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.
"This place was the loudest park in baseball," said Tim Raines, a star player for the Expos in the 1980s and now a coach. "The fans turned out, and they cheered hard."
But fan backlash was swift in Montreal after the strike, exacerbated by the team's inability to keep its own players. The 1997 season marked the last time the team drew 1 million fans to Montreal.
For years, a new stadium was supposed to save baseball in Montreal. Built for the 1976 Summer Games, Olympic Stadium was a futuristic structure of steel and concrete on the outskirts of town that never seemed right for baseball. Its retractable roof was meant to allow for enjoyment of Montreal's gorgeous summers, but it never worked properly and has been permanently sealed for years, creating a drab and dreary atmosphere for baseball.
"If they could have gotten a stadium built, [Montreal] would have been like Seattle, or Cleveland," said former Expos shortstop Orlando Cabrera, naming two cities where new stadiums led to years of franchise prosperity. "There is tons of money [in Montreal]. But the fever of baseball was not there anymore, because the people have been hurt so much. But with a new stadium, baseball would have worked there."
In 1997, Brochu and the Expos unveiled plans for a $250 million downtown stadium that would be partially subsidized by tax money, but there was never much support from local politicians. Frustrated, Brochu eventually sold the franchise to Loria, a New York art dealer, in 1999.
Loria, too, began looking for a way out once his own attempts at procuring a new stadium failed. In 2001, Selig engineered a complex deal in which Loria shifted his ownership from the Expos to the Florida Marlins, while baseball's other 29 teams took over the ownership and operation of the Expos, with the intention of contracting -- or folding -- the franchise at the end of the season.
From there, it was a short trip -- conceptually speaking -- to the disappearance of the Expos from Montreal's sports scene. But in reality, it was a three-year journey that ended Wednesday -- not with elimination, but with relocation and a new start in Washington.
As for the proposed stadium, which was to have been called Labatt Park, the chosen plot of land is now built high with condominiums.