Nationals decide tostrengthen their Montreal connection

By Dave Sheinin
Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Tuesday night, shortly before Stephen Strasburg takes the mound at Nationals Park for the top of the first inning, Andre Dawson will hear his name announced, hobble toward home plate on his famously gimpy knees, and - though he never played a single game in Washington - accept an honor from the Washington Nationals, who consider him one of the greatest players in franchise history.

"I'm thrilled by it," Dawson said in a telephone interview. "The [Nationals] organization and I are attached, to whatever degree, and I'm going to enjoy it and make the most of it."

If you think the Dawson ceremony could feel a little awkward, if you think it's pointless (if not downright insulting) for the Nationals to recognize a former Montreal Expo as one of their own, if you think any nod to the franchise's Montreal heritage comes at the expense of Washington's own rich baseball legacy, you are reading way too much into something that is, at its heart, a very simple proposition.

Dawson, 46, was inducted last month into baseball's Hall of Fame, becoming just the second player, after Gary Carter, to go into Cooperstown wearing an Expos cap. He will be in Washington with the Florida Marlins, for whom he is a special assistant to the team president. (Carter is also expected to be on hand, and will be recognized.)

"It's just honoring a great player for a great career," Nationals President Stan Kasten said of Dawson.

Okay, maybe it's a little more complicated than that.

When the Expos relocated to Washington and became the Nationals in 2005, the franchise took its 36-year Montreal history with it - including the official franchise records - while also adopting, somewhat unofficially, the legacy of the two incarnations of the old Washington Senators.

"We have a much bigger connection [to Dawson] than to just any Hall of Famer," Kasten said. "Obviously, he played for this franchise in another city. As you know, in Washington we made the decision to recognize Washington's baseball history more than this franchise's history. We're trying to do a little of both.

"We don't know where the line is drawn. But when you have a player this great, both on and off the field, and he has this connection to our franchise, we felt it was particularly appropriate to recognize him."

Dawson, like virtually all ex-Expos, is grateful that the Nationals have retained their connection to the franchise's Montreal roots - otherwise, the Expos would be little more than a memory that fades a little more each year.

"There's a lot of history there," Dawson said. "I don't think [the Nationals] owe anything to the fact the team played in Montreal all those years. You have your own organization you have to tend to. But I think they're taking some steps in the right direction.

"A lot of my old teammates are still baffled by the fact the team doesn't exist in Montreal anymore, and any way or form that you are embraced by the [city] that has taken over the franchise, that's a meaningful thing."

But Phil Wood, a local broadcaster and the unofficial custodian of Washington's baseball history, thinks the Nationals should have left the Expos' history in Montreal, rather than lug it all the way back to Washington, where plenty of homegrown history already resided.

And - is this awkward? - Wood will be the one making the presentation to Dawson on the field Tuesday night.

"I think it's nice, baseball-wise" to honor Dawson, Wood said, "because it probably makes more sense for the Nationals to do it than for anyone else to do it, since he spent so many years with the franchise. But I really don't think D.C. fans have any feel at all for guys who played for the Expos."

Wood suggests that the Nationals, if they honor anybody, should make it Whitey Herzog, the longtime St. Louis Cardinals manager who was inducted into Cooperstown alongside Dawson last month, because Herzog actually played in Washington, for the original Senators, from 1956 to 1958.

"Let's be honest," Wood said. "There aren't a lot of us left who remember the Senators. In order to remember the Senators at all, you'd have to be at least 40 years old. But you can't just ignore those years, the '24 World Series and the other pennants [the Senators] won. I think in 20 years, those will be just words in a book, and you'll be looking at [current Nationals] like [Ryan] Zimmerman and [Stephen] Strasburg.

"But I think it's more important to remember those days than it is to celebrate the Expos."

But if the Nationals disowned their Montreal roots, where would that leave the Expos' history? Shoved into some musty corner of Olympic Stadium, much as the Senators' history lay dormant during the 34 years in which baseball was absent from Washington? At least now, thanks to the presence of the Nationals, there is a proper venue for the celebration of the Senators' legacy. But with no baseball in Montreal (and little chance of it ever returning), the Expos' history has no such vehicle.

"I have great empathy for the fans in Montreal who lost their club," Wood said. "I know exactly what it feels like. To hang on to those records means something to those people. But I can't imagine there are more than a few hundred people [in Montreal] following the Nationals on a regular basis."

For Dawson, after the hectic, six-month build-up between his election to Cooperstown in January and the actual induction ceremony in July, he is thankful Tuesday night's affair will be a simple one.

"I had a strange sense of calm about me when I received word back in January, as if a weight had been lifted," said Dawson, who was elected in his ninth year on the ballot. "It felt like it was a long time coming. As for the [Cooperstown] ceremony, my family was probably more excited about it than I was. I guess I was dreading the idea of how many activities were involved and how drained I'd be by Sunday.

"Nothing else that happens for me can compare to that Hall of Fame weekend."

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