Nats in World Series 25 years after Expos never got chance

Nats in World Series 25 years after Expos never got chance

WASHINGTON — Pedro Martínez stood on the field before Game 4 of the World Series and pictured himself on the mound.

“I was supposed to be pitching in this game tonight,” he said.

Martínez was the No. 4 starter for the 1994 Montreal Expos, who were the best team in baseball on the morning of Aug. 12 when players went on strike, leading to the cancellation of the rest of the season. Now the Washington Nationals — the former Expos — are in the World Series with a chance to accomplish what so many thought the Expos would have done 25 years ago if they got the opportunity.

“Everybody in the Nationals is starting to do something that we expected to be 25 years ago,” Martínez said. “We were destined to go to the World Series. It got suspended. We never had a chance to get a crack at it, and it would never be recognized as one of those seasons where we were supposed to be in that game.”

The ‘94 Expos had five All-Stars — not counting a future Hall of Famer in Martínez, career .313 hitter Larry Walker and 1996 World Series MVP John Wetteland — and were a major league-best 74-40 at the time of the strike. They won 20 of their last 23 games, led the mighty Atlanta Braves by six games in the NL East and looked like favourites to help Canada capture three consecutive titles after the Toronto Blue Jays won in 1992 and 1993.

With little warning, Montreal was a juggernaut and looked to make the playoffs for the second time in franchise history and first since 1981. With a pitching staff so deep that a 22-year-old Martínez was fourth in the rotation, he believes the Expos would’ve won it all.

“We were well on our way to doing that,” said Martínez, now an MLB Network analyst. “We were young, energetic — we knew the fundamentals of the game by being managed by Felipe (Alou). Felipe was great at teaching us the proper way to play the game. We had a lot of great defence, great young arms going at it every single night. Every single aspect that you can think of the game, I think we had it on the team.”

Martínez eventually won the World Series in 2004 with the Boston Red Sox. The Expos never got another chance.

Of course, Expos fan Marvin Matthews couldn’t imagine at the time his team wouldn’t get close again. Matthews proposed to his girlfriend at the final Expos home game on Aug. 4, 1994, with a message on the scoreboard that read: “Kristy, the Expos are #1 in baseball. Will you be my #1? Please marry me! Marvin.”

Sitting next to Marvin and Kristy at Olympic Stadium was Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, who won the Stanley Cup with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens 14 months earlier. The Expos lost that game to St. Louis 7-3 but went 7-1 in their final eight games before the strike.

“It was such a great team,” Matthews said. “Who knew it was going to end? Nobody had that feeling or anything. Nobody knew that was going to happen.”

Matthews, now 60, remembered feeling more devastated by the “Blue Monday” loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1981 NL Championship Series because everyone saw the young talent in the ’90s and figured there’d be more opportunities.

“In ‘94 you just thought, ‘OK, there’s going to be another time, there’s going to be another time,’” Matthews said. “There were 10 more years, but nothing happened.”

Martínez said after the strike cut off the Expos’ chance to win the World Series in 1994, “the economics of the game cut Montreal off from being a city of baseball.” No. 1 starter Ken Hill and centre fielder Marquis Grissom never played another game for Montreal after being traded away in April 1995, shortstop Wil Cordero was dealt away after that season, outfielder Moises Alou left in free agency after 1996 and had five more All-Star seasons, and then Darrin Fletcher left and Martínez was sent to Boston after the 1997 season.

The Expos finished above .500 just three more times and never made the playoffs again in Montreal. Attendance tanked before the infamous series of “home” games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. By the end, Expos/Nationals reliever Chad Cordero said, “you only had a couple hundred fans a night.”

“It was hard for me to see the team disappear without having that legit chance at making it to the World Series,” Martínez said.

Major League Baseball bought the franchise and moved it to Washington in 2005. The Nationals have nods to their past in the form of Montreal greats in their ring of honour and even wore throwback power blue Expos uniforms for a game earlier this season.

Andre Dawson, who played for Montreal for 11 seasons and has his name in that ring of honour, thinks the Nationals’ run is good for the city that was left behind.

“It’s honestly an extension of the Expos,” Dawson said by phone Sunday.

With the prospect of the Rays splitting time between Tampa Bay and Montreal and the talk of Quebec’s biggest city getting a team of its own again, the Nationals’ success shining a light on the Expos’ history is certainly one positive.

When he watches the Nationals, Martínez thinks of them as the team he used to play for and yearns for a day the Expos can make good on what he and his teammates thought they’d do in 1994.

“I think that there’s a connection,” he said. “Hopefully Montreal will come into play and get another team, and who knows.”

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