Had Major League Baseball and the Baseball Players Union made some different choices 15 years ago, September 2009 might have been a great time to be a fan of the Montreal Expos. If I close my eyes, I can almost picture it.
The City of Montreal is abuzz for baseball with record crowds filling the new state-of-the-art downtown stadium to watch the Expos battle for another National League Eastern Division crown.
Fans are also excited to relive the memories from 15 years ago when the 1994 Montreal Expos forever solidified a place for baseball in Montreal with a thrilling run to a World Series title.
Indeed what a run it was.
After a slow start to the season that saw the team with a 4-9 record and already eight and a half games out of first place on April 18, manager Felipe Alou steadied the ship. They won five straight games to get back to .500 and after a loss to the Dodgers rattled off six straight wins and were soon heading toward the top of the division.
They secured sole possession of second place on May 11 and by mid-July had overtaken the Atlanta Braves for the division lead and quickly started to pull away from their new division rival (the Braves moved from the NL West to the NL East as part of realignment in 1994).
The 1994 Expos were a young, yet exciting team filled with talent and promise. The team had won 94 games in 1993 and would be satisfied with nothing short of a World Series title.
Among the position players, 28-year-old third baseman Sean Berry was the oldest starter, though only in his second season as a regular.
The outfield consisted of three 27-year-olds all destined for stardom.
Moises Alou, the son of the manager, was the budding superstar. Alou enjoyed a breakout season in 1994 as he finished third in the MVP voting. He earned his first trip to the All-Star Game and returned to Montreal as a hero following his game-winning hit in the 10th inning.
Centerfielder Marquis Grissom was the table-setter for the potent Montreal offense. Since coming into the league in 1990, Grissom had provided a combination of speed, power and defense that made him an All-Star and MVP candidate.
Larry Walker had been with the organization since signing as a free agent in 1984. In his fifth full season, Walker had already won two Gold Gloves in right field and was emerging as an offensive force.
The rest of the lineup was filled with solid young players that seemed destined to help the Expos contend for years to come.
There was 21-year-old Cliff Floyd at first base, 22-year-old Wil Cordero at shortstop, 26-year-old Mike Lansing at second base and 27-year-old Darrin Fletcher behind the plate.
Berry and Lansing would end up as the only members of the lineup never to make an All-Star squad and both of them had solid major league careers.
The bench was even impressive as it included future All-Star outfielder Rondell White, veteran catcher Lenny Webster and slugging first baseman Randy Milligan.
Though not as young as the position lineup, the pitching staff had the perfect mix of experience and youth.
At 28 years of age, Ken Hill enjoyed the finest season of his career in 1994. He won 16 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting.
Since being acquired by the Expos from the Dodgers in a trade for Delino DeShields following the 1993 season, 22-year-old Pedro Martinez had displayed glimpses of brilliance on the mound. Though in his first season as a major league starter, Martinez posted an 11-5 record and averaged a strikeout per inning.
In addition to the two staff aces, 31-year-old Jeff Fassero, 25-year-old Butch Henry, and 23-year-old Kirk Rueter gave the Expos a starting rotation that rivaled even the great Atlanta Braves in 1994.
The bullpen for the Expos was possibly even better than the starting staff.
With four of the primary relievers all 27 years old and the fifth one (Gil Heredia) a year older, the Expos had a bullpen that was merciless on opposing hitters.
Leading the way was closer Jeff Wetteland. In his third season with the Expos, Wetteland had saved 80 games in his first two seasons with the team and would add 25 in 1994.
Mel Rojas was an outstanding setup man for Wetteland and also took some of the pressure off of Wetteland as he could save games as well. He recorded 16 saves in 1994.
Tim Scott, Jeff Shaw and Heredia were all great situational pitchers who could fill the void on the rare occasions when the starters struggled.
Overall, the Expos staff tied Atlanta for the lowest earned run average in the league with a 3.57 mark.
By the time the team reached August 11, they had the best record in baseball, as they were 34 games over .500 with a mark of 74-40.
And the fans of Montreal were starting to rally behind their team. A three-game home series against Atlanta in late June averaged nearly 44,000 fans per game and in their last two home series, the Expos averaged more than 34,000 fans per night in sets against the Dodgers and Cardinals.
However, the season and the building excitement could have been derailed at that point had not the owners and players union come together on a last-minute agreement to save the season and preserve the balance within the game.
Though a new minimum and maximum salary cap meant that small-market teams like the Expos, Oakland A’s, Minnesota Twins, and Kansas City Royals had to guarantee a certain annual payroll, it also meant that larger-market teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs could not spend whatever they wanted on player salaries and monopolize the free agent market.
Having the strike averted seemed to energize the Expos and they sailed into the postseason maintaining the best record in the game.
It was the first season of the new playoff structure with three division champions and one wild card team.
In the opening round of the playoffs the Expos easily defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in three straight games while the Braves had little trouble with the Cincinnati Reds.
The showdown between the experienced Braves and the young Expos proved to be one for the ages.
With Hill, Martinez, and Fassero standing toe to toe with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz, the pitching in the series was reminiscent to what had been experienced in the 1991 World Series between the Braves and Minnesota Twins when every hit, every base runner, and every out had significance.
It took seven games, but Alou, Floyd and the Expos were able to thrill the full-house crowd at the old Olympic Stadium with a dramatic victory to earn their first trip to the World Series.
As the Florida Marlins would do nearly a decade later, the Expos faced the New York Yankees in a World Series battle that was being depicted by many as David versus Goliath.
Only this time David was launching missiles rather than rocks and though the Yankees were a solid team, there was little question that the primarily homegrown Expos had the better squad.
Overshadowing the talent of the Expos entering the series was the excitement by the New York media that Don Mattingly was finally making an appearance in the World Series after a decade of toiling away for uncharacteristically mediocre Yankee teams.
However, once the focus turned to the field it was the Expos that shined. After the grueling nature of the series with Atlanta many questioned if Montreal had enough left in the tank to defeat the Yankees.
However, that concern was refuted from the very beginning as the Expos thrilled the home crowd with dominating victories in the first two games of the series.
After winning one of three in New York, Montreal returned home and provided their home fans with the greatest thrill in sports, a clinching World Series victory.
The excitement in Montreal catapulted the city to grasp baseball fully as a sister sport to their beloved hockey and the city leaders became dedicated to keeping and expanding baseball in Montreal.
The downtown stadium that opened early in the new century would rival any other park in the league for its beauty and fan friendliness.
As I open my eyes, my clear vision of the 1994 World Series, the new stadium in Montreal, and the excitement around the Expos starts to fade away.
Alas, as we all know, the owners and players union did not come to an agreement on that fateful day in August of 1994 and though it would take another decade for it to officially happen, for all intents and purposes, baseball in Montreal ended the day the 1994 baseball strike began.
Instead of enjoying their first World Series Championship, the management, fans, and players associated with the Expos had to deal with the reality that their dream season had been snatched away.
When baseball did finally return in late-April of 1995, the Expos were not the same.
Gone from the lineup were Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom. The team also was without staff ace Ken Hill and closer Jeff Wetteland.
Ironically, the Expos would win eight fewer games in a 144-game 1995 season than they did in a 114 game season the previous year.
While Montreal was struggling to a record of 66-78, Grissom was earning a World Series ring in Atlanta and Walker was leading the Colorado Rockies to the playoffs. Wetteland would win a World Series with the Yankees in 1996 and after leaving the Expos, Alou claimed a ring with the Florida Marlins in 1997.
By 1998, the Expos had a completely new team as none of the position starters or primary pitchers from the great 1994 squad were still on the team.
In 2005, baseball left Montreal for good. Instead of playing in a new stadium in downtown Montreal, the franchise had to move to Washington, DC to find a new facility. Now known as the Washington Nationals, the franchise plays their home games in a new stadium in Washington, but still struggle on the field and for crowd support.
The Nationals posted an 81-81 record in their first season in Washington, but have had a losing record each of the last four seasons and in 2009 are averaging only 22,740 fans per game. That figure is less than the 24,543 the Expos were averaging at the time of the strike in 1994, but significantly better than the 10,285 that the team averaged in their final five seasons playing in Montreal.
While the Expos are undoubtedly the most notable casualty of the 1994 labor dispute, the agreement that led to baseball’s return has also seriously hampered a number of other baseball franchises.
Between 1950 and 1994, only four teams (1953-1962 Chicago Cubs, 1953-1967 Kansas City Athletics, 1969-78 Montreal Expos and the 1977-1990 Seattle Mariners) registered periods of 10 or more consecutive losing seasons and two of those four were expansion teams.
Since 1994, five franchises (1993-2009 Pittsburgh Pirates, 1993-2004 Milwaukee Brewers, 1994-2005 Detroit Tigers, 1998-2007 Tampa Bay Rays and the 1998-2009 Baltimore Orioles) have registered stretches of 10 or more consecutive seasons with a losing record.
In addition, the Kansas City Royals have had a losing record in 14 of the last 15 years (winning mark in 2004 interrupted their streak), the Cincinnati Reds are working on their ninth straight losing season and the Colorado Rockies are currently experiencing only their second winning season since 1997.
While baseball as a whole has grown significantly stronger since 1994, this statistic illustrates that there are clearly places where the agreements reached in 1994 have hampered the ability to compete in an era of spiraling salaries and unbridled spending by the largest franchises.
The Expos were the first direct casualty of the 1994 baseball strike, but they may not be the last.
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