The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

August 12th: In Memory of the Franchise Formerly Known as the Montreal Expos

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the 1994 strike. It also marks the 10th anniversary of the death of the Expos. Few people remember it now, particularly since the most recent few years have been so horrific for the Expos, but back in 1994, the Expos were one of – if not the – best teams in baseball.

Back in 1994 the Expos had a chance to end the Braves post-season run at three consecutive years. An impressive streak no doubt, but nothing compared to the streak that they’ve managed to perpetuate to this day since 1991 (of reaching the post-season every year that there’s been one). But there was no post-season in 1991 and the Expos technically didn’t finish the year with the best record in the (then newly reconfigured) National League East. Their 74-40 record was the best in the league and would have led any division by three and a half games (they led the NL East by a full six).

Things weren’t all around great for the Expos, at least not off the field. Their attendance was 11th out of 14 teams in the National league (looking at that now though, three up from the bottom is surely a place the Expos would like to be). Finances weren’t great, but there was hope that a post-season run would generate some excitement and interest in the team. Had that happened, maybe the team would have been kept together.

Who was on that team, you ask? A better question might be who wasn’t.

The starting rotation included staff ace Ken Hill, twenty-two year old Pedro Martinez, Jeff Fassero, twenty-three year old Kirk Rueter, and Butch Henry. The bullpen was equally full of standouts, including many names you’ve come to know like John Wetteland (oh, yeah – the Yankees closer before Rivera!), Mel Rojas (whose great days are now likely long forgotten), Jeff Shaw (of Dodgers and Reds fame), Tim Scott, and Gil Heredia.

The Expos staff was young and talented. Four of their starters were twenty-eight or younger, and three were under twenty-five. Yet, the team still led the league in ERA, saves, and walks allowed, and was second in hits and runs, and third in strikeouts. Those are impressive totals from a young staff that was poised to make a serious run at the World Series.

They were no slouches at the plate either. The regular starting lineup included names such as Cliff Floyd (then twenty-one), Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Larry Walker, and Wil Cordero. The oldest of that group was 27 at the time. Actually, the Expos were a pretty young club that year, with Randy Milligan, at thirty-two, the only player over thirty.

In addition to that, the Expos had prospects like Vladimir Guerrero, Mark Grudzielanek, Henry Rodriguez, Orlando Cabrera, Omar Daal, Ugueth Urbina, and Jose Vidro developing in the minor leagues in 1994. The talent was young and developed for the Expos back then, and there was depth. Oh, was there depth.

“Was” is the key word there. In 1994 there was depth; soon thereafter it was all gone. By 1995 Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Ken Hill, John Wetteland, and Jeff Shaw were all with new teams. That’s five All-Stars removed from the Expos by the conclusion of the 1995 season. No wonder the downward slide started then – the Expos finished the year at 66 – 78 and in fifth in the division. While their place in the standings improved in 1996 (to second) as did their record (to 88 and 74), the Expos also said goodbye to Cliff Floyd, Wil Codero, and Kirk Rueter. While those players haven’t amassed the careers that the players lost in the previous year did, they are all solid major leaguers, and at the time they Expos had to get rid of them, they were still relatively cheap as ballplayers come. Much more of the same came in 1997, when the Expos started their stretch of four consecutive fourth place finishes in the National League East. For various reasons they also lost Moises Alou, Mel Rojas, and Butch Henry – all to bigger market, or at least bigger spending teams like the Marlins, Cubs, and Red Sox (respectively). In 1998 the final nail in the coffin came, as the Expos jettisoned reigning Cy Young Award Winner Pedro Martinez to the Boston Red Sox. After that (well, at least until Vladimir Guerrero left after the 2003 season), there wasn’t much else to strip away from the Expos. Other than Jose Vidro, the only Expo of note to survive it all has been Youppi.

A wholesale dismantling of one franchise was one of the most significant side effects of the 1994 strike. Sure, certain players were affected – like Matt Williams, who would have challenged Maris’s record of 61 home runs (which could have changed the course of things for McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds who would later chase that record). Tony Gwynn had an outside shot at hitting .400. Greg Maddux was in the midst of putting together what may have been the greatest season ever by a pitcher. All of those things were cut short. The fans, too, were robbed of a pennant race and a post-season. But most importantly of all, the Montreal Expos were ruined. In the years since their franchise has been raided, gutted, and abandoned. Now we don’t even know where they’ll play next year. No wonder they need to move though. Who would have kept going to games up there. In the late 90s the All-Star game could have featured former Expos versus the best of the rest of the league, and the former Expos would have stood a fair chance in a seven game series.

Just make sure you add the utter destruction of a franchise (arguably his second if you include his own) to Bud Selig’s resume.


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