The NHL’s expected announcement Wednesday afternoon of new expansion teams got me thinking about where Major League Baseball should go next. In 2005, the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington, D.C. to become the Nationals, leaving a hole for fans of America’s pastime who live North of the Border. Today, as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman discusses his league’s plans to bring hockey to new cities, I’m sure Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred is also thinking where the MLB may expand in coming years.
One of the places Manfred has reportedly talked about bringing a new MLB team is back to Montreal, and I think the Expos deserve a second life. One of the reasons that the team moved in the first place is because the city of Montreal couldn’t afford a new ballpark in the downtown area of the city. Now that people are talking about expanding the league or possibly relocating teams with smaller fan bases and aging stadiums (like the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland Athletics), I think that Montreal deserves its Expos back.
Baseball has a rich history in Montreal, as explored by former Grantland writer Jonah Keri in his excellent book Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos. I learned a lot about the long history of baseball in Montreal from reading that book. A team named the Montreal Royals played in the Eastern League for 20 seasons until the Brooklyn Dodgers purchased the team and made them their Triple-A affiliate. The Royals’ best player was future legend Jackie Robinson, who was sent to the Royals after Branch Rickey signed him to the memorable deal that eventually broke the color barrier in the MLB. Soon after the Royals left, their stadium, Delorimier Downs, was destroyed. This hurt the team that was soon going to report to Montreal. When the Royals left, optimistic mayor Jean Drapeau put in a bid for an MLB franchise. He got what he asked for, in 1969 and the Expos were created.
Fast-forward now to 1981. The Expos grew from a mediocre expansion team to the team analysts called the “team of the 80’s.” Led by stars (and even a couple of future Hall of Famers) like Andre Dawson and Gary Carter, and also Warren Cromartie, the ’81 Expos were a very deep and good team. After a strike that split the season, the Expos finished in first place and moved into a playoff berth. The Expos faced the Philadelphia Phillies, the team that won the NL East in the 1st half of the split season, in the new NLDS. The ’81 Expos were the first Canadian team to ever make the MLB playoffs, and had the entire country behind their back. (The Toronto Blue Jays did not yet exist).
The 1981 Expos played an exciting series against the Philadelphia Phillies. After winning the first two games of the playoff series at Olympic Stadium, the Phils forced a 5-game series. In the final game, the Expos did not score off Phillies ace Steve Carlton until the 5th inning, when the Expos scored 2 against Carlton. The Expos put another one on the board in the 6th, and kept the shutout lead for the rest of the game. The Expos had moved on to the second round, now facing the very talented pitching of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But after several really exciting games (including a complete game shutout by Ray Burris), the Expos lost the series to the eventual World Series winner.
That’s just one of the many heartbreaking moments in Expos history. Another was in 1994. The Expos had a wonderful team, headlined by Larry Walker and Pedro Martinez. The team got off to a blistering start, but the season was interrupted again, coincidentally, by a strike. MLB team owners committee proposed a salary cap, and, boy, did that not go well with the MLBPA. The final games of the season were played on August 11, 1994, and MLB finally canceled the season on September 14, 1994. The Expos had an incredible record of 74-40 when the ’94 season was called, 6 games up on the Atlanta Braves. Frank Thomas, the slugger for the White Sox, said about his year that “We picked a bad season to have a good year.” Again, the best hopes of a World Series title were gone.
Ten years later, Montreal bid its Expos adieu. Olympic Stadium, built almost 30 years earlier for the 1976 Summer Olympics, was not really liked by the fans because it was literally falling apart. Instead, the Expos played 22 home games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico that final season. But it was a very disappointing season for the Expos, which finished last in the NL East with a horrifying record of 67-95.
The team moved to DC to start the 2005 season. With the 4th selection in the draft, the new Washington Nationals acquired young third baseman from UVA, Ryan Zimmerman, who would go on to become the “face of the franchise” for the Nationals for their first decade. In 2005, the Nationals finished with a respectable .500 record (81-81), a feat the team would not match again until 2012 (OK, maybe they would have in 2011, but the team finished 80-81 because a rain out game earlier in the season was not made up).
So to those who don’t remember, the Expos had some exciting times in Montreal, with some really spectacular ballplayers. The fan base is still there, despite the bad attendance totals in the team’s last few seasons. I think low attendance at games in the late years of the Expos were likely due to the fact that the stadium was a huge, crumbling mess that no one wanted to go to. For the last 3 years, the Blue Jays and MLB have hosted exhibition games at Olympic Stadium. In only 2 games the first year, the exhibition games drew a whopping crowd of 96,000 people. Add to the momentum that former Expo Warren Cromartie has started the Montreal Baseball Project, which is dedicated to bringing a MLB team back to the Montreal area. It’s nice to see that the former players want their former team to be back in the city they grew to love.
In addition to having the history and fan base, Montreal is at least on equal footing with other possible expansion cities that need new ballpark to house a team. But at least Montreal has Olympic Stadium to use in the meantime, unlike many of the other contenders. Some of the cities that were considered in 2005 when the Expos were up for relocation were Las Vegas, Monterrey, Mexico, and Portland, Oregon. None of these cities has a temporary home for a new team: Portland has only a 22,000 seat facility in Providence Park and Monterrey a 27,000 baseball stadium; Las Vegas currently has houses no professional sports teams. Another option for an expansion team, Charlotte, NC, just built a new ballpark for the Charlotte Knights (AAA affiliate of the White Sox), but would the city really invest in a new MLB ballpark too? Other citites also rumored to want a baseball team, like Columbus, Ohio, or Indianapolis are in too close proximity to other MLB teams, and baseball probably wouldn’t a repeat of the broadcast territory disputes that have gone on between the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles. There’s been talk about the Oakland A’s leaving O.co Stadium for San Jose. That’s a city with pro sports successes– NHL’s San Jose Sharks and MLS’s San Jose Earthquakes–and I think that is where the Oakland A’s will eventually build a new stadium. But if baseball is going to give life to a new team, I think the best choice is back in Montreal.
What are your thoughts about MLB expansion? Comment below or Tweet me @MattsBats.