The year that broke Expos’ fans’ hearts

by Gary Francoeur

Fans of the Montreal Expos could be excused for thinking that 1994 was finally going to be their year.

The Expos had entered August as the top team in baseball, with a record of 70-40 and a comfortable six-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. Led by the all-star calibre core of Larry Walker, Moisés Alou, Marquis Grissom and Pedro Martinez, the team was pegged by many pundits as the favourite to win the pennant and possibly bring Montreal its first World Series title.

But those hopes came crashing down on August 11, 1994 when players packed up their bats and mitts and walked off the field, starting the longest work stoppage in MLB history. The season was subsequently cancelled, and the loss of revenue forced Expos management to dump key players. Fan support soon dwindled, and after the organization failed to secure funding to build a new downtown ballpark, the team was relocated to Washington in 2004 – and the Expos faded into baseball obscurity along with it.

Bill Young, BA’61, a baseball historian and avowed fan of the Expos, has often lamented what could have been for Nos Amours had the strike been averted. In his new book, Ecstasy to Agony: The 1994 Montreal Expos: How the Best Team in Baseball Ended up in Washington Ten Years Later, he and co-author Danny Gallagher explore the club’s incredible rise to greatness and the crushing circumstances that resulted in the franchise’s collapse.

“The 1994 strike was the turning point in the organization’s history,” Young says. “It really pulled the rug out from under them. If the season had continued, the Expos would have likely made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1981, and they had a team that could have gone all the way.”

Ecstasy to Agony takes readers on a bittersweet trip down memory lane, reliving notable highlights and painful low points from the tragic season that are guaranteed to make even the most casual Expos fan reach for a box of tissues.

Young and Gallagher cover Pedro Martinez’s near-perfect game on April 13, Cliff Floyd’s towering three-run homer off Braves ace Greg Maddux on June 27 and Marquis Grissom’s now-famous inside-the-park, walk-off home run against the Cardinals on August 1. Of course, substantial space is also given to the troubled labour relations that forced the cancellation of the remainder of the season.

“I wouldn’t say the strike was the death blow to the franchise, but it did have serious consequences. It made the organization vulnerable, and subsequent blows were such that they couldn’t recover. Eventually, the Montreal fans were hammered down so much that they turned their backs on the game,” explains Young.

He and Gallagher spent three years researching and writing the nearly 400-page book, interviewing close to 100 people along the way, including almost every member of the 1994 Expos. They also spoke to MLB commissioner Bud Selig, former Expos president Claude Brochu, play-by-play announcers Dave Van Horne and Jacques Doucet, and numerous other current and former ball players, including Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn and New York Yankees star Derek Jeter.

So what was it that made the 1994 Expos so special? Young and Gallagher went directly to then-manager Felipe Alou for the answer.

“The club had all the elements of a dynasty: speed, power, hitting for average, defence, incredible bullpen – a young club that could have been good for five or six years. Why, 1995 would have been even better than the 1994 team if we’d been able to keep them together,” Alou told the authors.

A retired CEGEP administrator and founding member of the Montreal chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, Young says he was an Expos fan from the first moment they suited up in 1969. He and Gallagher previously collaborated on Remembering the Montreal Expos, which was published in 2005.

Young dreams of the day that the Expos return to Montreal – and he certainly isn’t the only one. Former Expo Warren Cromartie has launched a campaign to revive the sport in the city and conducted an in-depth feasibility study in an effort to convince non-believers. And last July, about 1,000 Expos fans packed into the bleachers at the Rogers Centre in Toronto to show MLB their dedication to the cause.

Later this month, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium will morph into a field of dreams when it hosts a pair of preseason MLB games – the first professional baseball to be played there since the Expos left town a decade ago. Members of the 1994 dream team will be on hand to be honoured for their dominant play during that strike-shortened season.

“It will be a special occasion for fans to see the team reunited this way,” says Young, who will be in attendance. “They deserve to be remembered and they deserve to be celebrated. I don’t expect there to be a dry eye in the stadium.”