The 2019 Washington Nationals’ season was one of the most dramatic in MLB history. A team rebounding from a 19–31 record in late May to become the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the road is beyond cinematic. However, that story might never have been told had the 1994 Montreal Expos been able to finish their season.
Remember the ’94 Expos? The team had the best record in franchise history and sat atop the National League, leading its division rival Atlanta Braves by six games when MLB players went on strike in mid-August.
“They had a high-powered offense, some great starting pitching and a lights-out bullpen,” says Danny Gallagher, coauthor of Ecstasy to Agony: The 1994 Montreal Expos. “So, you put all that together, and they had a tremendous team that put fear in the hearts of their opponents during that particular season.”
Unfortunately, the 1994 Expos never got the chance to prove they were a world champion. Their season was canceled, and the franchise moved to Washington a decade later. Their story remains one of the biggest “What ifs?” in sports.
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“People always wonder if [the Expos] could have kept it together just a couple of more years what might have happened,” says Sean Berry, the team’s starting third baseman. “Because we had that kind of veteran mentality and understanding and respecting the game a lot earlier than most young guys have.”
The story of how the Expos got to that point actually began at the end of the 1991 season, when they finished 71–90. Always strapped for cash but adept at fostering young talent, the franchise created a three-year plan with 1994 being the capstone year. After the Expos started 17–20 in 1992, they fired manager Tom Runnells and replaced him with bench coach Felipe Alou. The first Dominican manager in MLB history would also go on to be the franchise’s most successful.
“He was definitely a players’ manager and understood that he didn’t want to show anybody up,” says Berry. “So, if there was something that needed to be said, he would bring you in private and talk to you. And of course, you would get the picture and make sure stuff happened.”
Alou’s approach saw immediate improvements, as Montreal ended the 1992 season at 87–75. In 1993, the Expos won 30 of their final 39 games to finish 94–68, the second-best record in franchise history, but lost the NL East to the Philadelphia Phillies by three games. In those two seasons, Alou was developing a talented roster that included an outfield with speedsters Moises Alou (his son), Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker and a strong pitching staff with starters Dennis Martinez, Ken Hill and Kirk Rueter and closers John Wetteland and Mel Rojas.
Martinez won 15 games in 1993 but signed with the Cleveland Indians in the offseason, so Montreal traded starting second baseman Delino DeShields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a young relief pitcher named Pedro Martinez. In hindsight, the move was brilliant on the Expos’ part, but at the time it was controversial. Although he had posted a record of 10–5 in 1993, the younger Martinez weighed 165 pounds and had a weak left shoulder, while DeShields was the leadoff hitter. Montreal Gazette writer Jack Todd joked that the Expos had made the trade for another Martinez so they would not have to create a new uniform.
MLB shifted to a three-division structure in 1994, and Montreal was joined in the NL East by the Atlanta Braves, who had been to two of the last three World Series and three straight NL Championship Series. On Opening Day, Braves pitcher Greg Maddux held the San Diego Padres scoreless for eight innings in a 4–1 victory. Meanwhile, the Expos blew a 3–0 lead and had to play most of their roster in a 6–5 loss in extra innings to the Houston Astros.
“We used our big people just to stay alive,” said Alou after the game.
Montreal rebounded to win its next two games against Houston, and on April 13, Martinez showed his potential and the melees his high fastball could incite. He was pitching a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Cincinnati Reds when he hit Reggie Sanders in the left arm with his fastball. Sanders charged the mound, causing a brawl.
“You’re kind of on the bottom of the pile being a third baseman. You got to be there to protect your pitcher,” says Berry. “Pedro would never leave the mound. He would stay right there, so a lot of times he wouldn’t even get kicked out of the game.”
Martinez stayed in the game after the fight and pitched a no-hitter into the ninth inning before giving up a single to Brian Dorsett. Wetteland came in for relief, and the Expos won 3–2.
A sweep by the Colorado Rockies and a loss to the San Francisco Giants left the team at 4–9. Then things started to change. The Expos won nine of their next 10 games and ended April two games behind Atlanta. At the end of May, Montreal was 28–22 and 3.5 games behind the Braves. From there, everything clicked, and they went on a 46–18 run.
“Easiest baseball I’ve ever played,” recalls Berry. “We could just play at a level that most teams couldn’t fathom to be at.”
The greatness of this team became truly apparent when the Expos hosted the Braves on June 27 and ace pitchers Hill and Maddux faced each other. With the game tied 1–1 in the seventh inning, Cliff Floyd blasted a 396-foot three-run homer off a low Maddux pitch into the right field bleachers. The 45,000-plus fans in Olympic Stadium went ballistic over the 7–2 win.
“That was a turning point where the Expos told themselves that they were over the hump — beating the team that was always their nemesis,” says Gallagher.
The Expos pulled ahead of the Braves to take the division lead with an 8–2 rout of the Dodgers on July 22. The win was part of a 20–3 run in the final games of the season that put them on pace for 110 wins. Then on Aug. 12, the players went on strike because of a breakdown in negotiations between the MLB owners and the Players Association.
“Everybody felt that the season would continue within a couple of days or weeks, but it stretched on for over a month,” says Gallagher.
On Sept. 14, then-acting MLB commissioner Bud Selig announced that the remainder of the season would be canceled, and that was the beginning of the end for baseball in Montreal. Never mind the fact that the Expos led the MLB in ERA (3.56), saves (46) and fewest walks (288) or that Walker’s 44 doubles were within striking distance of Earl Webb’s single-season record of 67; the Expos simply could not afford for the season to be canceled. Because of the strike, they lost revenue from 29 canceled home games and a $16 million postseason share that they were guaranteed even if they hadn’t made the World Series. The strike also carried over into 1995, causing season ticket sales to plummet. To remain financially solvent, Montreal traded Grissom, Hill and Wetteland and did not try to keep Walker, who signed as a free agent with the Rockies.
A ruling by judge Sonia Sotomayor ended the strike on April 2, 1995, and the teams returned a few weeks later to a shortened 144-game season, but the damage was done. Over the next 10 seasons, Expos attendance dropped, an attempt to build a new stadium in downtown Montreal fell through, and declining revenue and fighting among the owners prompted MLB to purchase the team.
On Sept. 29, 2004, MLB announced that the Expos would be moving to Washington, D.C. That night, both Alous, Hill and Floyd were among the players on hand for a pregame ceremony at the Expos’ final home game, when a banner honoring the 1994 team was hung in Olympic Stadium.
A month later, the Boston Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Martinez, who won a Cy Young Award with Montreal before being traded to Boston, said, “I would like to share this with the people of Montreal, who are not going to have a team anymore.”
So, could the ’94 Expos have won it all? No one will ever really know given the nature of the playoffs, but perhaps the most telling story is one that Felipe Alou told Gallagher for his book. The Braves and Expos shared a spring training facility in West Palm Beach, and as the manager was clearing out his things after the season was canceled, he ran into Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. The two-time Cy Young Award winner told him, “I feel bad for you guys. It was impossible to catch you guys. You guys were dominating the league.”