Reflecting on 1994, and why baseball in Montreal can work


As sports fans, especially nowadays, we have a tendency to get nostalgic. Phillies fans remember when their team won the 2008 World Series over the Tampa Bay Rays. Nowadays, given the current state of the Phils, 2008 feels like a century ago.

Or two centuries.

Old school basketball fans certainly remember the old days of the 80s and how the Boston Celtics/Los Angeles Lakers rivalry was primarily fueled by the on-court competition of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

Then, you have a special kind of nostalgic sports fan—one who reminisces on the good old days of when their favorite team actually existed. Whether that team is the Seattle Supersonics, the Hartford Whalers, the Houston Comets, or even the Los Angeles Xtreme of the XFL.

For baseball fans, one recent equivalent to the Sonics, or even the Comets, is the Montreal Expos.

This week, baseball fans everywhere are looking back at a moment that MLB would rather forget—the player’s strike of 1994. MLB was a hotbed of unrest between labor and management for quite sometime even before ’94, but it was in 1994 where that struggle between players and owners reached its apex. The players went on strike, that not only ended the 1994 season, but cancelled the World Series.

Quebecois still have nightmares about the 1994 strike to this day.

After all, it was in 1994 where the Montreal Expos were the best team in the Major Leagues. They had a stellar pitching staff led by a young up-and-comer by the name of Pedro Martinez as well as an offense that included Larry Walker, Rondell White, and Moises Alou.

At the time that the strike happened, the Expos had a record of 74-40, six games ahead of the second place Atlanta Braves. They seemed a lock to win 100 games that season.

Plus—and this is a common talking point among detractors of baseball in Montreal—their average attendance was just under 25,000 in a stadium (Olympic Stadium/Le Stade de Olympique) that was beginning to show signs of aging. Compare that to the average attendance of both Florida MLB teams in 2013—under 20,000.

Then, the stuff hit the fan.

The strike occurred, and we will never know what would have happened when the 1994 playoffs occurred. Likely, the Expos would have been, at the very least, favorites to win the World Series.

Ever since 1994, the Expos never recovered. The Atlanta Braves went on to win 11 more consecutive division championships in the NL East and Montreal never duplicated the success they had in 1994. The team has even become the focus of an episode of MLB Network’s Triumph and Tragedy.

Martinez went on to win the Red Sox’ first championship in 86 years in 2004 when they swept the St. Louis Cardinals. Alou’s most memorable baseball moment didn’t even occur while with Les Expos. It was in 2003 while in the NLCS with the Chicago Cubs—the Steve Bartman play.

The team struggled and attendance plummeted. Contraction was even talked about within Park Avenue of both the Expos and Minnesota Twins, before Minnesotans wagged their fingers Dikembe Mutumbo-style in Bud Selig’s face.

In fact, it became so bad in Montreal that the Expos had to play a significant portion of its home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the team’s final days prior to moving to Washington. The team became the Washington Nationals.

The Nats played its first baseball in 2005 in RFK Stadium before moving to Nationals Park in 2008. Peter Angelos, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles wanted nothing to do with another team coming into his “exclusive” territory and only agreed to the move if the Nationals agreed to allow the Orioles to dictate a majority of its television revenue via their regional sports channel—MASN.

Since then, Montreal has been diamond-less. A grassroots movement has taken place in Montreal that advocates for baseball to relocate another team to Quebec or for the league to expand again. The last time baseball expanded was prior to the 1998 when the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks debuted.

The city may be diamondless in both Anglophone and Francophone, but there’s no question that it can work again. Because of a similar issue that rose in the mid-1990s with the Seattle Mariners.

The M’s were stuck in the Kingdome as it was in the throes of its last days. If a new stadium wasn’t built for the Mariners in downtown Seattle, the Emerald City would have likely lost the Mariners to Tampa Bay. The Mariners in Seattle were saved by their 1995 season that saw the team advance to the ALCS before losing to the Cleveland Indians.

In 2000, the Mariners said farewell to the Kingdome and moved into Safeco Field. That stadium does not exist without 1995. Safeco was really “The House that Lou (Piniella) Built”.

One must also remember that the 1994 strike bled into the ’95 season as well. In a sense, the ’94 strike was step one in the eventual loss of the Expos, but it saved the Mariners in Seattle.

The Mariners’ example should be the biggest one of how an exciting team can regenerate interest in baseball from a community. The Oakland Athletics are currently in the midst of a similar snafu with MLB and the San Francisco Giants over a proposed move to San Jose, supposedly the Giants’ exclusive television territory. They want to move out of Coliseum to San Jose and have a great team, but the Giants and MLB won’t allow it.

And, as much as sports organizations everywhere insist that teams build new stadia with taxpayer money, could one imagine if such a stadium was built in Montreal?

There should not be much question that if the 1994 season was allowed to continue, the Expos would have at least reached the World Series and could have planted the seeds of a dynasty. We would still be talking about the Expos as a baseball team today instead of a distant memory of seamheads everywhere.

If baseball, Montreal, and the province of Quebec can get its collective bats in a row and work something out, there can be, at least, the beginning of debate over a new stadium in Montreal for the Expos. The Rays, somewhat ironically, are seen as a leading candidate for relocation given its woeful attendance figures in spite of its trip to the World Series in 2008. But, the lease for Tropicana Field, that is owned by the City of St. Petersburg, lasts until 2027.

A Rays relocation to Montreal could presumably mean the relaunch of the Expos as an American League East team in the same division as its Canadian compadres, the Toronto Blue Jays. It could be the beginning of a Toronto-Montreal rivalry.

Earlier this season, prior to the start of the season, the New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays played exhibition games at Le Stade Olympique in what was the first baseball Montreal saw since the departure of the Expos to the District. The 1994 team was honored at the exhibitions. The games averaged over 48,000 fans both days, and the Jays just announced that they will continue to play exhibitions in Montreal next year. A report from a French-language sports radio station in Montreal suggests that the opponent will be the Cincinnati Reds.

Even though this has not been heavily covered stateside, it’s a huge talk of conversations in Quebec. The two teams on the field for those games may not have been wearing Expos uniforms, but clearly, those games were meant to send a message to baseball that the city and province wants its Expos back.

Blue Jays officials apparently see what has happened, and is why they’re continuing with exhibitions in Montreal. MLB officials also saw what happened. This was without a doubt the biggest story of this year’s spring training. The word “Montreal” is back in the conversation amongst baseball luminaries and fans alike because Montrealers and Quebecois said so.

On the flip side, the attendance figures for this year’s exhibition games could be a case of Montreal’s heart simply growing fonder for baseball after the departure of the Expos a decade ago. If these are duplicated next year, then it’s an obvious sign that Montreal and Quebec want to be back in the conversation with Selig retiring and Rob Manfred likely stepping in to replace him.

Montrealers started the baseball-in-Montreal conversation again with a message of “Bonjour” to baseball at this year’s exhibition games. Manfred and MLB’s response should be a team and a “Merci, Montreal”.