The longest goodbye in professional sports has finally come to an end, as the Montreal Expos are set to pack up for Washington, D.C. after years of speculation. The move wraps up 35 years of highs and lows in a city that once showed so much promise on and off the field.
Montreal was awarded a National League franchise, along with San Diego, on May 27, 1968. It was a decision that took big league baseball outside the United States for the first time. Over the following 32 seasons, the Expos provided some fine moments, but heartbreak and near misses will be the legacy of this franchise.
In the franchise's first game, the visiting Expos picked up an 11-10 victory over Tom Seaver and the New York Mets on April 8, 1969. Less than one week later, on April 14, the Expos brought major league baseball north of the border. Despite committing five errors, the Expos stormed back to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals 8-7 in front of 29,814 fans in Jarry Park.
Not surprisingly, the expansion Expos finished with a 52-110 record in that first season, but still had 1,212,608 fans go through the turnstiles. The franchise's second season brought about great optimism, including the slogan "70 in '70". The team won 73 games and was led by Rookie of the Year, righthander Carl Morton, and power-hitting outfielder Rusty Staub, who still holds the franchise mark for career on-base percentage (.402 from 1969 through 1971).
In 1973, the Expos had their first contending team. Though they ended the season with a 79-83 record, the divison-winning New York Mets were only 3.5 games ahead. A young Steve Rogers made his mark with a 10-5 record and 1.54 ERA while Mike Marshall established himself as a premier closer with 14 wins, 31 saves and a 2.66 ERA.
The final year in Jarry Park, 1976, brought a horrendous season in which the Expos posted a 55-107 record and drew a meager 646,704 fans.
A new generation of Expos began to emerge when the Expos moved to Olympic Stadium in 1977. Catcher Gary Carter, third baseman Larry Parrish and outfielders Ellis Valentine, Andre Dawson and Warren Cromartie were all in their early twenties and became key contributors to the team's success. Attendance in the initial season at "The Big O" was 1,433,757.
Montreal made great strides through the late seventies, culminating with an excellent 95-65 record in 1979, just two games back of National League East, and eventual World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates. The team's success on the field brought more than two million fans to the park. The strike-shortened 1981 season provided both the greatest and most heartbreaking moments in franchise history, as the Expos made it to the postseason by winning the second-half title in the NL East. The excitement of the pennant chase brought huge crowds (over 54,000 in each of the NLCS championship games) that would burst into song ("The Happy Wanderer" was the favourite) and roar with approval for a team that looked like it was headed to the World Series.
With the National League Championship Series tied at two games apiece, the Expos hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers on October 19th for the right to take on the New York Yankees in The Fall Classic. With the teams tied at one heading into the ninth inning, the Expos called on ace Steve Rogers to relieve starter Jeff Burris.
After getting two quick outs to start the inning, Rogers fell behind Dodgers' outfielder Rick Monday, 3 balls and 1 strike. Rogers' next pitch was a flat slider that Monday drove out of the reach of Andre Dawson and over the centerfield wall to give the Dodgers the 2-1 win.
While the Blue Monday loss was heartbreaking, there was still the sense that this Expos team would be in contention for years. The pitching staff had veterans Rogers and Burris supported by young arms Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson and Charlie Lea, while Jeff Reardon was emerging as a bona fide closer.
Unfortunately, the Expos were mostly a middle of the pack team until 1987, when they returned to contention. Veteran third baseman Tim Wallach (the franchise leader in games played, hits, doubles and RBI, playing from 1980 through 1992) drove in 123 runs and speedy left fielder Tim Raines stole 50 bases to lead the offensive charge while veteran hurlers Dennis Martinez, Neal Heaton and Bryn Smith anchored the rotation with Tim Burke (the Expos all-time ERA leader) in the bullpen. The Expos' 91-71 record was the franchise's best since 1979, but they still came four games short of division-winning St. Louis.
Raines was traded to the Chicago White Sox after the 1990 season and after a disappointing 1991 season, which saw the Expos finish with a dismal 71-90 record, original owner Charles Bronfman sold the club to a group headed by Claude Brochu.
Box office problems followed, though not entirely due to the play on the field. The Expos finished under the one million mark in attendance for the first time since 1976 with only 934,742 showing up at Olympic Stadium, but they had to spend the last month of the season on the road after a concrete slab fell from Olympic Stadium raising safety concerns.
Following the disappointment of 1991, however, the early nineties brought a resurgence with manager Felipe Alou and another tremendous young outfield. The trio of Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou and Larry Walker brought speed, power, defense and unlimited potential. The 1993 team notched 94 wins, only three games behind Philadelphia.
1994 appeared to be the crossroads season for the franchise, as the Expos added young fireballer Pedro Martinez to the starting rotation and blistered to a major league-best 74-40 record before the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike on August 11th. Major League Baseball ended up cancelling the World Series, for the first time since 1904, and Montreal fans were robbed of a chance to see their team play for, and quite possibly win, the sport's top prize. Alou became the second Expos manager, after Buck Rodgers in 1987, to win the Manager of the Year Award.
The ensuing financial climate of Major League Baseball made the Expos appear to be a feeder system of top talent to the rest of the major leagues. Walker and bullpen closer John Wetteland left via free agency after 1994 while Marquis Grissom was dealt to Atlanta for Roberto Kelly and prospects Esteban Yan and Tony Tarasco.
Alou went to Florida as a free agent after a 1996 season in which the Expos finished two games out of the Wild Card playoff spot. In an especially crushing blow, the Expos dealt Pedro Martinez to Boston for prospects Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. after he won the National League Cy Young Award in 1997.
Brochu then attempted to resurrect the franchise by championing a plan for a new downtown stadium. When it became apparent that no such deal would happen, Brochu sold his shares in the team to Jeffrey Loria in late 1999. Loria immediately signed free agent Graeme Lloyd and acquired Hideki Irabu from the New York Yankees and continued angling for a new stadium. A prime downtown site was available and the Quebec government agreed to pay interest on a $100-million Cdn loan to help the financing.
But Loria scrapped the stadium plan and seemed to lose interest in Montreal after alienating local sponsors and broadcasters. In his first year as owner, the team did not have an English TV deal and games were available only on the Internet.
In 2002, Loria sold the team to the other 29 major league clubs and bought the Florida Marlins in a plan that would have seen the Expos and the Minnesota Twins 'contracted' out of existence. A new agreement with the players that year removed the contraction threat, but minority owners are still in court contesting Loria's sale and trying to block the team from being moved from Montreal. Condos are now being built on the proposed downtown stadium site where fans once hoped that Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero, probably the team's best player ever, were to bring the good times back to Montreal.
Guerrero signed as a free agent with Anaheim after the 2003 season. Even many of the die-hards had to give up then.
While the Expos have been successful in developing young talent, the fans no longer seemed interested in supporting a team that can't keep its best players. Attendance figures continued to drop until the bitter end, making it that much harder to maintain a major league outfit.
While the decision to move the Expos is somewhat anti-climatic, it would also seem that fans in Montreal feel Major League Baseball quit on them some time ago. They have responded in kind.