MONTREAL -- It is almost hard to imagine now, but there was a time not so long ago when the Montreal Expos were vibrant and thriving, when they were not simply competitive on the field, but championship-caliber, and the envy of all of baseball.
If plotted on a simple line graph, the history of the Expos in Montreal would begin (in 1969) and end (in 2004) at decidedly low points, with several moderate peaks (such as the team's lone playoff appearance, in 1981) and one indisputable, towering acme, from whence the descent was swift and complete.
That acme came in 1994.
On Aug. 11 of that season, the Expos had a record of 74-40, the best in baseball, and a six-game lead over second-place Atlanta in the National League East Division. Their roster was stacked with arguably the most impressive collection of young players in the game, including Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou and John Wetteland.
"I've been on some great teams," Martinez said recently, singling out his current team, the Boston Red Sox. "But if you put together the talent and the ages -- I mean, we were all so young and good -- I'd have to say the '94 Expos were the best team I've ever been on. It's sad that we never got a chance to finish what we started."
That's because Aug. 11 brought a premature end to the season. Baseball's players had voted to go on strike, a decision that not only cost the Expos a shot at what could have been the only World Series title in franchise history, but also, by most accounts, hastened the demise of the franchise. "You never can tell, of course," Martinez said, "but we were definitely good enough to win the World Series, and I believe we would have."
Commissioner Bud Selig made the historic decision to cancel the World Series, and when baseball returned after a 232-day standoff, fans everywhere were slow to come back to the game. But perhaps nowhere was the consequence harsher than in Montreal.
Within a week of the end of the strike, the Expos had traded Wetteland, Grissom and veteran pitcher Ken Hill, while Walker was allowed to walk away as a free agent. Just like that, the team lost its leadoff hitter, cleanup hitter, ace and closer. And the defections continued: Reliever Jeff Shaw was gone by the end of the 1995 season, Alou by the end of 1996 and Martinez and third baseman Mike Lansing by the end of 1997.
And after the 2001 season, the Expos no longer had an owner. The team was taken over by the other 29 teams following a complex transaction in which former owner Jeffrey H. Loria was allowed to swap the Expos for the Florida Marlins.
Selig rejected the notion that the strike was solely to blame for the Expos' demise, saying, "There were other problems there, including a lack of local ownership support and lack of fan support."
"The Expos were hurting for operating funds" after the strike, said Hugh Hallward, a minority owner from 1969 to 1991 under original owner Charles Bronfman. "The team was disbanded, players were let go, and the fans in Montreal saw that the playing field was not level and that the ownership of the team was not committed to win. They said, 'Why should we support a team that is not going to support itself?' "
That view is shared by Claude Brochu, the team's owner from 1991 to 1999. "Yes, [the strike] does hit you," he told the Montreal Gazette earlier this year. "The fans are furious. Everybody's mad that you're losing players, and they stop going to games. But if you can build it a little later on with something that's much more positive, then [the strike] is just a part of your history.
"Unfortunately, we weren't able to do that. And with everything we went through, we just hammered the franchise right into the ground, and it became just one more element that destroyed baseball here."
The Expos were once an excellent draw, averaging more than 2 million fans per season from 1979 to '83. At the time of the strike, the Expos' daily attendance was at a seven-year high.