On this day 20 years ago, baseball fans were robbed.
Aug. 12, 1994, was the day Major League Baseball players went on strike. The work stoppage eventually resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of the '94 season and the World Series, bringing a premature end to numerous arresting storylines.
And of those, none was more arresting than what the Montreal Expos were up to.
When the strike hit, the Expos had an MLB-best 74-40 record and a six-game lead in the National League East. After enduring something of a close-but-no-cigar existence since 1979, it seemed a lock that the franchise's first World Series would follow just its second-ever trip to October.
If ever there was a day to remember these Expos, it's today. And while there's no way to do so without getting into the bad times, how 'bout we remember the good times first?
If you remember the '94 Expos as a flash in the pan, here's a hint: Don't.
Thanks in part to Felipe Alou stepping in for Tom Runnells, the 1992 Expos went 87-75 and finished in second in the NL East. The '93 club also finished in second, but this time at 94-68 and just three games behind the eventual NL champion Philadelphia Phillies.
As such, the plan for the 1994 Expos was to improve on a strong foundation. And fortunately, many pieces for the job were still in place.
In right fielder Larry Walker, center fielder Marquis Grissom, shortstop Wil Cordero and first baseman Cliff Floyd, the Expos had four homegrown players either established as stars or approaching starhood. Left fielder Moises Alou, acquired as a 23-year-old in 1990, was yet another promising young talent.
Catcher Darrin Fletcher, second baseman Mike Lansing, starting pitchers Ken Hill and Jeff Fassero and closer John Wetteland were added by then-general manager Dave Dombrowski in 1991, and Dan Duquette added third baseman Sean Berry in 1992 and left-hander Butch Henry in 1993.
All told, Duquette had just one major item on his shopping list for 1994. With veteran right-hander Dennis Martinez taking his 15-9 record and 3.85 ERA onto the open market, the Expos needed a starter. Preferably a cheap one with upside.
Duquette's solution was to make maybe the boldest trade of the 1990s, sending young second baseman Delino DeShields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a young, slender right-hander named Pedro Martinez.
"Now that was a trade, as intriguing as it was stunning," wrote Tim Kurkjian in Sports Illustrated. "Two young, proven talents were swapped even-up. Money was a factor, but the deal of the off-season was a trade of ability, not liability."
Granted, it was possible to look at Montreal's return and think that money was more a factor than ability.
Martinez had spent '93 merely establishing himself as a major league pitcher, and in relief to boot. DeShields, meanwhile, had hit .295 and stolen 43 bases in his fourth full season. Swapping him and his seven-figure salary out for Martinez, who made just under $120,000 in 1993, seemed like a classic case of the small-market, penny-pinching Expos being...well, the small-market, penny-pinching Expos.
But Duquette was definitely a believer in Martinez's talent. As Jonah Keri wrote in his (quite fantastic) Expos book, Up, Up, & Away, he saw Martinez as "the final ingredient for a great team."
And great they would be.
Because Duquette ended up leaving the Expos for the Boston Red Sox, he didn't get to see his prize acquisition live up to his lofty potential right out of the gate in 1994.
In 10 starts between April and May, Martinez racked up a 3.00 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 63.0 innings. The second start saw him flirt with a perfect game on April 13, one that was infamously broken up when he beaned Reggie Sanders and then suffered his wrath when he (stupidly) charged the mound.
Outside of the 22-year-old Martinez blowing hitters away, however, April and May weren't overly kind to the Expos. They went just 28-22, putting them 3.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the new-look NL East.
But then the Expos got hot, beginning June by ripping off six in a row and 12 out of 14. By the time the Braves arrived in Montreal for a three-game series in late June, the Expos were 44-29 and only 2.5 games out.
The first game of the series saw the Expos get to the seemingly invincible Greg Maddux—he had a 1.63 ERA through 16 starts—for five earned runs in six and two-thirds. The big hit was a two-out, three-run homer off Maddux by Floyd that turned a 2-1 lead into a 5-1 lead. The Expos would go on to win 7-2.
The Expos then won the second game of the series on a walk-off single by Larry Walker. And though the Braves avoided a sweep by salvaging the third game, the message had been sent.
"We feel we can play with the Braves," Expos GM Kevin Malone told The New York Times' Murray Chass. "People say they're the best team in baseball, but we've proved we can play with them."
The Braves series also proved that the oft-elusive Expos fanbase was catching on. After averaging, via attendance figures plucked from Baseball-Reference.com, just over 20,000 fans per game at Olympic Stadium before, over 40,000 fans attended each of the three games. After it, the Expos averaged nearly 31,000 fans the rest of the way.
Those fans continued to see good baseball. After going 19-8 in June, Montreal went 18-8 in July and 9-2 in August. By July 20, the Expos were in first place for good.
How does a team go 46-18 (with, to boot, a plus-116 run differential) in a span of two-plus months? Well, put it this way: It helps when virtually everyone is playing well.
Pictured here is Montreal's lineup becoming invincible down the stretch. And while only Kirk Rueter finished stronger than he started among Montreal's top pitchers, nobody really went into a slump given that the average National League ERA in 1994 was 4.21.
At the least, the '94 Expos were looking superior to the 1981 club that came within one win of the World Series. Heck, they were a juggernaut capable of stacking up with any team from recent memory.
As Floyd told Keri years later: "Our energy level was high. There was no thinking that we were going to lose. We knew we were going to win every night. We knew no one could beat us."
In the end, of course, the '94 Expos weren't beaten.
They were simply stopped.
When the strike came, the Expos were in an awkward position.
On the one hand, they needed the strike the least. Beyond being baseball's best team, they were in the midst of a 20-3 stretch that made them baseball's hottest team.
But on the other hand, the Expos also needed the strike the most.
By Expos standards, the club was paying a lot for its 1994 roster. Richard Sandomir of The New York Times noted that their $18.8 million payroll was the second lowest in the league, but team president Claude Brochu insisted it was more than they could afford in a year when national TV revenue was down.
"The payroll should have been $14 million," said Brochu, apparently only half in jest.
And looking ahead, things were dicey. Walker was making about $4 million and due for free agency, and Alou, Grissom, Hill and Wetteland were all million-dollar players who wouldn't be getting any cheaper. To keep the '94 roster intact, the Expos were going to need more money.
And to that end, their best hope was what the strike was all about: revenue sharing.
The Expos were only one team that wanted the rich teams to share with the poor teams. But the rich teams, naturally, didn't want such a system taking money out of their pockets. Not when it could just as easily take money out of the players' pockets.
And that meant several things, chief among them being a salary cap, no more salary arbitration, restricted free agency and, as Keri noted in Up, Up, & Away, a drop from a guaranteed 58 percent of league revenue to 50 percent.
After the players (understandably) refused to budge, the 1994 season officially ended in mid-September when the owners cancelled the rest of the regular season and the World Series. Like that, what had a chance to be the greatest season in Expos history was no more.
It also kicked off a string of events that led to professional baseball in Montreal—a dream first realized in 1969—being no more.
The strike eventually did lead to revenue sharing, not to mention a luxury tax. Combined, these things would indeed slow the growth of the rich teams while also aiding the poor teams.
The catch is that these things weren't agreed to until spring 1997, two years after the strike ended and the Expos took a hammer to their 1994 roster by trading Hill, Wetteland and Grissom and watching Walker leave as a free agent ahead of a shortened 1995 season.
"We'll still be good," Malone told Chass. "We're going be younger and less expensive...But we've done it in the past."
Except not. With a good chunk of the 1994 team gone, the Expos staggered to a 66-78 record and a last-place finish. And though 1996 brought a return to respectability with an 88-74 record, it was not to last.
After 1996, Alou left as a free agent and Fassero and Floyd were traded. And after Martinez was a Cy Young-winning bright spot in Montreal's 78-84 season in 1997, Duquette reunited with him in Boston. It was in a Red Sox uniform that Martinez would win two more Cy Youngs.
In 1998, The New York Times' Murray Chass noted that the Expos spent just $8.3 million on a team that went 65-97 despite receiving $12.5 million in revenue sharing. But rather than use that money on payroll, then-GM Jim Beattie said the team needed it to simply avoid losing money.
"We're not operating for the good of the game right now," said Beattie, adding: "We can't move from that position until we get some assurance that we're not going to shoot ourselves in the foot all the time.''
A potential solution was a new ballpark to take the place of the dank, dark and literally crumbling Olympic Stadium. To this end, Keri noted in Up, Up, & Away that Brochu announced in 1997 plans for a 35,000-seat open-air stadium that would cost only $250 million.
However, at least $150 million would have to come from the government. Lucien Bouchard, then the Premier of Quebec, all but scoffed.
"We already have a big stadium," he said, via Keri, "which cost a few dollars and isn’t finished being paid for."
An alternate solution was a new owner who would be willing to spend on real improvements to the team. When Jeffrey Loria came aboard in 1999, it seemed like the Expos were getting such an owner.
Emphasis on "seemed."
"No more business as usual," was Loria's promise after buying a 24 percent stake in the Expos for $12 million, via Chass. Predictably, part of his plan involved "bringing in a winning attitude and winning players."
A fine idea, indeed. So long as you bring in the right players at the right prices, of course.
Which, alas, Loria did not do. His big acquisitions before 2000 were 30-something lefty reliever Graeme Lloyd, 30-something starter Hideki Irabu and 30-something first baseman Lee Stevens.
It was largely thanks to their additions that Montreal's 2000 payroll, via Cot's Baseball Contracts, grew to a very un-Expos-like $33.5 million. The three were also powerless to stop the 2000 Expos from going 67-95, and the club's attendance only increased from 9,547 per game to 11,435 per game.
This might as well have been the real beginning of the end for baseball in Montreal. Whatever hope Loria had of building momentum for a new stadium with a high-priced and talented team all but went out the window, and it didn't take long for him to make his first step toward the door.
According to Keri, Loria issued his first cash call to all Expos partners in the summer of 2000. He was the only one who answered, and this kicked off a series of cash calls that involved him ponying up while everyone else kept their wallets shut. Every time it happened, his control of the team grew.
By spring 2002, Loria owned over 90 percent of the Expos. This was, of course, after contraction of the Expos had not only been discussed but actually voted on in the winter of 2001. What happened instead was a unique three-way deal that saw the Red Sox bought by Marlins owner John Henry, who sold the Marlins to Loria, who in turn sold the Expos to MLB for $120 million.
Thus did the Expos end up in the hands of the very people who wanted them gone. Oh, boy.
Things could have gone worse, though. When a new collective bargaining agreement was reached in August 2002, it included a clause that blocked contraction until 2006. Meanwhile, a makeshift Expos team was improving on a 68-94 record in 2001 by going 83-79. Another 83-79 record followed in 2003.
But whatever hope the Expos had of keeping it up hinged on re-signing Vladimir Guerrero, he of the .995 OPS and 222 homers in the previous six seasons. That didn't happen, as Guerrero left to sign a massive contract with the Anaheim Angels.
The Vlad-less Expos were hopeless in 2004, going 67-95 and finishing in last place. It was in late September that the decision was made: Major League Baseball in Montreal would end with the Expos moving to Washington, D.C., the following season.
Some 31,395 fans showed up to Olympic Stadium for the Expos' final home game of 2004 on Sept. 29. The Expos lost 9-1 amid an atmosphere that Joe LaPointe of The New York Times described as equal parts "peaceful" and "surreal," but not without an "undercurrent of bitterness."
That the occasion was also a celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the 1994 team—one complete with some members of the '94 team back in town and Ken Hill throwing out the first pitch—was really less of a celebration and more of a subplot. Rather than the past, what little future the Montreal Expos had left was the focus.
Or perhaps making a big fuss over the 1994 team was simply too painful for some. For if the 1994 Expos were an embodiment of anything, it was the Expos franchise itself:
Something that might have been, but in the end simply couldn't be, truly great.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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