SPORTS

Twenty years after historic season cancelled, the 'Montreal Expos' back in first

09/13/2014 01:01 EDT | Updated 11/13/2014 05:59 EST
WASHINGTON - Twenty years later on this darkest of baseball anniversaries, the Montreal Expos franchise is once again basking in the sunshine of first place.

A powerhouse ballclub had its record frozen in time Sept. 14, 1994, stuck forever at 74 wins, 40 losses. That's the day the strike-shortened major-league season was officially cancelled. The star-studded team would be blown apart by the time a big-league umpire again shouted, "Play ball."

The good news now for the franchise is that, barring some unmitigated, unanticipated 1994-style disaster, it's going to the playoffs. With basically a nine-game division lead and barely two weeks left, this bitter anniversary season will seemingly be washed down in sweet champagne.

Of course there's that other, bad news which Montreal baseball fans probably don't need to be reminded of on this, or any other, occasion: the playoffs are happening in Washington, D.C.

It's been a decade since the franchise moved away, leaving mascot Youppi temporarily unemployed. He soon found a new job with the Montreal Canadiens. But local baseball fans haven't been quite as lucky in getting a replacement.

If any feel like cheering for the Washington Nationals this fall, and living vicariously through the offspring of Nos Amours, they'll find a few familiar faces milling about the ballpark just east of the U.S. Capitol.

The team's colour commentator is former Expos infielder F.P. Santangelo. Star shortstop Ian Desmond was drafted by the Expos. Coaches Tony Tarasco, Bob Henley, Randy Knorr and Rick Schu all played for the Expos. PR man John Dever, equipment manager Mike Wallace, and visiting-clubhouse manager Matt Rosenthal all worked for the team in Montreal.

"Do we talk about the Expos days? Of course. All the time," Dever says.

"The Blue Jays-Mets series (of exhibition games in Montreal) back in late March really got the juices flowing. Watching the game, seeing Stade Olympique, seeing the fans, some familiar faces. It looked like a heck of a baseball party. We were happy for everyone up there."

For Washington, the baseball party is just starting. After a so-so start, dragged down by early injuries, the team caught fire. It went on a 10-game win streak, with some thrilling final-inning victories. The streak only ended when starter Doug Fister tried pitching a couple of days after surgery to remove skin cancer — although he insisted the scars didn't affect him.

The key to its success is depth.

The Nationals have one hitter in the top-10 in batting average, and one in the top 10 in homers in the National League. They're centre-fielder Denard Span at .301, and Adam LaRoche with 24 home runs.

No pitcher has over 13 wins.

But everyone's pulling their weight: Four starters have an earned-run average under 3.50. The staff may even break a record for the best strikeout-walk ratio in major-league history. And their lineup would probably include three hitters with more than 20 homers, if young slugger Bryce Harper hadn't missed nearly half the season with a thumb injury.

Santangelo can pinpoint the exact moment the team took flight.

In early August they were down 7-0 to their nemesis and tormentor, which coincidentally was also the Expos' closest rival in 1994: the Atlanta Braves. They scored six runs, and started to believe they could claw back from anything.

"A big lightbulb went off in my head — ding! — these guys are good now," Santangelo says. "The team kind of clicked."

For most of their history, the Washington Nationals had actually been a lot like the Expos: they lost more than they won. Their historical winning percentage is even slightly worse than Montreal's — since 2005, it's .474.

But they dwarf the Expos in two areas that count.

They're on the verge of their second division title. It took a while, but the team finally cracked .500 three seasons ago and hasn't looked back.

As for financial viability, it's been no contest. They're drawing triple what the Expos did toward the end, and are in fact getting even bigger crowds than in the best years of the late 1970s-early '80s. Attendance is slightly better-than-average for a major-league team — at nearly 32,000 a game.

Santangelo saw plenty of empty seats as a player; he was called up in 1995, after the team had been stripped in a firesale.

He doesn't blame Montreal fans for staying away.

He says even the players on the team understood that a short Canadian summer combined with an enclosed concrete stadium, the distance from downtown and annually losing popular players wasn't exactly a formula for success.

"We didn't harbour any ill-will toward Expos fans. We understood," Santangelo says.

"Summer's very short. And to spend four hours of your short summer, indoors — a lot of people didn't want to do it. And a lot of people were fed up that Pedro (Martinez) was a Red Sock, and John Wetteland was a Yankee. Just go down the list of everybody that left there — that's gotta get old after a while... I can't blame Expos fans for not coming out in big numbers."

What he always tells people is Montrealers loved baseball: "Everywhere you went around town they knew your batting average, they knew your record, they knew what your record was in the last 10 games. They followed the team."

He says he was thrilled to see the crowded stadium for exhibition games earlier this year in Montreal, which he calls one of his favourite cities in the world.

In a way, Santangelo is a bit like the people in that crowd: somewhat of a baseball orphan.

He watches other teams enjoy reunion nights where former players get together and tease each other about their weight and dwindling hairlines as part of a regular bonding experience.

"I don't have that privilege," he says. "I spent the majority of my major-league career in Montreal, and there's no team there anymore.

"So we don't have the reunions and it's sad, because even though you become great friends with your teammates everybody goes their own way once you retire, once you move on... And that part saddens me."

There are faint physical reminders of the old team in the new Nationals Park, a nouveau-traditionalist beauty that opened its doors in 2008.

For starters, there are always a few Expos caps and jerseys in the crowd.

And in the ring between the upper and lower decks, above the first-base line, there are plaques to Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson. They're grouped with plaques dedicated to the superstars of the old Homestead Grays from the Negro Leagues, and the former Washington Senators.

When Dawson was honoured in a pre-game ceremony in 2010, the Washington Post wrote about the awkward relationship between the franchise and its own history.

Even the emcee of the Dawson celebration, a broadcaster and local baseball historian, said the team had no responsibility to honour the Expos. He said it made more sense to honour Whitey Herzog, the Hall of Fame manager who played for the original Washington Senators a half-century ago.

Yes, Washington knows what it feels like to lose a team — it happened twice.

But things are so good now that nobody's even noticed the old Washington Senators are doing terribly. Actually, they're in last place in not just one division, but two — as the bottom-dwelling Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers, who are a combined 55 games out of first.

This town is too busy loving the new team to think much about Montreal, either, Santangelo says.

"I don't think the fans even remotely care about anything that has to do with Montreal, to be quite frank," he says. "Washington wants their own identity — and I think that's healthy.

"You want to establish that you're the Washington Nationals, and not the Montreal franchise. And I think that's how it should be. I think it would be weird if they paid tribute to the Montreal Expos on a regular basis."

He does notice the old tri-coloured logo in the stands, "And I love it."

But for most people, he says, the attitude is, "You move on."

MORE:cpSports