*IMPORTANT EDIT, APRIL 9th, 2013*
The large contingent of Montreal Expos fans working to bring baseball back to their city has a website. I encourage anyone who loves the Expos or, at the very least, loves the game, to check it out. ExposNation is located at http://exposnation.com/ and is available in French and English.
*IMPORTANT EDIT, APRIL 9th, 2013*
Today marks an off-day for the Dodgers before they go to San Diego and do the whole Opening Day scene all over again, this time at Petco Park where the Padres will open their home schedule.
For die-hard Dodger fans, an off-day will often bring some confusion. What will I do with myself tonight if the Dodgers aren’t on? Can I wait 24 hours for another game?
Now, imagine for a moment that you had the same passion for your team, but you lived in Montreal and that team was the Expos. Montreal Expos fans have been waiting for that next game to start for 9 seasons now, ever since Les Expos packed up and moved to Washington, D.C. and became the Washington Nationals.
Montreal has not always been this baseball-deprived, though. Indeed, the Expos entertained millions of fans throughout the Province of Quebec and across all of Major League Baseball from the Amazin’ Year of 1969 all the way until 2004. Before that, Montreal also had a significant minor league team, the Montreal Royals. Both the Royals and the Expos played significant roles in Dodger franchise history as well, and I think it’s time that Montreal got its due as a great baseball town.
The Montreal Royals: Where Dodger Royalty Got Its Start
The year is 1946 and a young African American kid strides to the plate for the Montreal Royals with 20,000 fans cheering at Delorimier Stadium in Montreal. The young man takes his practice cuts, waits for the pitch, and makes contact. He uses his speed to glide down to first base safely much to the delight of the crowd.
The following April 15th, that kid becomes Jackie Robinson. The color barrier is broken and a legend is born.
Everyone is familiar with Jackie Robinson’s story, and one week from today, we will once again celebrate Robinson’s contributions to baseball and their significance in helping the cause of racial equality in this country. Even before that, the movie “42” will debut to tell that story, and somewhere in that movie, we will get a brief reminder that Montreal served as an important stepping-stone to that barrier-breaking moment. It’s important, as we prepare to honor Jackie Robinson, that we also remember that stepping-stone and its baseball legacy.
According to a Wikipedia article about the team, the Montreal Royals were in existence from 1897-1917 and again from 1928-1960, serving as an affiliate of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1939-1960 and becoming their top minor league team (AAA level) in 1946. They played their home games at Delorimier Stadium, a ballpark with a capacity of 20,000 that also served for a period of time as the home to the Montreal Allouettes of the Canadian Football League.
Jackie Robinson was far from the only Dodger great to pass through Montreal. Other Dodgers found themselves in a Royals uniform before inevitably making their debuts at Ebbetts Field or the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Among some of the other greats to come through were Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Walter Alston, and the legendary Tommy Lasorda.
In fact, Tommy Lasorda was something of a Montreal Royals legend. While Tommy couldn’t quite stick with the Big Club, which had a stacked rotation featuring the likes of Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Johnny Podres, and more, he had a great deal of success with the Royals. According to his biography on the Canadian Baseball Hall Of Fame website, Tommy won 107 games for the Royals between 1950 and 1960 while mixing in time with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Kansas City Athletics and was the franchise’s all-time winningest pitcher.
The Montreal Royals ceased to exist as the Dodgers’ top minor league team in 1960, but by the end of the decade, the city would have Major League Baseball. The Amazin’ Mets may have taken home the title in 1969, but in Montreal, the story was Les Expos.
The Montreal Expos
The Montreal Expos played their first game on April 8th, 1969, 44 years ago today, against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. This box score shows that although the Amazin’s would go on to win the 1969 World Series, it would be the Expos who prevailed in this one with an 11-10 victory. Of note to Dodger fans: former Dodger Maury Wills led off and played Shortstop for the Expos that day, going 3-for-6 with 2 doubles off of Mets ace Tom Seaver and a stolen base. Pitcher Dan McGinn, long-time Major Leaguer Rusty Staub, and 3rd Baseman Coco Laboy would all homer for the Expos in their inaugural game.
According to their Wikipedia article, the Expos owe their existence in large part to Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, who remembered the city from its days hosting the Royals and who pushed for Major League Baseball to place an expansion team in Montreal. In 1968, Major League Baseball approved expansion to Montreal and San Diego and the Major Leagues were officially coming to Canada. The Royals name unfortunately could not be considered as a team already had that name (the Kansas City Royals,) so the name Expos was chosen, after the ’67 Expo Worlds Fair which was held in Montreal.
Here’s some footage from that first game as well as the Expos’ first game at Jarry Park from YouTube user a2zme.
For more great footage and stories about early Montreal Expos baseball and the experience of playing at Parc Jarry, here’s a YouTube from Mr. Rusty Staub himself.
Jarry Park would serve as home of the Expos from 1969 until the completion of Olympic Stadium in 1976 at which time the Expos would move into their larger confines. Those early seasons brought some great memories, but it would not be until 1981 that Montreal would clinch its first playoff berth.
The 1981 Expos won the National League East’s second half title. Led by All Star Catcher Gary Carter and manager Dick Williams, this would be the Expos’ only playoff appearance. The Expos won in the strike-created Divisional round by beating the Philadelphia Phillies in 5 games. Steve Rogers would beat Phillies ace Steve Carlton in the decisive 5th game, giving the Expos their lone playoff series victory and setting up a matchup for the league championship with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The fates would not be on the Expos side in the NLCS, however. Through 8 innings, Ray Burris and Fernando Valenzuela had pitched to a 1-1 draw, the Expos getting their run in the 1st inning, the Dodgers getting theirs in the 5th. Dodger outfielder Rick Monday came up with two outs in the Top of the 9th. To this point, Monday had a reputation as a solid contributor in the outfield, but his career highlight had been saving an American flag from burning on the Dodger Stadium outfield grass while a member of the Chicago Cubs in 1976. However, on this day, Monday added “playoff hero” to his resume, taking reliever Steve Rogers out of the yard at Olympic Stadium to center field. The Expos would not come close the World Series again until 1994. A video of Monday’s blast can be found below.
The Expos would continue to play good ball through the ’80’s, with Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and Tim Raines leading the way on offense, hosting the 1982 All Star Game at Olympic Stadium (and sending 5 hometown players to that game!), but never again coming close to the World Series.
In 1991, it would be the Expos pitching that exacted some revenge on the Dodgers for their NLCS loss 2 years earlier and make a little history of their own. On July 26th, 1991, Expos pitcher Mark Gardner would hold the Dodgers hitless through 9 innings before allowing a hit in the Bottom of the 10th to Lenny Harris. The Dodgers would counter by shutting the Expos out on two hits (a combined effort by Orel Hershiser, Kevin Gross, and Jay Howell) as well and miraculously managed to pull a stunning win when Harris’s infield single was followed by a single by Eddie Murray, chasing Gardner from the game. Darryl Strawberry would then single to right field, capping the Dodgers’ stunning 1-0 extra innings victory in which they did not record a hit until the 10th inning, then won on the strength of 3 consecutive singles. The box score for this game can be found here.
Two days later, on July 28th, Dennis Martinez would throw a perfect game. This time, the Expos managed to score 2 runs and the Expos pitcher got his proper credit.
The Expos would continue their success throughout the 1990’s and may have made their first run at a World Title in 1994 if not for Major League Baseball’s season-ending, World Series-cancelling strike. At the time of the strike, the Expos held the best record in baseball at 74-40 and sat 6 games ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East when the season stopped on August 12th. The Wikipedia article on the Expos points at the reason why: the Expos were absolutely stacked with talent in 1994. “The year 1994 proved to be heartbreaking for the Expos. The team’s key contributors included outfielders Larry Walker, Moisés Alou, Marquis Grissom, and Rondell White; infielders Wil Cordero and Sean Berry; starting pitchers Ken Hill, Pedro Martínez, and Jeff Fassero; and the relief corps of Jeff Shaw, Gil Heredia, Tim Scott, Mel Rojas and John Wetteland.” Think about that for a second. 4 heavy-hitting, young talented outfielders, a two solid infielders, a strong starting rotation featuring crafty vet Ken Hill and one of the best pitchers of his era in Pedro Martinez who was just beginning to discover his Cy Young potential, and a relief corp that had John Wetteland closing out games and featured other pitchers who would be closers at some point in their career. On the other side of things, the 1994 Dodgers were also in first place in the National League West, putting the two teams on a collision course to have an NLCS rematch for the ages that would’ve featured a strong Dodger starting rotation led by Orel Hershiser and a lineup featuring the likes of Mike Piazza, Eric Karros, and that season’s National League Rookie of the Year Raul Mondesi. The fans in Montreal were robbed of potentially a great NLCS rematch as well as what could have been their first World Title.
While the Expos would sustain some success in the rest of the ’90’s, the first Fire Sales were conducted soon after this season. Larry Walker left for the Colorado Rockies. Pedro Martinez would go to the Boston Red Sox. The Expos would develop one of the best young power hitters in the game, Vladimir Guerrero, only to watch him depart in Free Agency and wind up in Anaheim.
The main cause of demise of the Expos, however, wasn’t merely the idea that the team had to trim payroll to remain competitive. Owner Jeffrey Loria would deal baseball in Montreal a serious blog by effectively deciding he did not want to own the team anymore. In 2002, Loria worked a deal with Major League Baseball as part of a larger franchise swap. John Henry, owner of the Florida Marlins, agreed to sell the Marlins to Loria for $157 million while Henry took over ownership of the Boston Red Sox. Major League Baseball paid Loria $120 million for the Expos and extended him a $37 million 0% interest loan to finance the difference between the Expos’ sale price and the cost to purchase the Marlins. Loria has since gone on to treat the Marlins in much the same way he had treated the Expos. After winning a World Series in 2003 with a roster largely constructed during Henry’s tenure running the club, Loria conducted more fire sales and the Marlins have not come close to returning to the World Series since, while Henry has turned the Red Sox into annual contenders in the American League East, refueled the club’s long-standing rivalry with the New York Yankees in dramatic fashion, renovated, restored and made countless improvements to the century-old Fenway Park, and brought the first two titles since 1918 to Boston in 2004 and 2007.
After this sale, the demise of the Expos occurred even more quickly. Owned by Major League Baseball, the Expos quickly became targets of relocation talks. Portland, Oregon was one destination named. Las Vegas, Nevada was also brought up. A man in Riverside, California even formed an exploratory group and put together a bid to move the Expos to either San Bernardino or Riverside and put a 3rd Major League team in the Los Angeles market. The Expos even played some home games in their final few seasons in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and there was brief discussion about the idea of putting a Major League Franchise permanently in that location, possibly the Expos. Eventually however, the decision was made to move the Expos to Washington D.C., where they would play in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium until a suitable modern ballpark could be built and be renamed the Nationals.
2004 would be the Expos final year in Montreal. The once-full seats at Olympic Stadium often hosted very sparse crowds and had for years. The Expos would play their final home game on September 29th, 2004 in front of an unusually high crowd of 31,395, a 9-1 loss ironically enough to former owner Loria’s Florida Marlins. As if destroying the Expos through Fire Sales and relinquishment of the franchise to Major League Baseball wasn’t enough, Loria had to deprive the Expos of victory in their final game as well.
Hope for the Return of Major League Baseball to Montreal.
9 years after the Expos have left, the passion of fans of baseball in Montreal has not died. The city boasts a vibrant and diverse population of over 1.5 million. The Expos died an undeserved death and spent their final years as a side show of sorts, especially given Major League Baseball’s decision to use them as an experiment of sorts by having them host some home games in Puerto Rico. Some in the city would love to see a revitalization.
There is a Facebook Fan Page dedicated to preserving the memories of the once-great franchise and bringing the Expos back to Montreal. There is even some talk of building a Downtown-located, baseball-specific ballpark to attract Major League Baseball back to the Province of Quebec and fill a void left when the Expos became the Nationals at the start of the 2005 season.
A key figure in the attempts to bring baseball back to Montreal has been former Expo Warren Cromartie. Cromartie was recently interviewed for an article in the Boston Globe about the possibility of a return of Major League Baseball to Montreal and cited many different reasons why baseball can succeed in Montreal now, including the strength of the Canadian Dollar (Major League Contracts are drawn up in U.S. Dollars, and a weak Canadian Dollar can cause a significant discrepancy between the dollar amount a player is guaranteed in his contract and the amount that the club actually pays him,) the 4 million-plus population, the potential economic boon that Major League Baseball could provide to the city by coming back, and the fact that so many fans would love to see the Expos play again.
There may even be a potential suitor to bring baseball back to Montreal: this article indicates the possibility of the Tampa Bay Rays being open to a move if a new Stadium deal is not struck in Tampa to replace the horribly-designed Tropicana Field and creating a perfect regional rivalry with the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East.
Will Montreal be back in the Big Leagues any time soon? It’s hard to say for certain and to this point much any discussion about Major League Baseball returning to Montreal is just speculation. However, with a fan base ready and willing to support a team in one of Canada’s biggest cities and with such a rich baseball history, perhaps no city deserves the opportunity to play ball like they do in Montreal.
*CORRECTION APRIL 10th, 2013 – In the initial publishing of this article, I erroneously noted that Steve Rogers was the starting pitcher for the Montreal Expos in Game 5 of the 1981 NLCS. Rogers, in fact, came on in relief of starter Ray Burris in the 9th inning. While in the heat of writing, sometimes I’ll think I’ve researched a fact adequately and then find out I did something silly like not double-check the box score to make sure I named the right guy. Thank you to a few of you who pointed this out to me, the post has been amended accordingly.
- Montreal Should Have Its’ Own Baseball Team (thesportingwire.wordpress.com)
- Gary Carter Stadium inaugurated in Ahuntsic (montreal.ctvnews.ca)
- ExposNation headed to Toronto for Jays game (blogs.montrealgazette.com)
- Montreal Expos’ Song (baseballhighway.mlblogs.com)
- Nationals History (2ndhalfnats.wordpress.com)