The Luckless Expos Gave Birth to the Nationals, and a Lot More
When Major League Baseball took the All-Star Game to Washington last summer, the league reached out to players tied to the Nationals franchise. This led to some confusion.
“I was called to go there and be an ambassador, and it was like, ‘Wait, why am I going to D.C.?’” said Cliff Floyd, a major league outfielder for 17 seasons. “And then it clicked immediately: ‘Oh, they’re the former Expos.’ So it takes you back, but it also throws you off at times, because they are the Nationals.”
Floyd played for seven teams in his career, and never for the Nationals. But he did spend five seasons with the Montreal Expos, who left for Washington in 2005 after 36 years in Canada. By winning the National League pennant on Tuesday, the franchise reached another new frontier: the World Series.
The Nationals’ triumph leaves just one major league franchise — the Seattle Mariners — without a World Series appearance. This one is overdue for an organization that was rich in talent decades before the Nationals developed Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and other stars.
“The Expos were like the best farm team to the major leagues,” said Kevin Malone, who was their general manager in 1994 and 1995. “We sent proven, successful, productive major league players to all these teams that ended up winning championships.”
Now it is the Nationals’ turn, and Malone, at least, is rooting for them. He is out of baseball now, working as the president and co-founder of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking. But he still thinks often of his 1994 team, which was 74-40 before a strike ended the season in August.
“We’re going to live vicariously through the Nationals and hope they can accomplish what we wanted to accomplish,” Malone said. He vowed to send a text message to Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo saying, ‘If you guys win it, I’d like a ring.’”
Malone commissioned a “Best Record” ring for the 1994 Expos, and a poster with the design hangs in his home office in Southern California. But ownership nixed the idea, and Floyd said the players did not want the ring, anyway. They should have had the real thing.
“You look at the 25-man roster and go, ‘If this team stays together 10 years, how many championships would have come out of that?’” Floyd said. “I would say a lot. It’s unfortunate, and I learned about the business side of it, but you’ll never be able to let that go. I know for a fact we had something special.”
The team broke up after the strike, and its members quickly became World Series stars: Marquis Grissom caught the final out for the Atlanta Braves in 1995, John Wetteland was the most valuable player for the Yankees in 1996, and Moises Alou ripped three homers for the Marlins in 1997. Pedro Martinez won a title with the Boston Red Sox in 2004, beating the St. Louis Cardinals, whose leading hitter was the former Expo Larry Walker.
Martinez is one of eight Hall of Famers who played for the Expos, along with Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero, Randy Johnson, Tony Perez, Tim Raines and Lee Smith. It is an impressive legacy for a team that reached the playoffs just once and that began with 10 losing seasons, starting at 52-110 in 1969.
And just what caused those inaugural Expos to struggle? “Any team that had a different uniform on,” Ron Fairly said with a laugh over the phone from his home in Indian Wells, Calif. Fairly, an outfielder, won three World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but was traded to Montreal for Manny Mota and Maury Wills in June 1969. It was a culture shock.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m coming from the beaches and warm weather and a team expected to win 100 games, and I’m going to cold weather and a team expected to lose 100 games,’” Fairly said. “They got rid of me, so they might as well send me to Siberia.”
The Expos played their first eight seasons at Parc Jarry, with a capacity below 30,000, a swimming pool beyond the right field fence (Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey dunked homers into it) and, for outfielders, a piercing glare off metal benches in the seating bowl.
After the city hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics, the Expos moved to Olympic Stadium, with a Metro station below, a malfunctioning retractable roof above, a running track as the warning track behind the plate and a peculiar vibe all over.
“Once in a while when they would get a decent crowd — when they were good and fighting for things late — it was loud, it rocked in there, the ball jumped,” said Todd Zeile, the longtime major league infielder. “The sound was different there — the announcer, the smell of the food, ‘Youppi!’ the mascot, all those things were very unique to Montreal and very French-Canadian influenced.”
As a young player, Zeile found the differences disorienting. In time, though, he grew fond of the Montreal’s art and architecture and came to view trips there almost as brief European excursions. But by 2003, when he played for the Expos, the team was splitting its home games with San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Expos ranked last in the N.L. in attendance in each of their final seven seasons, and Zeile said Olympic Stadium sounded hollow, like an echo chamber.
Now the Rays are the team that struggles to draw, and Zeile sees some merit to their idea of eventually splitting home games with Montreal, which M.L.B. has endorsed, at least in concept. But he said it would be hard for a team to win that way.
“It could be interesting from the perspective of trying to get the most out of a franchise that’s not getting full support in one home — but you don’t want to take the risk of having lack of support in two homes,” Zeile said.
“And there’s certainly going to be an opportunity cost when you consider that you’re going to feel like you’re on the road twice as much as you actually are. It’s hard to have two homes during the season and feel like you’re ever really coming home from a road trip.”
For Warren Cromartie, an Expos outfielder and first baseman from 1974 to ’83, the split-season option is more appealing. Cromartie is now the hitting coach for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, but he has maintained close ties to Montreal, gathering an investment group to bring a team back to the city, which has staged popular spring training exhibitions and is targeting the Yankees for a visit next spring.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has said baseball will not add new teams until Tampa Bay and Oakland build new stadiums. As long as Montreal is in play for something, Cromartie said, his investment group is encouraged.
“We’d rather not split games, but we have to be realistic with what’s going on in M.L.B. right now,” Cromartie said on the phone from Tokyo, where he was preparing for the Japan Series. “The commissioner’s made it very clear that until the Tampa and Oakland situations are rectified, they’re trying to come up with other solutions. But M.L.B. has played in London and Mexico, and internationally is where the game is going. We are already an established franchise, and we’re ready for a team now.”
Montreal would have to show solid funding for a new ballpark, of course, but with more than 4 million people in the metropolitan area, it has obvious appeal to M.L.B. And while there are no former Expos left in the majors — Bartolo Colon was the last — some vestiges remain.
The Nationals recognize Carter, Dawson and Raines in the ring of honor at Nationals Park — with the Expos logo beside their names — and the team wore Montreal uniforms in a victory on July 6.
It was a stylish gesture, but the Nationals were just renting the look. Ancestry is one thing, but the pennant flies in Washington — and the throwback uniforms belong to Montreal.
“It was good to see them again,” Cromartie said. “I tried to compare them to all the uniforms now, and those uniforms were hot — and they’re still hot. When we eventually come back, we’re going to have some of the hottest uniforms in the game.”
Tyler Kepner has been national baseball writer since 2010. He joined The Times in 2000 and covered the Mets for two seasons, then covered the Yankees from 2002 to 2009. @TylerKepner
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