Remembering the Montreal Expos

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By Alfredo Alvarez

Miami, Flo — “There is no crying in baseball…” Well, I disagree. Sometimes even the strongest and toughest man out there will cry, and baseball is a romance. Have you ever seen a romance with no tears involved? No way. Today I want to share with you the story of the Montreal Expos. A team that went through a lot of heartbreaking moments, ending with a tragedy.

The Expos were born in 1969. They were, at that time, the first team ever to play their home games away from the United States. So they were without a doubt Canada’s team. Montreal previously had a team. The Montreal Royals, who were a historic baseball franchise for 62 years, the last 16 of them, they were the Dodgers’ triple A team. And for that reason they were the home of some iconic figures like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. During those years, the city was all hockey, with the famous franchise Montreal Canadians. At first, the team didn’t even have a name, but then during a call-in show on TV, somebody called and said: “Well, we just had Expo 67, why don’t we name them the Expos?” And they did. On Opening Day 1969, more than 45,000 fans saw the Expos play their first game, and the Canadian National Anthem was played for the first time in MLB history. The home opener at Jerry Park marked the first game ever to be played on international soil.

Fans were so excited that they filled the stands every game, even with the team losing 110 games. The first Expos superstar was Rusty Staub, and the baseball writer Ted Blackmon named him “Le Grand Orange,” which in French means “The Great Orange,” due to Rusty’s hair color. But only 3 seasons later, the fans would experience their first heartbreak when ‘’Le Grand Orange’’ was traded by Montreal Expos to the New York Mets in exchange for Ken Singlenton, Mike Jorgensen and Tim Foli.

The front office plan was to hire a group of scouts to build a winning franchise without investing in big free agents. In 1973, pitcher Steve Rogers made his debut, followed by third baseman Larry Parrish, outfield Warren Cromartie, and catcher Gary Carter. Then in 1975, it was right field Ellis Valentine and ‘’The Hawk’’ Andre Dawson joined the club in ‘76. All of them came up in the Expos farm system.

In 1979, they would have their first winning season, when all that homegrown talent won 95 games, and lost only 65 times. Fans were in love with their team, even though they finished second. 1980 was another great season, but fans would suffer another heartbreaking loss on the last week of the season, when they were left out of the competition by the Philadelphia Phillies, thanks to a Mike Schmidt homerun.

For the 1981 season, the Expos kept bringing outstanding talent from the minors, and that was the case for rookies Tim Wallach and Tim Raines. They would strengthen the lineup and help the team beat the Phillies in 5 games in their first ever playoff Division Series. The league Championship Series was against the Tommy Lasorda Dodgers, and it went to the dramatic 5th game. Steve Rogers, with only 2 days rest, was called to the mound, with the game tied at 1 in the 9th to face hitter Rick Monday, and in the count of 3 and 1, Rick hit a homerun over the center field wall that took the breath out of Montreal fans, and would change the history of the franchise forever. This was the closest they ever got to a World Series.

Over the next 5 years, the team would trade many of their core superstars, and once again, fans would mourn the loss of their heroes.

In 1991, the Montreal Expos had one of the darkest seasons ever in the history of the franchise. Their 71-90 record that year was their worst in 16 seasons. Not only were the Expos in bad shape that year, but so was the Olympic Stadium where they played. During that season, a 55 ton beam fell from the roof onto the field, forcing the team to play the final 13 home games on the road. The thing was that originally this ballpark was not even built for the Montreal Expos. It was built for the Olympic Games, and the truth was that the city paid 1 billion dollars to build it and fans didn’t even like it. Despite all this, on Opening Day in 1977, 50,000 fans were there to witness the Expos playing their first game at this stadium.

General Manager at that time, Dan Duquette, had a 3-year plan to make the Expos a winning team by the ‘94 season. One of the moves was to trade for catcher Darrin Fletcher and a pair of solid pitchers in Ken Hill and John Wetteland. And one of the key factors was bringing manager Felipe Alou onboard in late May. Felipe had the perfect personality to lead this young team to success.

In 1993, the Expos fans remember how sad it was to see the Jays winning the World Series with that unforgettable Joe Carter homerun. It was a mix of jealousy and impotence, because ultimately they came to the league first and they always dreamt of being the first Canadian team to win a championship. In fact, the Expos had an amazing run at the end of the ‘93 season, winning 30 of the last 39 games. That season, their record was 94-68, only 3 games behind the National League Champions that year, the Philadelphia Phillies. After that season ended, the team, despite their success on the field, faced a lot of financial problems, and were forced to trade some good players. Delino DeShields, a fan favorite, was sent to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a 22-year-old, promising-but-wild pitcher named Pedro Martinez, who was supposed to replace an ace at that time, Dennis Martinez, who also left the team. At first, the fans only saw Martinez as a very skinny and very wild Latino pitcher, and nobody was happy with the trade. But of course, as you know, Pedro would prove them wrong.

Manager Felipe Alou had one of the best outfields in the history of baseball: Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker from left to right. It was no secret to anybody that the Expos were very close to winning a World Series, and some experts, before Opening Day in 1994, had them as favorites to win it all. But during this time, baseball’s collective bargaining agreement ran out and that was a potential problem for the success of this franchise. Neither side was willing to budge. The players were ready to go on strike due to the owners’ desires to implement their salary cap proposal after the season.

But in 1994, Montreal fans were having the time of their lives. Going to the ballpark every day to watch this team play amazing baseball. The Expos were 21 games over 500 at the All Star break and with 5 representatives at the mid-summer classic, they showed 2 nations that their success was no fluke. After the break, the team kept winning and winning but the ugly face of baseball would interfere with the course of history. On August 12, it was announced that the players would go on strike, and by that time the Expos had the best record in all baseball with 74-40. Fans were optimistic that both parties would agree, and that the season would resume, but that never happened. And in one of the saddest days in baseball history, on September 14th, 1994, the season was officially canceled, and there wouldn’t be a World Series to be played.

During Spring Training in 1995, new General Manager, Kevin Malone, was instructed to get rid of some key players. Wetteland, Grissom, Walker and Ken Hill. Ownership completely betrayed the fans and the team’s capacity to win. Off course that season, they finished last with 12 games under 500. That was the beginning of the end. Fans witnessed how Grissom became a World Champion with the Braves in ’95, and then Wetteland next season when he became the World Series MVP in 1996 for the Yankees. Fans were totally disappointed and the attendance was really down after that.

The idea of the owner, Claude Brochu, was to have a new stadium built in Downtown Montreal that would catapult baseball in the city. The federal government did their part and chose a field in the perfect location. But the Provincial Government and the premier of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard, denied any kind of financial help for the construction of the park and even the fans rallied, willing to pay more taxes, but the construction of the new park would never happen.

The fans were furious and wanted for Brochu’s head on stick for selling the team to New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria. The team would keep losing attendance after that, and in their last year, Loria, sold the team rights to Major League Baseball, and in 2004, they would play their final season in Montreal before being relocated to Washington, and changing their name to the Nationals.

September 29, 2004 was the final game at Olympic Stadium. The 31,000 fans there cried and watched in agony the final 27 outs of life for their beloved team. Prior to the beginning of that final game, the Expos honored the 1994 team. A team that was the favorite to win it all. If they would have won the World Series, I’m sure the new stadium would have been built, but that never happened. That same year in October, fans would cry in front of their TVs when Pedro Martinez said he would like to share his World Series Trophy, won with the Boston Red Sox, with the fans in Montreal that lost their team.

The list of baseball stars that began their careers as Expos and finished somewhere else is huge. Randy Johnson, Vladimir Guerrero, and all the above names already mentioned proves this.

Will the Expos one day resurrect and be part of the Major Leagues again? It’s not a crazy idea. Even fans in Montreal, where hockey is so popular, miss the game and their beloved Expos. With Major League Baseball’s plan of growing and expanding all over United States and even internationally, the hope that one day baseball will be back to Montreal is not impossible. Personally, I would love to see that happening, and maybe, just maybe, one day, there will be no crying in baseball for the city of Montreal. But for now, au revoir les Expos.

Sources of support: https://www.baseball-reference.com/ https://www.wikipedia.org/ http://sabr.org/ www.mlb.com

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