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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024
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D.C. baseball fans inherit team of lovable losers

On Sept. 29, 2004, just hours after learning that their home team would be leaving for Washington, D.C., more than 31,000 Montreal residents packed Olympic Stadium to say goodbye to the Expos.

At precisely 10:00 p.m., Expos outfielder Terrmel Sledge hit a pop fly for the final out of the game. The Expos were no more.

Although the game ended in an orderly manner, compared with the Washington Senators' final game in D.C. before leaving for Texas in 1972, the outpouring of support by Montreal fans was both touching and confounding.

In 2004, the Expos totaled 748,000 tickets sold, or about 9,000 per game. In comparison, the league average was 2,512,000 tickets sold, which works out to more than 31,000 per game.

The reason attendance was so bad is hardly a shock. The team's 67-95 record was just the last in a decades-long string of poor showings.

Since coming into existence in 1969, the Expos had a winning record in just 11 of their 36 seasons. They made the playoffs only once, in 1981.

"The reason the Expos have not been good has been kind of a circular thing," said Baltimore Sun sports columnist Peter Schmuck.

"The economics of the game conspired to make it difficult for them to compete for free agent players," Schmuck said. "The fans started leaving because they weren't winning, and they started selling off their big players, and fans kept leaving to the point where they just didn't have any following anymore."

In the team's history, several baseball megastars passed through Montreal on their way to fame and fortune with other teams. Among those were Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero, who have 21 All-Star Game appearances combined (see sidebar).

"They really have been one of the best teams in baseball in developing talent," Schmuck said. "They've developed tons of great players, but have never kept any of them."

"I think anybody who knows baseball knows that the Expos farm system produced some of the best talent in the major leagues," said Lenny Steinhorn, an AU professor in the School of Communication. "Yet because the Expos had no money, they couldn't afford to keep these players."

The Year That Could Have Been

In 1994, the Expos surprised the baseball world by staking out a big division lead through the summer. Behind young stars like Pedro Martinez and Moises Alou (son of the team's manager, former baseball All-Star Felipe Alou), the team appeared poised to make a run at the World Series.

However, on July 28, the MLB players union embarked on a strike. The standings froze, with the Expos holding the best record in all of baseball that season.

The strike wasn't resolved until spring 1995. As a result, 1994 went down in history as a lost season with no champion.

"They were such a darn good team before the strike," AU psychology professor Tony Ahrens said. "The strike year would have been very possibly their year to go the distance and establish that Montreal was a city with a baseball legacy."

By the start of the 1995 season, the team had lost several of its top performers from the year before. As the years went by, every other key player from the 1994 team went on to sign elsewhere for more money.

"They had the fans, and had the team," Ahrens said. "Baseball stole their heart out."

In the aftermath of the strike year, the Expos fell apart. Aside from a second-place finishing in 1996, the team failed to post a winning record from 1995 to 2001.

In 1999, team President Claude Brochu, who was the majority owner in a large group of investors, decided to sell the team. Businessman Jeffrey Loria purchased the team in December 1999. However, when attendance did not increase, Loria cut back costs, taking the team off local television and English-language radio.

Loria stayed with the team for only two seasons. In February 2002, he decided to sell the Expos in order to purchase the Florida Marlins. John Henry, then-owner of the Marlins, in turn would use his money from the Marlins sale to purchase the Boston Red Sox.

With the Red Sox sale on their mind, a collective of all Major League Baseball owners came together to purchase the Expos from Loria in 2002.

Ahrens said that Loria's ownership of the Expos was a big reason they couldn't stop the downhill trend.

"It was clear that Loria wasn't interested in fostering the team," he said.

Since 2002, the team has existed without a true owner, in a home stadium that was largely empty. The team showed no efforts to get better, and fans followed suit by staying home.

"Montreal didn't have the history of success, and on top of that, they had it in their teeth and got it ripped away," Ahrens said, referring to the 1994 strike. "If I'm a fan who is just getting reared up, that's got to be terrible."

Finally, last September, after a years-long process that included looking at Northern Virginia, Las Vegas and Portland, Ore., Major League Baseball decided to relocate the team to Washington, D.C., starting in 2005.

The move gives a permanent home to longtime Expos players like Livan Hernandez and Jose Vidro, who have had to play recent years in Montreal with the knowledge that they would soon be moved.

"The effect will be that they will be lifted up by playing in front of large crowds," Schmuck said. "There's a future ahead with a new owner coming up. They should be reinvigorated.

"The fact that they're not going to be a terrible team is important," Schmuck said, noting that in the months since the team's move to D.C., it has already acquired a handful of stars from other teams, including slugger Jose Guillen and former All-Star pitcher Esteban Loaiza.

Despite the team's past struggles, Steinhorn said he expects baseball-hungry District residents to click with their new home team.

"Once they see it on TV and go to the games and hear it on the radio, all of a sudden these players will become part of the natural language of baseball in the D.C. area," Steinhorn said. "It's a process of familiarization. We are now in the courtship phase of learning about these players"

 Hosts Sara Winick and Sydney Hsu introduce themselves and talk about their favorite TV shows. This episode includes fun facts, recommendations and personal connections. 

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