“Probably one of the saddest days I’ve had in baseball,” McDonald said. “. . . You look around, and you would see grown men just crying. That kind of made it hit.”
A great unknown
There was, too, the chaos to come. Dever, a newlywed at the time, headed for his parents’ home in Rochester, N.Y., roughly halfway between Montreal and Washington. There, he stayed with his bride in his teenage bedroom, waiting for the next move. Wallace served as the equipment manager for an all-star touring team in Japan, so he had to pack all the Expos’ gear up in two weeks before heading overseas, returning to who-knows-what. None of the team officials knew what awaited in Washington — ostensibly their new home, but a great unknown, a town that had endured 33 summers without baseball. It had to get used to who the Nationals were, and what having baseball back meant.
“We’d go somewhere [in years past], and we’d say we were with the Nationals, it didn’t help,” McDonald said, laughing. “It didn’t help you get a reservation. It didn’t help with anything.”
Gradually, as the Lerners took the franchise over and put their own structure in place, other ex-Expos who helped with the transition — team president Tony Tavares, assistant general manager Tony Siegle, farm director Adam Wogan, scouting director Dana Brown and others — moved on to other jobs. And this core, with an experience like no one else in sports, is left to watch the Nationals chase a division title, and more.
“I don’t even know what to do with myself sometimes,” Dever said. “The challenges are completely different.”
McDonald said, over the course of the season, he would talk frequently with executives and staff from other teams, people who would suddenly say things like, “You guys are going to make the postseason. You guys look great.”
“It doesn’t feel that way to me,” McDonald said. “Maybe because we’ve been in this situation so long, and you still look at other clubs as, ‘These guys are better than us. We hope we can beat these guys.’ It’s just now starting to sink in that we’re good.”
As of now, no team has a better record than the Nationals. But stability takes other forms as well. Wallace no longer sleeps on an inflatable mattress at the ballpark; he lives year-round in Sterling. McDonald owns a condo in Northwest, and he no longer spends his offseasons in Arizona or Montreal. “I’m a Washingtonian now,” he said. Dever’s oldest daughter was born here during the 2005 season. He and his wife bought a place in Alexandria, welcomed another daughter in 2009 and have a third child on the way in November — a family that has known nowhere else as home. On the field, Desmond is the Nationals’ starting shortstop, Bernadina an important reserve outfielder, Knorr a potential managerial candidate some day.
And whatever happens the rest of the season and beyond, only they can look back over the past decade and truly understand what it took to get here, to the middle of September, with a pennant race in Washington that has roots elsewhere.
“We appreciate how much each other enjoys the game, is true to the game, because most people wouldn’t have put up with a lot of that,” Dever said. “They would’ve sought refuge somewhere else. And we have used each other as sounding boards — psychologists, probably — and helped ourselves collectively get through it. If I left here tomorrow, these people would be important in my life for a long time.”