball, marked September 9 as the deadline for an agreement to be reached and after one last proposal by the MLBPA on September 8, which was rejected, that was it. Selig officially cancelled the remainder of the season on September 14, which included the World Series, marking the first time in major professional sports history that an entire offseason was cancelled due to a work stoppage.

Oh, what could have been…and not even just in Montreal. Look at what else could have happened had the strike not occurred. Tony Gwynn was hitting .394 through August 11 and could have become the first person to hit .400 since Ted Williams did so in 1941. Most people remember that one. What some might not is that Matt Williams had 43 home runs at the time and was on pace to hit 62, which would have surpassed Roger Maris’ record of 61, which would fall just a few years later in 1998 when steroids saved baseball. Oh…am I not supposed to say that? The Chicago White Sox were stacked as well and could have easily broken their long streak of not winning a World Series. But I’ve always felt that the Expos took the worst of it.

Sure, there’s always the chance that the rest of the 1994 season wouldn’t have worked out anyway. Having the best record in baseball doesn’t always translate to success. Look at what just happened. The Dodgers came into the 2019 MLB Playoffs with the best record in the National League and the Nationals weren’t scared at all. Such could have been the fate of the Expos. Let’s say that Montreal wins the East and the Braves win the Wild Card, which is likely what would have happened. Montreal would have played the Dodgers and the Braves would have played either the Reds or the Astros, who were battling for the NL Central crown. If the Expos and Braves both win their respective series, that sets up an epic battle with two great pitching staffs. And we know that Atlanta didn’t really choke until the World Series (yes, I know they got their one but they should’ve had about six). Maybe Montreal loses that series and we’d never be talking about this. But it never happened. None of it did.

What did happen was the end of baseball in Montreal. The MLB strike of 1994 killed the Expos. The loss of revenue due to the strike combined with parts of the new agreement made it impossible for Montreal to keep the core together and a fire sale took place the next spring (the strike ended on April 2, 1995) after principal owner and team president Claude Brochu informed general manager Kevin Malone, whose first year was that ’94 season, that no additional payroll could be added.

Marquis Grissom was traded to Atlanta and helped the Braves win the 1995 World Series. That same season, Larry Walker, who simply wasn’t tendered a contract by Montreal, hit 36 home runs and drove in 101 runs to lead the Colorado Rockies to the playoffs for the first time. Grissom’s Braves took down Walker’s Rockies in four games in the NLDS.

John Wetteland was traded to the New York Yankees and not only helped them win the 1996 World Series but was also named the MVP of that series.

Shoulder injuries plagued Moises Alou during the 1995 season but he still put together another couple of good years in Montreal before signing a free-agent deal with the Florida Marlins in 1997, leading them to a World Series win. That same year, Larry Walker won the NL MVP with one of the best overall seasons in history.

1994 ace Ken Hill was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Pedro Martinez did stick around for a few years and developed into one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, becoming the first and only Expo to win the NL Cy Young Award (Max Scherzer later won two with the Nationals). But the team couldn’t afford to keep him and he was traded to the Boston Red Sox in late 1997.

By the time that ’98 season started, none of the primary pitchers or position starters remained from the 1994 team.

The Expos tried to compete in 1995 but simply couldn’t keep up. They went 66-78 in the 144-game campaign (shortened due to the season starting three weeks late due to the strike) and average attendance dropped by more than 25 percent. They fared better in 1996 with an 88-74 mark but that would be the best it would get.

Olympic Stadium was falling apart and it really hindered the franchise. Fans didn’t want to show up and average attendance dipped to under 12,000 people per game in 1998 and there were rumors of the franchise wanting to move to Washington, D.C. It didn’t happen at that time but after a few more bad years, outside of the emergence of Vladimir Guerrero as a star anyway, baseball in Montreal finally died. After narrowly avoiding contraction in 2001, the team was sold to Major League Baseball.

The team was actually competitive in 2002 but the inability to make deals (the problem of being owned by other teams) at the trade deadline killed any chances of a playoff run as the fans continued to stay away. In an unprecedented move, MLB attempted to increase revenue by making the Expos play 22 of their home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2003. Unshockingly, they lost Guerrero to free agency that offseason and played their final season in Montreal in 2004, a season also split between Canada and Puerto Rico, and began playing in D.C. in 2005.

The term “what if” gets thrown around a lot in the sports world. But seriously, what if the 1994 MLB strike had never happened? Could the Montreal Expos have won the World Series? With that talent? Absolutely. Had they brought in all that revenue from the remaining regular season and playoff games that year, could and would they have added additional payroll moving forward, allowing them to keep players like Grissom, Walker and Alou, who were all entering the primes of their respective careers? Certainly. Could that success have led to actually getting real funding for a new stadium in downtown Montreal? Sure.

Season-ticket sales could have risen. Corporate sponsorships and new TV deals, which are so fundamental in today’s game, wouldn’t have been as much of an issue. Perhaps the success brought on by the 1994 Expos could have rejuvenated Montreal baseball fans, much like the success of the 1995 Mariners did in Seattle. Perhaps the “Montreal Expos clinch 1st World Series appearance in 25 years” headline that I started this piece with never would have needed to be a thing because they kept all those stars and became a perennial contender. But we’ll just never know, will we?

Fortunately for baseball fans in Washington, D.C., the story of the 1994 Montreal Expos makes the story of the 2019 Washington Nationals possible and Max Scherzer, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and company are just four games shy of a World Series championship, four games that those ’94 Expos never got to play. In a game full of “what if” scenarios, that’s all we can ever ask when it comes to that team. It’s a fairytale baseball story that never got the fairytale ending.

Oh, what could have been.

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