Giving The 1994 Montreal Expos Their Due

The Montreal Expos weren’t a long-suffering baseball franchise like those in Boston, Cleveland or the north side of Chicago when the 1994 season began. But the Expos had endured their share of frustration. From 1979-81 they had teams good enough to win the World Series each year, but lost two crushing pennant races the first two seasons, then an even more devastating Game 5 of the 1981 National League Championship Series (the LCS was best-of-five prior to 1985), when a ninth-inning home run cost them a pennant.

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The team hadn’t been that close to glory since ’81, but still went through frustration in 1989 when a big trade deadline acquisition of pitcher Mark Langston inexplicably started a slide to .500 rather than a pennant drive. Montreal won 85 games a year later, but fell off the radar in 1991. The organization hired Felipe Alou to take over the managerial reins and they immediately produced winning seasons in 1992 & 1993. The 1994 Montreal Expos might have been the  one that finally broke through. Instead, their success in a strike-marred year only added to the dark cloud over this team.

Montreal wasn’t sitting on a boatload of talent—players like catcher Darrin Fletcher, second baseman Mike Lansing, shortstop Wil Cordero and third baseman Sean Berry wouldn’t leave their mark on baseball in the 1990s. Nor would pitchers like Jeff Fassero, Butch Henry and Kirk Reuter. But a lot of the no-names came up with good years. Some of them—namely Cordero—might have become bigger names if not for off-the-field issues that would eventually fell them, but weren’t a factor in 1994.

And Alou did a fabulous job getting production out of his bench, with Lenny Webster, Lou Frazier and Juan Bell joining the list of anonymous players who had solid on-base percentages. And 22-year-old Rondell White was breaking into the majors and the future starter would deliver a .358 OBP and .464 slugging percentage.

Beyond the no-names, the Expos also had some talent. The outfield had the manger’s son in Moises Alou, who would have a big year with a .397/.592 stat line in the left field spot. On the other side of the outfield was Larry Walker, one of the game’s best hitters and who delivered a .394/587 season. In centerfield was talented Marquis Grissom. Three years later, Grissom would be a playoff hero in Cleveland when he was MVP of the 1997 American League Championship Series. For now, he was a solid centerfielder and leadoff man.

At the top of the rotation was Ken Hill, a consistent starter who won 16 games with a 3.32 ERA in 1994, and was certainly in position to win 20 had the strike not wiped out the last 48 games of the year. But the #2 starter was the big prize. During the offseason, Montreal had dealt second baseman Delino Deshields for one of the top pitching prospects in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ system. The arm was 22-year-old Pedro Martinez, destined for a career as one of the game’s best and he broke into the majors in ’94 with an 11-5 record and 3.42 ERA.

With Fassero and Henry also delivering, Montreal had a solid core four in their rotation. The bullpen was deep, with John Wetteland saving 25 games and Mel Rojas closing sixteen. Alou also got quality work from several other pitchers.

Montreal started slowly, losing nine of their first thirteen games, but then ripped off eleven wins in twelve tries to get back in position in the NL East. In mid-May they traveled to Philadelphia. Though the Phils would not have a good year in ’94, they had won the pennant the previous year. Montreal stepped up and grabbed the opener  when Fletcher hit an early two-run single off Curt Schilling and the Expos beat the Phillie ace 4-1. Montreal also won the series finale behind four hits from Walker, and might have swept the series had Wetteland not coughed up a save in the middle game on two walks, a sac bunt and an error.

The real competition though, was from the Atlanta Braves. Under Bobby Cox, the Braves were just starting their run of dominance in the NL East that would stretch through 2005. Atlanta went to the World Series in 1991-92, and had won 104 games the previous year before being upset by Philadelphia in the NLCS. If we peek ahead, the Braves would win the World Series in 1995, so there was no doubt who the team to beat in the NL East was.

Montreal started June with a 12-2 stretch and they would end the month by hosting Atlanta. If you were looking for a way to send a message, peppering Greg Maddux off the mound in a 7-2 win was certainly a good way to start. Grissom keyed the offensive attack with four hits. The next night, Montreal rallied twice—first from 6-3 down in the eighth to tie the game and then from 7-6 in the ninth to win it with two runs. Cordero and White had three hits apiece, while Walker had four. Even though Atlanta salvaged the finale, the Expos were riding high.

Alarm bells went off after the All-Star break, when Montreal immediately lost four straight at home to San Francisco, but the Expos just as quickly righted the ship, by winning eight in a row. With the sport’s player-owner battles looming over everything, the Expos and Braves squared off in Atlanta at the end of July. Even though Pedro fell behind 4-1 in the opener, Montreal rallied for a 6-4 win, with a two-run triple from Moises Alou being the key blow. The next game, the Expos beat Maddux again, getting him for three runs in the seventh to break open a 2-2 game. Once again, all Atlanta could do was salvage a finale and avoid a sweep.

1994 was the first year of the modern three-division alignment, and the Expos and Braves were both well in command to make the playoffs, regardless of who won the division. But there was one big caveat in this greed-darkened season. Everyone expected the strike to hit on August 12, but no one knew what would happen if an agreement was reached late in the year.

Would there be a shortened playoff, with, for example, Montreal just playing NL Central-leading Houston, who would have been the #2 playoff seed, in the NLCS? Or what if a deal only allowed for saving the World Series, and pairing up the teams with the best records in each league? This scenario would have created an Expos-Yankees Fall Classic.

With no one knowing what to think, everyone just had to keep winning as much as they could in an early August period that was part pennant-race and part just depressing. Montreal showed tremendous professionalism, won nine of eleven and finished 74-40 when the strike hit. With the best record in the National League, they only scenario that would finish them was an unprecedented wipeout of the entire season.

As we know, that’s exactly what happened, and it’s all too fitting that one of the best teams Montreal ever saw wouldn’t get the chance to show what it could do in October. And for all practical purposes, baseball in this Quebec city was all but finished.

Pedro Martinez would win a Cy Young Award, but be traded to Boston, where he ultimately got a World Series ring. Walker ended up in Colorado where he won an MVP and made a push at hitting .400. Wetteland went to the Yankees and was the closer on a Series champ in 1996 before giving way to young Mariano Rivera. Moises Alou went to a playoff team with the Chicago Cubs where he would be remembered for a memorable encounter with a fan named Steve Bartman along the foul line in the 2003 NLCS.

Individually, a lot of people associated with the 1994 Montreal Expos turned out okay. Collectively though, baseball in Montreal only saw three more winning seasons and never a playoff year before the franchise relocated to Washington D.C. and became the Nationals for the 2004 season.

Maybe baseball in the French-speaking city was never going to work for the long haul. But it would have a had a better chance if the 1994 Montreal Expos could have seen it through to the finish. Instead, they’re an uncrowned champion.