While it’s not quite the same had this happened a decade earlier, fans of the departed Montreal Expos can at least take some solace knowing that their old team is back in the playoffs for the first time since 1981. Also, for the first time in their history, entering the postseason with the league’s best record.
Since relocating from Montreal in 2004, the Washington Nationals picked up right where the Expos left off: at the bottom of the standings. When the Nationals began a new era, fans in America’s capital rejoiced as it had been the first time they had an MLB team since the long-forgotten Senators relocated to Arlington, Texas, 24 years earlier. But in DC, welcoming their new team was the highlight of their season as the Nationals finished 81-81, which was good enough for last in their division.
For the franchise, their next biggest moment came at the start of the 2008 season when they opened their brand new ballpark, Nationals Park, but it was the only bright spot of the year as the Nats went on to lose 102 games, the franchise’s worst mark since the Expos lost 107 games back in 1976. To make matters worse, the Nationals would lose 103 games the following season. At that point, it seemed that nothing was going to turn the fortunes of this woeful franchise around.
Even with promising prospects like pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper, the Nats couldn’t find their way out of the NL East basement… then came 2011. Already under their third manager since relocating to Washington, the Nationals kicked off the season with second-year man Jim Riggleman. But after a 38-37, the Nats fired Riggleman, replacing him on an interim basis with John McLaren for a few games before settling on Davey Johnson, a journeyman manager in the Majors who guided the 1986 New York Mets to an unlikely World Series title. While Johnson went a barely-modest 40-43 to finish the season, Washington’s mark of 80-81 was good enough for third in their division — the highest the team had been since calling DC their home. But things only got better the following year.
While 19-year-old Bryce Harper had a great rookie season in 2012 hitting 22 homers and knocking in 59 runs, the Nats were fortunate enough to showcase their other weapons in the lineup from Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche to Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman, who had been with the Nats since their inauguration in 2005. On the pitcher’s mound, while the vaforemention Strasburg has been impressive, lefty Gio Gonzalez led the way with a 21-8 record, supported by the likes of Jordan Zimmermann who went 12-8 this season as well as veterans like Edwin Jackson. With a 98-64 record, the franchise celebrated a division title and, to make it even better, their success in 2012 was uninterrupted, which is more than I can say about the 1994 version of the Montreal Expos.
To this day, the mere mention of 1994 exposes a sore spot with any remaining Expos fan. Having finished second in their division the previous two years, the Expos were on the precipice of becoming a championship team. With the likes of Pedro Martinez, Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Moises Alou and John Wetteland, it looked as though nothing would stop this team of destiny. But something did. Unable to come to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the league went on strike. The owners wanted a salary cap and the players didn’t, headlining what would become, at the time, the longest work stoppage in major North American professional sports history. The Expos were 74-40 in mid-August when the season was abruptly halted. The season was wiped out and for the first time since 1904, there was no World Series. When the strike ended the following spring, the Expos were forced to trade much of their talent due to the new financial constraints of the new CBA. The Expos never recovered and worse, many of the fans who had packed Olympic Stadium on a regular-basis for so many years had left and never returned. In short time, one could almost literally hand-count the fans at Expos home games. To say the off-field events of 1994 killed the Montreal Expos would be considered a mild understatement.
It’s of little comfort to those remaining Expos fans but 2012 marks the first time a Washington team will be participating in the MLB playoffs since 1933. Of course, unlike then, a ticket to the playoffs does not guarantee a World Series berth today. Nonetheless, it’s a cause for celebration for those long-suffering Washington fans who have not only been longing for a team for a quarter-century but those who have been hoping for a winning team for much longer.
For those remaining Expos fans, while most likely won’t be following the Nationals this month, some will and for those who do, hopefully they can find some consolation knowing that their team who had no choice but to leave them seven years earlier have finally found their way and are in position to win baseball’s ultimate prize, which the city celebrated just once – way back in 1924. They may not call Montreal home and they may no longer be known as the Expos but like a loving parent, even if your child moves away, those Expos fans know that while it’s not the same as it was before, they’ll know that the Expos, err, Nationals will always be their baby.