Montréal Expos: The Fall of A Franchise


Image via Beyond the Box Score

Stanley Shivley, Writer

The year is 1994. The Montréal Expos are, for the first time in franchise history, at the top of the MLB’s League Standings. The team is led by Moises Alou, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, and Pedro Martinez, to name a few. However, an ongoing labor dispute would cancel the rest of the season before the playoffs. This Expos squad would leave their home in Québec for D.C. only ten years later. How did they fall so far?

Prelude: The Best There Never Was (1994)

In the fall of 1993, The Montréal Expos traded second baseman Delino DeShields to the LA Dodgers for rookie pitcher Pedro Martinez to replace the aging Dennis Martinez (no relation). In only his 2nd game with the ‘Spos, Martinez threw an almost perfect game for 7 innings. For the 2nd time in franchise history, the Expos had five players named to the all-star game. The team led the league in ERA, with Martinez, Butch Henry, Ken Hill, and Jeff Fassero. Montréal was on their way to their second playoff appearance in the club’s 25 years of existence, and possibly a 100+ win season if it wasn’t for one big elephant in the room. Towards the end of the regular season, a strike began between owners and players, due to the expiration of the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, and a proposal from owners to create a salary cap. On August 11th, the last game of the season was played, a day before players walked out. On September 9th, 1994, the rest of the season and World Series were called off by commissioner Bud Selig, ending Montréal’s World Series hopes. This would’ve been the last season the Expos were even close to the playoffs.

The Rise of Vladimir Guerrero (1995-2000)

Shortly after the MLB began operation again after the lockout, the Expos were forced to trade away or cut many young players to cover their losses. Canadian native Larry Walker signed with the Colorado Rockies (Where he would later win NL MVP in 1997), Golden Glove winner Marquis Grissom was traded to his hometown Atlanta Braves, and Pitcher John Wetteland was traded to the New York Yankees (Where he would later win World Series MVP in 1996), to name a few. Also fun fact, during the 1995 MLB Entry Draft, the Expos drafted a 17-year old catcher named Tom Brady, from San Mateo, California, in the 18th round. That 15th round draft pick would stick to Football and eventually go down as one of, if not the greatest NFL player of all time. On September 21, 1996, the Expos called up Dominican RF Vladimir Guerrero, they might not have known it at the time; however, this would be the last great call-up made by the Expos as a franchise. Guerrero only played nine games in 1996; however, it was set in stone that he would be the future of the Expos early on. In 1997, A month after winning his first Cy Young award and leading the league in ERA, Pedro Martinez was traded to the Boston Red Sox for prospect pitchers Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr, both of which didn’t do much for the Expos during their stints with the team. Power hitters Cliff Floyd and Moises Alou left Montréal for Florida to help the Marlins capture their first World Series victory the following season. In late 1999, New York art dealer and former Minor League owner, Jeffrey Loria, purchased the team, with the ultimate goal of building a new stadium, Labatt Park. The new stadium would’ve been located in downtown Montréal, close to the Canadiens’ Molson Centre, been very small for a modern stadium, only seating around 36,000 (In comparison, slightly larger than Cleveland’s Progressive Field), and somewhat resembled a mix between the recently built PNC Park and Safeco Field. Public opinion of Loria fell after he was unable to secure an English TV and Radio deal in 2000, tried to have the Québec government pay for Labatt Park when hospitals were forced to close, and the Olympic Stadium had still yet to get paid off.

2001 Contraction Plan (2001)

In 2000, The MLB began drafting a list of teams to eliminate from the league, starting as early as the 2002 Season. The league began targeting clubs with a stadium, financial, and general franchise issues. The Anaheim Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks, Florida Marlins, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, Montréal Expos, San Diego Padres, and Tampa Bay Devil Rays were all up for elimination. In the following months, the list was whittled down to just Minnesota and Montréal. The Expos’ main problems were the poor conditions of the aging Olympic Stadium, lack of fan interest, poor team success, and playing outside of the US. If the plan went through, Expos and Twins players under contract would’ve been selected by the what would’ve been-28 teams in a dispersal draft, with a select few Expos to be sent to the Marlins, and the Arizona Diamondbacks would’ve moved to the American League. However, the contraction never went through, as a Minnesota judge ruled the Twins had to honor their lease at the Metrodome. The League ran out of time to find another club to put up for elimination and chose not to contract Montréal, out of fear of ensuing conflicting standings and schedulings.

Sale to MLB and move to D.C. (2002-2004)

Following the unsuccessful disbandment of the Expos, Jeffrey Loria sold the club to the MLB itself before purchasing the Florida Marlins. The departure of Loria also came with the departure of any possibility of Labatt Park becoming a reality. With the contraction attempt and failure of Labatt Park, rumors of relocation began to bloom. In 2002, the Expos made a blockbuster trade for star Indians pitcher Bartolo Colon; however, his reign as the team’s franchise pitcher didn’t last long, though, as he was traded to the White Sox for prospects before the start of the next season. In 2003, the Expos began playing a portion of their home games in Puerto Rico to gain revenues and scout for a new market to play in. In January 2004, the Expos only saving grace in the last decade, Vladimir Guerrero, inked a five-year, $70 million deal with the Anaheim Angels. In his seven-year tenure with the team, Guerrero won three Silver Slugger awards, made the All-Star game four times, and was voted Expos Player of the Year four times Later that same year, many cities had thrown their hats in the ring to be the team’s new home, including Portland, Oregon, Las Vegas, Monterrey, Mexico, Washington, D.C, Norfolk, and the Northern Virginia area. On September 29, 2004, the MLB and D.C. mayor Anthony Williams announced that the Montréal Expos would be playing in Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, starting next season. Ironically, it was the first MLB club to relocate since the Washington Senators moved to Texas to become the Rangers in 1971. The team was given the name “Nationals.”

In 2008, the Nationals moved into their recently finished stadium, aptly named Nationals Park, and would select future stars Stephen Strassburg and Bryce Harper with back-to-back first overall picks in 2009 and 2010. In 2019, The Nats were on top of the world as they beat the Houston Astros in seven games to be crowned World Series Champions. A parade float could’ve gone through Sainte-Catherine Street with “Champions des séries mondiales” written on the front if it weren’t for a strike, a New York art dealer, an out-of-date stadium, and a dwindling fan interest.