Reversal of Fortune

Though they may be gone, the memory of the Expos persists. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Born under a bad sign
Been down since I began to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all

—Albert King

When the Washington Nationals began their 2019 postseason, a number of pundits pointed out that the franchise had been a disappointment because it had never advanced beyond the Division Series (2012, 2014, 2016, 2017). This was never spoken of as a curse perhaps because there was no one incident, no Red Sox trading Babe Ruth or Cubs kicking out the billy goat from the 1945 World Series, that arguably triggered the team’s inability to advance to the League Championship Series.

Well, winning the 2019 World Series has dispelled any speculation about a curse on the franchise. Baseball fans in Montreal, however, might feel otherwise.

After 50 seasons (1969-2018), the Nationals (née the Montreal Expos) were one of just two franchises in major league baseball that had never been to the World Series. Also, they were the only team to fail to get there in their first 50 seasons. Even the St. Louis Browns made it in Season No. 44. In other words, the Expos/Nationals represented outstanding underachievement – and there are no participation trophies in major league baseball. Was the franchise truly born under a bad sign?

In 1969, Montreal certainly had the population (more than 2.5 million in the metro area) to support a major league team. Also, it had a minor league history dating back to 1890. During the 20th century, Montreal had a franchise in the International League from 1912 to 1917 and from 1928 to 1960. As a Dodger Triple-A affiliate it had been one of the bellwether franchises of the league, appearing in the postseason 16 times from 1941 through 1960. Montreal had been league champ as recently as 1958. Yet somehow Montreal made do without minor league ball from 1961 through 1968. That should have raised a few eyebrows in National League front offices. Nevertheless, Montreal was granted a franchise on May 27, 1968.

The NL owners might have had second thoughts after some of the initial investors backed out, but Charles Bronfman, a Canadian booze baron, came to the rescue. The next stumbling block was finding a place to play. The other NL expansion team, the San Diego Padres, had a new stadium ready and waiting. Not so the Expos –although a domed ballpark was promised in just three years. But where to play in the interim?

A couple of likely venues were ruled out, so as of August 7, 1968, eight months before the 1969 season opener, the team had no home. Since the league could revoke the franchise for lack of a suitable home field, this was a serious problem.

Not to worry, however, as mayor Jean Drapeau promised a ballpark would be ready on time. Finally, tiny Jarry Park (3,000 capacity) was chosen because it could be expanded tenfold quickly and cheaply, and the new subway system had a stop nearby.

Now for a manager…hey, Gene Mauch is available. Having managed the Phillies for most of the 1960s, he brought instant big league  credibility to the franchise. Mauch was frequently accused of overmanaging, but in some circles he was held in high regard. Unfortunately, he had bad mojo. Under his tutelage the Phillies set the modern major league record for consecutive losses with 23 in 1961. Three years later he presided over the notorious collapse of the 1964 Phillies (blowing a 6½ game lead with 12 games left from the season’s end). One would think Mauch would have held out for a better managerial gig, not an expansion team that was all but guaranteed to finish at the bottom of the newly formed National League East Division. Mauch had played for Montreal at the outset of his playing career (1943-1944), so perhaps he was feeling nostalgic.

Then there’s the matter of the roster. The first player the Expos selected in the expansion draft was Manny Mota. Good choice! But after 97 plate appearances in 1969, the Expos traded him to the Dodgers. He played in Los Angeles for more than a decade and later served the team as a coach and broadcaster.

Predictably, most of the rest of the available players were veterans past their prime. Former Brave Mack Jones (.270/.379/488 with 22 home runs and 79 RBI), the second selection, had a decent season. Coco Laboy, a 28-year-old rookie drafted from the Cardinals, made the most of his opportunity (.258/.308/.409), 18 homers, 83 RBI). Pitcher Bill Stoneman, drafted from the Cubs, won 11 games despite yielding a league-leading 123 walks. Notably, he pitched a no-hitter on April 17 (the Expos’ ninth game of the season) against the Phillies. His feat was not only the first in franchise history, it was the earliest no-hitter in any major league franchise history. At the time, it might have seemed like a good omen.

The Expos also drafted Jesus Alou, Jack Billingham, and Skip Guinn, but ended up trading them to Houston for Rusty Staub. That deal worked out well, as Staub was by far the most popular Expo in the early going. An All-Star during each of the team’s first three years, Staub was the first Expo to have his number retired (the number was retired while Andre Dawson was still wearing it, but in 1997 it was also retired in his honor). If you’re wondering, the other Expos with retired numbers are Gary Carter, No. 8, and Tim Raines, No. 30. All three numbers are back in play with the Nationals, however.

The luckiest player drafted was Donn Clendenon, who was selected from the Pirates. After his selection, he was part of the aforementioned trade package with the Astros but refused to report. He came out of “retirement” but missed a great deal of spring training, resulting in a mediocre performance as an Expo and a trade to the Mets on June 15. As a member of the Miracle Mets, he starred in the 1969 World Series  and was named the Series MVP.

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It was no surprise when the Expos finished last (sixth) in 1969 and 1970. They even rose to fifth pace in 1971, and to fourth place in 1973. Then they backslid to fifth in 1975 and last place in 1976. So they ended the Jarry Park era the way they began it (Mauch was the manager for seven of those eight seasons). Unfortunately, the same could not be said of attendance, which totaled 1,212,608 in 1969, peaked at 1,424,683 in 1970, then slid all the way down to 646,704 in 1976.

This was a major concern for National League owners. Was granting Montreal a franchise a faux pas? The owners were not happy with Jarry Park but as long as attendance held up, they could live with it. As alarming as the 1976 attendance plunge was, the opening of Olympic Stadium in 1977 would surely inspire a course correction.

Olympic Stadium, however, was like a character in a soap opera: one crisis after another. Costs escalated from $134 million Canadian to $1.1 billion Canadian. The stadium’s nickname, the Big O, was frequently modified to the Big Owe.

In fact, the stadium’s costs were not paid in full until 2006, after the Expos had left town. Even worse, the stadium was not only overpriced, it was a lemon. If you were a French-Canadian stand-up comic, Olympic Stadium provided plenty of material for jokes. The stadium design was noteworthy for its 552-foot tower built at a 45-degree angle. The tallest inclined tower in the world, it was no mere architectural touch; it served a purpose: to hold the cables that retracted the roof of the stadium. Now Montreal fans would be protected from the early-season cold and could still enjoy the mild summer weather.

Good intentions notwithstanding, from 1977 through 1986, the stadium remained open-air. The retractable roof didn’t work and there was no money to fix it. The problem appeared to be solved in 1987, but more technical difficulties arose in 1989 so again the roof staayed closed. In July 1991, however, a tornado ripped holes in the roof, resulting in a rainout. Channeling Yogi Berra, Dodger pitcher Bob Ojeda observed, “Even when the thing [the roof] worked, it didn’t work.”

Adding insult to injury, in September 1991 a 55-ton support beam collapsed, resulting in a premature end of the home schedule and hasty arrangements to play the remaining home games at opponents’ parks.

Open-air ball returned in 1998 while a permanent opaque roof was being readied for the 1999 season. Keep in mind that this was also the last year of the Astrodome, another fixed-roof stadium devoid of daylight, yet deemed undesirable for baseball.

At a time when intimacy was a big buzzword in relation to ballpark design, Olympic Stadium was way off base. Granted, it was an imposing structure (originally 73,000 capacity for the 1976 Olympics), a fitting venue for an international spectacle such as the quadrennial Olympiad…but not for baseball. As attendance plummeted in the 21st century (7,935 per game in 2001), the atmosphere was as cadaverous as it was cavernous.

Stadium problems aside, a franchise in a francophone province of a foreign country was truly something new and unique in major league baseball. A memorable vacation for road-tripping fans perhaps, but not for most ballplayers. The reasons were numerous.

Though players could get by with English in Montreal, they were not comfortable in a French-dominant environment. One notable exception was Rusty Staub. Le Grande Orange embraced the city. Having grown up in New Orleans, he was no stranger to the fleur-de-lis.
Also, the harsh climate (average high temp in April is 53 degrees Fahrenheit) made Montreal an unpleasant place to play much of the season. The climate also made Montreal an unlikely offseason home for players, as the average high temp remains below freezing from December through February.

Then there were money-related problems. Learning to deal with Canadian currency was no big challenge, since it was denominated in dollars and cents. But the exchange rate was an ongoing consideration, particularly for players on multi-year contracts. Also, a player had to contend with both U.S. and Canadian tax laws. And there was the nuisance of having to go through customs before and after every road trip. For visiting teams it was a minor inconvenience; for the home team it was a chronic pain.

Consequently, a player traded to Montreal was probably not happy about it. When the free agent era arrived, it was difficult to attract top tier talent. Retaining homegrown talent was also a continuing problem. A winning team might have overridden a lot of the problems, but the Expos were anything but.

At least the opening of Olympic Stadium seemed to resolve the attendance problem. Attendance in 1977 more than doubled to 1,433,757, even though the team finished fifth.

In 1979 attendance rose to 2,208,175 as the team rose to second place with a 95-65 record. The 1980 season resulted in another second-place finish. Both times the Expos were tantalizingly close, finishing one game behind the Pirates in 1979 and two games behind the Phillies in 1980. Then in 1981, the team hit pay dirt…sort of.

On Thursday June 11, 1981, Steve Rogers pitched a shutout (7-0) against the Braves at Olympic Stadium. With a record of 30-25, the Expos were in third place in the NL East. Thereafter a strike ensued and the Expos did not go back to work till August 10. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced that the team in first place as of June 11 (the Phillies) would play whoever won the second half of the season. Playing only slightly better (30-23), the Expos won the second half of the season – but just barely – over the Cardinals, who finished at 29-23.

The split-season format was not without its critics. The most glaring flaw was that the NL East and West full-season winners, the Reds and the Cardinals, did not qualify for the postseason. But the commissioner’s decree allowed the Expos to make their first appearance in the postseason.

Tainted as their playoff appearance was, it provided a forum for Montreal’s only postseason series victory. And the Expos did it in dramatic fashion, losing the first two games of the Division Series in Montreal, then beating the Phillies three straight at Veterans Stadium. The decisive win was a 3-0 shutout authored by Steve Rogers. Next up: the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In those days the NLCS was a best-of-five format. As in the first round, the Expos were equal to the task. After the teams split the first four contests, the climactic Game Five, scheduled for Sunday, October 18, was snowed out in Montreal (remember, no roof in 1981). When the game was finally played on Monday afternoon, the Expos had to face rookie phenom Fernando Valenzuela.

Ray Burris, the Expos’ starter was his equal. But in the top of the ninth, Expos manager Jim Fanning decided to bring in Rogers, who easily retired Steve Garvey and Ron Cey. Then up came Robert James (somehow nicknamed Rick) Monday, who laced a solo home run. The Expos put a couple of men on base via walks in the bottom of the ninth but could not score. Valenzuela got the victory, Bob Welch the save. 36,491 fans, who had suffered through a dreary, drizzly 40-degree day, went home despondent.

Call him Robert James Monday, call him Rick Monday. In Montreal the day went down in baseball history as Blue Monday. I suppose it was Dodger Blue Monday in SoCal. As usual, Bill Lee (who pitched just a third of an inning in the series) had a unique take on the situation, commenting, “F—, who cares? Who wants to win a pennant during a short season, anyway?”

In other words, who wants to be remembered for a pennant that comes with an asterisk? Besides, as young and talented as the Expos were, it was likely they would be postseason regulars. The lineup featured three future Hall of Famers (Gary Carter, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson) and other notables, such as Larry Parrish and Tim Wallach. But they never made it back to the postseason, at least not in Expos uniforms.

There was a subsequent payoff at the box office, however, as the Expos attracted 2,318,292 fans in 1982 and 2,320,651 (the franchise’s highest total in Montreal) in 1983. Unfortunately, the team had dropped out of contention until 1992 when the Expos finished second. Same in 1993.

But 1994 appeared to be a breakthrough season. The team was cruising at a .649 clip (74-40), six games ahead of the Braves. Then came the strike on August 11. On September 14 the season was officially cancelled, as was the postseason. So while one players’ strike enabled the Expos to reach the postseason in 1981, a second players’ strike denied them a shot in 1994. As any objective observer of collective bargaining could tell you, strikes giveth and strikes taketh away. Somebody always takes a haircut.

The 1994 strike took away more than the post-August 11 season, that year’s postseason, and part of the 1995 season). For the Expos, things were never the same. Aside from a second-place finish (88-74) in 1996, subsequent seasons in Montreal were mediocre. Attention tanked, bottoming out in 2001 at 642,745 – lower than the nadir year at Jarry Park.

As usual, a lot of the team’s woes were blamed on having to play half its games in a sub-par ballpark. But no new venue was approved and no team buyer stepped forth, so the National League took over the franchise in 2002. Commissioner Bud Selig announced his intention to contract the number of major league franchises by two. The Expos and the Minnesota Twins were the teams designated for the memory hole.

In 2003 and 2004 the league scheduled Expos “home games” for San Juan, Puerto Rico. Shortly after the last out of the last game of the 2004 season (an 8-1 loss to the Mets at Shea Stadium), MLB announced that the franchise would shift to Washington, D.C. The calendar notwithstanding, it was no October surprise.

The team, now known as the Nationals, would play at RFK Stadium until a new stadium could be constructed. Now this was not a bad short-term solution – certainly better than Jarry Park had been in 1969. RFK was easily accessible by public transit, it had plenty of parking, and adequate capacity (45,596). But it too had bad mojo.

Originally known as D.C. Stadium, the multi-purpose facility opened in the fall of 1961 for the Redskins. At the time, it might have seemed appropriate for New Frontier D.C. But consider that President John F. Kennedy, the victim of an assassin (or assassins?) threw out the first ball at the Senators’ first season opener in 1962. In 1969 the stadium was renamed RFK Stadium as a memorial to JFK’s brother Robert, who was also assassinated. A double downer, wouldn’t you say?

As the first circular multi-purpose stadium in America, D.C. Stadium was something new under the sun. Such stadiums were all the rage by 1971 when the Senators vacated the premises (fittingly, the last game was forfeited). But 20 years later and 40 miles away in Baltimore, the opening of Camden Yards was a game-changer. No city would build another concrete doughnut or cookie-cutter. But RFK was A-OK for three years. Unlike Montreal, Washington delivered the new ballpark on schedule with no major malfunctions.

When Nationals Park opened in 2005, attendance totaled 2,692,123 fans. That figure has still not been surpassed, but until 2019 the park had not hosted the NL Championship Series or the World Series. Finally, events of national interest were occurring inside the beltway but without the usual “Inside the Beltway” suspects. Typically, an attendance uptick is all but guaranteed after a World Series title, so the Nationals attendance record will likely fall in 2020.

By winning a World Series, the Nationals have emerged from the pack of expansion teams that have yet to win a title: the Mariners, the Padres, the Rockies, the Rangers, the Rays, and the Brewers. Before 2019 there were only two franchises that had never won a pennant. Now the Seattle Mariners (no postseason at all since 2001) will have that stigma all to themselves. And by 2027, they could match the Expos/Nationals by reaching age 50 without a World Series appearance.

Now we could blame the Mariners’ woes on the curse of the Seattle Pilots, the one-year wonders who, like the Expos, came into existence in 1969. When they moved to Milwaukee (where they won a pennant in 1982), perhaps they cursed the Emerald City on their way out of town. Then again, it could be the curse of Jim Bouton, who chronicled the Pilots’ misadventures in Ball Four.

But the Mariners’ underachievement is a topic for another day.

References & Resources

The Ballpark Book, by Ron Smith, Sporting News Publishing (St. Louis, 2003)
Ballparks Yesterday and Today, ed. Don Gulbandsen, Chartwell Books, Inc. (Edison, NJ, 2007)
The Gamer, by Gary Carter with Ken Abraham, Word Publishing (Dallas/London/Vancouver/Melbourne, 2002)
Green Cathedrals, by Philip J. Lowry Walker & Company (New York, 2006)
Professional Sports Team Histories: Baseball, ed. Michael L. LaBlanc, Gale Research, Inc. (Detroit, 1994)
Take Me Out to the Ballpark, by Lowell Reidenbaugh, the Sporting News Publishing Co. (St. Louis, 1983)
The Wrong Stuff, by Bill “Spaceman” Lee with Dick Lally, Penguin Books (New York, 1985)
Baseballalamanc.com
Baseballreference.com
Wikipedia.com
“April 17, 1969: Expos’ Bill Stoneman sets record for fastest no-hitter by MLB team,” by Adam Ulrey, sabr.org/gamesproj
Rusty Staub, SABR bio by Norm King


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Nice to see Albert King get a prominent place in this article. But an even more appropriate tune of his would have been “Drowning On Dry Land.” And what about Coco Laboy? The rookie third basemen with a name you couldn’t make up if you were writing a semi-serious novel about the team’s travails.

Webs
Member
Webs

This is one of the most inaccurate accounts of the Expos I have ever read, factually (Montreal won the first two games of the 1981 NLDS), culturally, climatically, and with respect to responsibility (it doesn’t mention Loria once).

Shirtless George Brett
Member
Shirtless George Brett

Yep. Montreal was ready to build a new park for the Expos in the late 90’s but Loria demanded the city pay a higher % of the costs (IE: almost all of them) and the city finally told him to take a hike and cancelled the stadium. Loria is also the reason the Expos could not land broadcast deal because he demanded insanely high fees. And lest you think Loria was acting all on his own, MLB allowed him to gut the expos (like literally. He even took the computers and equipment) when he bought the Marlins and when the… Read more »

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

To be fair, the team was already on life support by the end of the 2001 season. Even if they won the World Series in ’02, the franchise’s days in Montreal were still numbered.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

While dealing with a foreign country can be a pain, that hasn’t stopped the Toronto Blue Jays from being moderately successful over the years (including back-to-back titles in ’92-’93) despite facing the same issues of playing in Canada save for the French thing. I think you’re exaggerating the issues the Expos had purely due to being a Canadian team.