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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

So Close, and Yet So Far - The Montreal Expos

When I agreed to do this all-request Wednesday feature, I knew that some of the topics that I would get, I wouldn't be necessarily familiar with. In the case of today's selected request, this is certainly the case.

I'll be the first one to admit that I don't really get into the whole idea of anything athletic. That's not to say that I don't go outside and get exercise every now and then. I do. Plus, I work in a job where I frequently do a lot of walking and lifting.

But when it comes to sports, I am absolutely useless. Half the sports that are out there in this world I have absolutely no idea how to play because the rules are sometimes so complex. I do know the difference between a field goal and a touchdown, but am sometimes confused as to how many points they are worth. I always thought it was six, but maybe it's seven. I have no clue. I can't throw a football to save my life, and I only tune in to the Super Bowl to watch the commercials (and maybe the halftime show if the main performer is decent).

Same deal with basketball. I know some of the major players associated with basketball are Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. Can I tell you what teams each of them belong to? With the exception of Johnson, Jordan, and Bryant, that would be a big fat no.

Hockey is a sport that I have more or less an indifference to. I certainly don't hate it (I would be giving up my Canadian citizenship if I admitted otherwise), but I wouldn't go out of the way to see one.

Unless it's to watch my nephew play. Then I will make an exception.

Actually, the only time I ever really watch sporting events on television is when the Olympics come. And, I only ever get interested in the Winter Olympics at that. Lucky for me, 2014 is the next Winter Olympic year, so not much longer to wait.

I will say this though. One sport that I kind of liked, and sort of got into in my youth was baseball. I liked playing it (even after my gym teacher almost broke my nose with a baseball in ninth grade), I have a small collection of baseball cards kicking around somewhere, and I didn't mind going to the occasional local game. Baseball was a game that a lot of people enjoyed, and whenever the World Series came around every autumn, fans all over the United States and Canada tuned in to watch their favourite teams play. Whether you were a fan of the Boston Red Sox, the Detroit Tigers, or the New York Yankees, every team had their fans...and some could be more vocal than others.

And certainly in the United States, Americans take their baseball very, VERY seriously.

In Canada...well, that's a different story.

As of 2013, the United States has at least twenty-nine teams representing the country from San Francisco, California to Miami, Florida.

In Canada...we have one. The Toronto Blue Jays.

However, this was not always the case. When I was a child, there was a time in which Canada had two teams.

Now, Toronto hasn't had much luck lately in the World Series department. They haven't won the title in exactly twenty years, their last victory being in 1993. But the early 1990s were a great time for the Jays, as they also won the World Series in 1992, making it one of the few teams to win the title two consecutive years running.

And if things had gone their way, the second Canadian team could have made sure that 1994 would also have been a year in which a Canadian baseball team would win the World Series. But a twist of fate would not only take that dream away, but it would tear a wound right into the heart of the team that would never recover.

And, that's where today's request comes in. I received a message from longtime reader Gregg M. of Nebraska, who asked me to do a blog entry on the life and demise of this Canadian team. And, never one to back away from a challenge, I decided to take Gregg up on his suggestion.

Just be warned...I had to do a TON of research for this one, as my knowledge of the Montreal Expos was limited. But reading everything that happened to this team, it almost seemed like an act of cruelty for a team to get so close to earning recognition, but always falling short of the goal due to circumstances that were not their fault.

First things first, let's take a look at how the team was founded.

We're going to have to go back in time to the year 1960, when Montreal ended up losing its only International League team, the Montreal Royals (a Dodgers affiliate) to Los Angeles. It would take a little over seven years before the consideration of possibly creating a new baseball team for Montreal would happen, courtesy of Gerry Snowden, a high-profile figure in Montreal. At the 1967 December meeting of Major League Baseball team owners which took place in Mexico City, Mexico, Snyder presented a bid to bring a baseball franchise back to Montreal. Five months later, in May 1968, Walter O'Malley announced that the cities of Montreal and San Diego would be awarded a new baseball team – both of whom would begin playing ball at the start of the 1969 season.

Now, initially, Montreal wanted to call the team the Montreal Royals (as a homage to the former International League team). Problem was that in the eight-year period that passed between 1960 and 1968, Kansas City had already called dibs on the name. Montreal residents were asked to submit names for their team, and although “Voyageurs” and “Nationals” were briefly considered, the name “Expos” was the clear winner, having been inspired by the event known as Expo 67. And, it also worked well on a language perspective, as Expo has the same meaning and pronunciation in both English and French.

TRIVIA: The Montreal Expos were actually the very first Canadian team to be added onto the roster of Major League Baseball teams, as Toronto didn't get their team until 1977.

The newly named Montreal Expos now had to find a place to hold their home games, as the Delorimier Stadium (which was used for Montreal Royals games) was too small to support a Major League Baseball team. The Autostade was originally considered, but when the costs to add a dome and 12,000 seats to the facility proved to be too much, the league threatened to pull the franchise altogether.

This would merely be the first of many frustrations the team would face over the next few years.

Eventually, the area known as Jarry Park was transformed into a makeshift temporary facility, capable of hosting over 28,000 fans, which saved the franchise in the nick of time. And, as a result of Montreal becoming the first Canadian city to host a Major League baseball team, the city began to get all sorts of notoriety, even winning the chance to host the 1976 Olympic Games...

...which ended up becoming a major financial disaster for the city, but I digress.

At any rate, by April 1969, the team was set to play their first game. It took place on April 8, 1969 at Shea Stadium against the New York Mets. It was a close game, but the Expos won their first game with a score of 11-10. Six days later, on April 14, the first home game was played at Jarry Park – again winning the game against the St. Louis Cardinals 8-7. It was a promising start for the new team, and almost thirty thousand people crammed into the Jarry Park facility to watch the first MLB game played outside of the United States. Early stars of the new team were Rusty Staub, Mack Jones, and Bill Stoneman (the latter of which pitched a no-hitter game just ten days into the team's first season!)

But the team was plagued with a whole bunch of problems almost early on in its run.

It was always intended for Jarry Park to be a temporary facility for the team. Because Jarry Park did not have adequate protection against the wind and cold, games could not be played at the facility at the very beginning and the very end of the baseball season. The facility was only supposed to remain open until 1972, which was supposed to be the year that the Olympic Stadium was set to be completed.

Well, 1972 came and went, and the Olympic Stadium still wasn't ready to open. The franchise was threatened yet again, but fortunately the Expos managed to get reprieves at all winter meetings for the next five years. Finally, in 1977, the Olympic Stadium was ready for the team to play in...which lead to more problems. Because Olympic Stadium was designed as a multi-purpose stadium in which the city's football team, the Montreal Allouettes played games there as well, it didn't make for the best location to host baseball games. In addition, there was supposed to be a retractable roof installed on top of the Olympic Stadium (to protect fans from rain and bad weather). It wasn't installed until 1987. And, the roof itself didn't become retractable until 1988. And, it was a moot point anyway because the roof was deemed useless in situations where the winds were greater than twenty-five miles per hour. The decision was made in the early 1990s to keep the roof permanently closed.

Another strike against the team.

The initial records of the Montreal Expos team were quite...shall we say...lousy. Their first ten seasons resulted in more losses than wins. By 1979, the tide began to turn. Under the leadership of Dick Williams, the team ended the 1979 baseball season with a 95-65 record – the team's best season yet. And, as the 1970s ended and the 1980s began, the team was a force to be reckoned with, having winning records between 1979 and 1983. And the team actually came close to a World Series win in the 1981 season, but a couple of factors lead to them not winning. First, the team had the misfortune of having one of their better seasons during a year in which a baseball strike split the season in two. And, secondly, in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series (a game which was postponed one day due to inclement weather), the team suffered a devastating loss when Los Angeles Dodger Rick Monday (aptly named since the game was held on Monday, October 19, 1981) scored a home run in the ninth inning of the game, leading to a heartbreaking 3-2 loss.

That day – October 19, 1981 – would come to be known as “Blue Monday”.

And, it wasn't the only time that the team would come so close to a victory...and have it slip away.

Remember the 1994 World Series? I don't either. It's because there wasn't one held that year. The baseball players walked off the diamond and went on strike on August 12, 1994, and the strike went on so long that it was impossible to continue the season. As a result, the 1994 season ended without a World Series.

Which was horrible for the Montreal Expos, as they had their best record yet going into the 1994 season.

The team was at its best shape ever. With star players like Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Wil Cordero, Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland, Tim Scott, Jeff Shaw, Gil Heredia, Jeff Fassero, Ken Hill, Marquis Grissom, and Rondell White, the team boasted an impressive 74-40 win/loss record prior to August 1994. At the time, the team was six games ahead of the second place Atlanta Braves, and if the season had continued as normal, they could have easily stayed on pace to win over one hundred games that season. But because of the players strike, the Expos were never given the chance to see if they could have won the World Series.

The player's strike proved to be very costly for the team as well. In 1994, the team was actively making the case for a brand new baseball stadium, and had they won the World Series that year, it likely would have made their case a lot stronger. But no Series meant no stadium. What was worse, the local ownership group at the time chose not to invest any more money to secure the team's best players for the upcoming 1995 season.

This lead to the team (under the orders of Claude Brochu) to conduct a “fire sale” to cut loose the team's major stars prior to the 1995 season opener, and several of the team's 1994 stars were either traded to other teams or left the team as free agents. The fire sale caused game attendance to plummet, never to recover. Several more players would leave the team between 1995 and 1997, including general manager Kevin Malone, who was heard to comment that he was in the “building business, not the dismantling business”. And with the exception of the 1996 season, the team continued to have straight losses since the 1994 fire sale...leading some to question whether Montreal should continue to have a baseball team at all. In fact, beginning with the 2002 season, some of the Montreal Expos games were played in San Juan, Puerto Rico in an effort to save the team.

However, by 2004, the decision was made to remove the Expos from Montreal and relocate them to Washington D.C., where beginning with the 2005 season, the team would be renamed the “Washington Nationals”. This news came after the devastating 2003 season, in which the Montreal Expos were part of a spirited seven-team Wild Card Hunt, in which the team found themselves in a five-way-tie with four other teams. But ultimately, MLB chairman Bud Selig made the decision that it could not pay the fifty thousand dollars to call up players from its minor leagues to take advantage of MLB's expanded roster during September. The teams had to make do with what they had.

This was the beginning of the end for the Montreal Expos.

The team played their final game in Montreal on September 29, 2004, in which a whopping 31,395 fans came to see the team off. The result of that final game was not very good. The Florida Marlins clobbered the Expos 9-1. Still, that final turnout must have made the team very proud.

Ironically enough, the team's last game ever was held in the same place where the team played their very first game way back in 1969. Shea Stadium. But whereas the Expos won their first game against the Mets some 35 years ago, this time around, the Mets would have the upper hand, with a final score of 8-1...a bitter ending to a once promising baseball team.

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