1994 Montréal Expos

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Also wore 37 for a time.

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Franchise: Washington Nationals / BR 1994 Team Page

Record: 74-40, Finished 1st in NL Eastern Division (1994 NL)

Managed by Felipe Alou

Coaches: Pierre Arsenault, Terry Harper, Tim Johnson, Joe Kerrigan, Jerry Manuel and Luis Pujols

Ballpark: Stade Olympique

Awards and Honors[edit]

History, Comments, Contributions[edit]

For the 1994 Montreal Expos, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. This was the best edition of the team to play in Montreal, and the only one to ever finish in first place in the National League East. Their winning percentage of .649 was never matched in the 36 years that the Expos were in existence, and they sent no fewer than five players to the All-Star Game, and probably would have deserved a couple more slots - but other teams had to be represented too. And yet, when they seemed destined to stake their rightful place in history, everything was denied them because a strike brutally interrupted the season on August 11th, and its strands were left in place, like a children's game interrupted by a call to come in for dinner.

Many sources don't even credit the team with winning a division title - even though the Expos had the best record in baseball that year. In a season when MLB saw fit to bestow all its usual awards, from MVP to Cy Young, somehow it did not wish to recognize the team that had beaten all comers, as it initially ruled that the Philadelphia Phillies were the defending NL champions at the start of the 1995 season, wanting to erase from memory the fiasco it had created, with no consideration for the fans in Montreal. Many used that pretext to claim that the Atlanta Braves had won 14 straight division titles between 1991 and 2005, conveniently ignoring the fact that they were six games back of the Expos when the season ended in 1994. The Expos and their fans never bought into the fiction that 1994 never happened. The team put up a flag at Stade Olympique proclaiming that they had had the best record in baseball that year, and it stayed there until the team was relocated to Washington, DC after the 2004 season. But that relocation was written in the stars when the 1994 season was stopped: the Expos did not get to play in the postseason as would have been their due in what would have been their first appearance since 1981 (ironically, another strike year). Not only did they lose the considerable revenue that would have come from two months of regular season home games before packed crowds, they also lost all postseason revenues as well as the normal post-championship bump in attendance that all teams experience. And given the strike was not even resolved to anyone's satisfaction, team management added insult to injury by then proceeding with a fire sale as soon as it was settled. The franchise never recovered.

It wasn't immediately clear that the Expos constituted a juggernaut. The off-season's biggest trade was a controversial one: trading starting 2B Delino DeShields to the Los Angeles Dodgers in return for a skinny relief pitcher named Pedro Martinez; the Dodgers didn't think Martinez had the stamina to be a major league starting pitcher, and DeShields was a very popular player, skilled on both sides of the ball and very well liked by manager Felipe Alou and by his teammates alike. In spring training, when the Expos were playing the Dodgers, Alou was asked what he thought about his opponents. "I like their second baseman", he replied. He would quickly come to appreciate Martinez as well however. The reason the Dodgers made the trade is well known - they were panicked at losing 2B Jody Reed to free agency and needed a replacement with big league experience. The reason the Expos made the trade was that they had great young players coming out their ears and had to expend a few, since dominating AA and AAA was not really the objective. So DeShields, Ps Chris Nabholz and Brian Barnes, 1B Greg Colbrunn and OF John VanderWal were all disposed of, with only DeShields bringing back anything of value.

Second-year player Mike Lansing took over for DeShields at second base, although the Expos covered themselves by also having two other experienced second basemen on the opening day roster in Freddie Benavides and Jeff Gardner. They added another one when they signed Juan Bell after he was released by the Milwaukee Brewers at the end of spring training, and he would turn out to be the best of the three, but really, Lansing was up to the task by himself. Another youngster given his first chance to start was Cliff Floyd, the Minor League Player of the Year in 1993, who was installed at first base. Again, the Expos had an insurance policy in veteran Randy Milligan, acquired from the Cleveland Indians for Barnes, but he only saw limited action as Floyd had a very solid rookie year, even if he hit fewer homers than expected. The rest of the starting line-up was young, but extremely talented. CF Marquis Grissom and RF Larry Walker, both 27, had the most experience, having both come up in 1989 and no one was older than 28 (that would be 3B Sean Berry in his second year as a starter). Moises Alou, coming off a gruesome ankle injury at the end of the previous season, completed the outfield, giving the Expos the strongest trio in the majors even if their statistics were depressed by playing in a tough hitting environment at Stade Olympique, with another second-year player in Wilfredo Cordero at shortstop, and Darrin Fletcher at catcher after he had managed to establish himself in the last year from among a crowded group at the position. Each of them would have a very good season, giving the Expos a deep and dangerous line-up that gave opposing pitchers no respite. There were more good players on the bench in OFs Lou Frazier and Rondell White and C Lenny Webster, all of whom had good years with the bat in limited opportunities.

On the mound, Martinez slotted in in place of his namesake, Dennis Martinez, who had left via free agency, alongside Ken Hill, Jeff Fassero and Kirk Rueter. Local hero Denis Boucher, who had had a great month of September the year before, was initially slotted into the #5 spot, but he made only two starts before being moved to the bullpen, and then to AAA where he minded his time until expecting to be called up for the September stretch drive which never came. Butch Henry eventually took over the fifth spot, and when he did, the Expos had a top pitcher starting every game. The bullpen was also strong, anchored by John Wetteland and Mel Rojas, both of whom could close games if needed, and three very good middle relievers in Jeff Shaw, Tim Scott and Gil Heredia. All five relievers were righthanded, but they were all effective, so while Felipe Alou couldn't play the match-up game (which he did not particularly like to do in any case), he always had options when his starters ran out of gas. The only unstable spot in the line-up was that of the 11th pitcher, as a number of youngsters were given a look, including Rod Henderson, Heath Haynes, Joey Eischen, Brian Looney and Gabe White, but none of them pitched particularly well.

The Expos did not get off to a good start. They lost in extra innings on the road against the Houston Astros on Opening Day, April 4th and lost their home opener as well, on April 8th as Steve Trachsel of the Chicago Cubs outpitched Pedro Martinez in a battle of youngsters. The first truly memorable game of the year came on April 13th at home against the Cincinnati Reds. In his second start of the year, Pedro was perfect through the first 7 1/3 innings before hitting Reggie Sanders with a pitch. Sanders charged the mound, a brawl ensued and he was ejected by home plate umpire Gerry Davis. Journalists were quick to point out that Martinez could not have been throwing intentionally at Sanders with a perfect game on the line, but in any case a reputation was born that he was a head hunter, something he would use to his advantage for the rest of his career; he also became a fan favorite for his poise in not backing off from the much bigger Sanders. The Expos won that game, 3-2, after blowing a two-run lead in the 9th, but they reached a low point on April 18th, after a loss to the San Francisco Giants, when their record was 4-9 and they were already 8 1/2 games back of first place. Worse, their closer, Wetteland, had to go on the disabled list with a back problem at that point and things looked bleak. However, the turnaround was immediate: after having lost six of seven games, they won 11 of their next 12 to improve to 15-10 on May 2nd. During that streak, Rojas stepped into Wetteland's shoes with incredible aplomb, as he won the first game of the streak, then saved eight of the succeeding wins. At the end of the streak they had closed to within a half-game of first place, behind the Braves.

It took the Expos a while to close that remaining gap. They were 28-22 at the end of May, but still in second place, then had a great month of June, with a record of 19-8, but were still a game and a half back. It was around that time that a big controversy began to play out in the local media: slugger Darryl Strawberry, who had been released by the Dodgers, was coming off a suspension and was available to be signed as a free agent. Many reporters were clamoring that team management should sign him as the missing element that would turn what was clearly a good team into a great one, but others were pointing out that Strawberry had hit just .140 in an injury-filled season the previous year and was not someone of unimpeachable character. In their view, the Expos were better advised to steer clear of him and avoid rocking the ship. In the end, it was the Giants who signed Strawberry on June 15th, and when the Giants came to Stade Olympique just after the All-Star break on July 14-17 and swept the Expos in four games, with Strawberry hitting like the slugger of old, the first group of journalists were quick to say "I told you so" and to proclaim that the team was now dead in the water. They could not have been more wrong.

The Expos had ended the first half by winning six of their last seven games on a West Coast trip, reaching first place for the first time on July 8th after a 14-0 demolition of the San Diego Padres and they were one game up when the five-man tricolor delegation made it to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA for the All-Star Game, which the NL won thanks to key contributions by Grissom and Moises Alou. The four losses to the Giants moved them back to second place, two games back, but after that they were absolutely unstoppable: from July 18th to August 10th, the Expos played 22 games and won 20 of them! They were back in first place on July 20th, and never lost their hold on it after that, systematically building their lead over the Braves as they kept on winning day in, day out. Attendance was rising steadily as well, and their second-largest crowd of the year, after their home opener, showed up on August 4th, just shy of 40,000. However, that turned out to be the Expos' last home date of the season. Dark clouds were gathering as the Expos went on the road for the next two weeks. There had been talk of a possible strike for a while, but most observers thought that no one would be stupid enough to interrupt the season when enthusiasm for baseball was high in a number of places: Matt Williams of San Francisco was chasing Roger Maris' record for most homers in a season; Tony Gwynn, over in San Diego, was making a serious run at batting .400; and the New York Yankees were in first place for the first time in over a decade. Outside of Montreal, the Expos were a fun story, but only a footnote to these momentous happenings. It really looked like saner heads would prevail, but the two sides reached an impasse on August 10th, and it became clear that not only would there be a work stoppage following the next day's games, but it was likely to be a long one as there was a faction among the owners that wanted to use this opportunity to destroy the players' union once and for all, like NFL owners thought they had been able to do a couple of years earlier. The Expos played what turned out to be the final game of the season on August 11th in a funereal atmosphere in Pittsburgh, and clearly, their hearts were not in it as they lost to the Pirates and former Expo Zane Smith, 4-0, as he pitched a complete game shutout. When the season was paused, the Expos' record of 74-40 was the best in baseball and they had a six-game lead on the Braves. And they were probably an even better team than that, because they had played ten more games on the road than at home (the Expos' schedule was usually lighter on home games in April and May, in order not to compete head-on with playoff games by the NHL's Montreal Canadiens, which were an annual feature in those halcyon days).

When the strike began, it was generally felt that it would be a tough one to resolve, given the militancy of some of the owners, and the fact that interim Commissioner Bud Selig was one of them (it's not clear that a neutral commissioner could have talked some sense into the owners, but it wasn't going to happen with Selig in the position). Few people thought that baseball would be suicidal enough to cancel the postseason, but as the weeks dragged on, it was exactly what happened. Some Expos fans clung to the hope that a late resolution could mean that the playoffs would be held, and that the Expos would be involved, or even that we could skip straight to a World Series against the Yankees that could have helped to heal the wounds that were apparent for all to see. But people were clutching at straws. The owners were openly talking of using replacement players in 1995 if the players did not fold, and were all gung-ho about this. September ended and October went by without a resolution and it became clear that the Expos' great season had been for naught. Later, a journalist from Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper would blame the Expos for building their team to reach its peak in 1994 when "everybody knew there would be a strike", which is one of the dumbest things that's ever been written about baseball. In any case, the trauma from that episode lingered over baseball for years even if the 'roided-up home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 supposedly saved baseball. In Montreal, the awful strike was followed by the even more awful fire sales, the great team was dismantled player by player, and even if the Expos managed to stay competitive for a couple more years, until the middle of the 1997 season, before finally collapsing, the relationship with the fan base was irremediably broken.

For the record, some of the statistical highlights from that season include Ken Hill going 16-5, leading the NL in wins, and Pedro finishing at 11-5; Wetteland picked up 25 saves and Rojas another 16. Among batters, Alou hit .339 and slugged .592 while Walker was at .322 and .587; Grissom scored 96 runs and Cordero hit .294 with 15 homers. Among the eight regulars, the lowest batting average was that of Fletcher, at .260, while seven players were in double figures in stolen bases. The Expos led the NL in ERA and steals, and were third in runs scored. There were a number of memorable games too. On May 29th, Larry Walker led off the bottom of the 10th with a walk-off homer off Bruce Ruffin of the Colorado Rockies, sending Stade Olympique into a frenzy. On June 1st against the Reds, with Wetteland unavailable to pitch, Martinez volunteered before the game to help out if need be, and of course he was needed when Rojas was unable to close out the game; he stepped in between starts to record the final two outs in a 10-9 win, further bolstering his reputation as a gamer's gamer. On June 13th, Jeff Fassero pitched a no-hitter until two men were out in the 9th inning, but Carlos Garcia of the Pirates hit a single off his glove. On July 24th, given a rare start in the outfield, Rondell White drove in all seven runs in a 7-4 win over the Dodgers. These were all great moments, but they do not erase the pain of wondering about what could have been.

Ten years later, in 2004, before the final game to ever be played at Olympic Stadium, the 1994 Expos were posthumously honored with the title of Best Team in Baseball. It was a way for the team to thumb its nose at MLB, which had tried to deny that that season had ever taken place.

Further Reading[edit]

  • David Denomme: "The Expos Are for Real; June 28, 1994: Montreal Expos 8, Atlanta Braves 7 At Olympic Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 98-100. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6
  • David Denomme: "Inside the Park for Grissom; August 1, 1994: Montreal Expos 3, St. Louis Cardinals 2 At Olympic Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 101-103. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6
  • Danny Gallagher and Bill Young: Ecstasy to Agony: The 1994 Montreal Expos: How the Best Team in Baseball Ended up in Washington 10 Years Later, Scoop Press, Toronto, ON, 2013. ISBN 9780968185957
  • Rod Mickleburgh: "Floyd Golfs One Off Maddux; June 27, 1994: Montreal Expos 7, Atlanta Braves 2 At Olympic Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 96-97. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6