Monday, February 13, 2006

1969 Expansion Pt. 3

Montreal Expos
The dissolution of the Expos franchise is one of the more shameful stories of modern baseball. Whereas the steroids problem developed gradually out of many directions with no main culprit, the death of the Expos was the conscious effort of many people, most notably Major League Baseball itself. One of the claims made in the PR campaign to kill off the Expos was that Montreal simply couldn't support a major league team. This was a preposterous statement, as the history of the Expo franchise proves.

When the decision was made to expand the National League to 12 teams in 1969, Montreal was considered a favorable target for a new franchise. It had been the home of a Dodgers' farm team for years, and it was the city that saw organized baseball integrated when the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to play for the minor-league Royals in 1946. Thoughts of placing a major league franchise there, however, foundered at the feet of Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, a considerably powerful owner not willing to sacrifice a city from his farm system. When the AL announced plans to expand to 12 teams by 1969, however, it was O'Malley who volunteered Montreal as the location for a new NL franchise, along with San Diego.
The franchise was awarded to Charles Bronfman of the Seagram distilleries. The inaugural team in 1969 was a collection of young talent combined with a few established stars. The most notable was former Houston Astro Rusty Staub. Staub was the first Expo to achieve stardom, beginning in 1969 with 29 HR, a .426 OBP and a .302 batting average.
But the 1969 club was, apart from Staub, relatively unimpressive. Their 52-110 record was quite poor, even by expansion standards. The Expos played Jarry Park, a hitter's ballpark that helped them finish above their expansion-mate Padres in runs scored per game (3.59 to SD's 2.89), but they finished dead last in the league in runs allowed per game (4.88).
But the novelty of the team enabled them to draw more than a million fans, ranking 7th in the 12-team NL. Fans not only enjoyed Staub (dubbed "Le Grand Orange" for his fiery red hair), but also other, less memorable players, such as Coco Laboy and John Boccabella. The only bright spot among the pitchers, though, was Bill Stoneman, who managed to toss a no-hitter 10 days into the season, although his 4.39 overall ERA was well below-average. The Expos had former relief aces Roy Face and Dick Radatz on the roster, but neither contributed much more than a recognizable name.
Under manager Gene Mauch, the Expos of the early 70's were never very good, finishing between 4th and last place every year from 1969 through 1978. The franchise was never able to find sufficient support for the few superstars they had, such as Staub . However, the late 1970's saw the flowering of a youth movement that helped energize the franchise.
A 55-107 finish in 1976 seemed to indicate a troubled franchise. But then the Expos finished 5th in 1977, then 4th in 1978, and jumped all the way up to 2nd place in the NL East with a franchise-best 95-65 record in 1979. The franchise effectively pieced together a number of quality players from other teams (Tony Perez, Chris Speier, "Spaceman" Bill Lee, and relievers Elias Sosa, Stan Bahnsen, and Woodie Fryman), but the real story of the 1979 team was the arrival of a number of good young players from the Montreal farm system.
The first to arrive was starting pitcher Steve Rogers, an Expos 1st-round pick in 1971. After a couple years in the majors, Rogers arrived in 1975, posting a 3.29 ERA with 137 K. He would be an above-average pitcher for the next 8 seasons, often well above-average. The Expos have never been great at producing good pitchers from the farm system, but Rogers is easily the best pitcher the franchise has ever had for a good length of time. His 1978 season (2.47 ERA) and 1982 season (2.40 ERA, 179 K in 277 IP) ranked him among the best in the league. Rogers only finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting three times and was unfortunately never recognized as the high-quality hurler he was. He's no Hall-of-Famer, but he did manage to win 158 career games with a 3.17 career ERA on some pretty poor teams.
1979 saw the further development of center fielder Andre Dawson, who hit 25 HR and stole 35 bases despite a dismal .309 OBP. This would be the tale of Dawson's career, as his combination of power, speed, and good defense led mainstream observers to think him much more valuable than he was, as his .323 career OBP is a millstone around the neck of any effort to get him into Cooperstown. Regardless, though, Dawson was a big part of the Expos each year until he went to the Cubs as a free agent in 1987.
A player who should merit Cooperstown consideration was outfielder Tim Raines, who made his major league debut in 6 games in 1979. Raines wouldn't become a regular until 1982, but he went on to compile, in a career spent mainly in Montreal, 808 career stolen bases, a .385 career OBP, a .294 career average, 2,605 career hits, and even 170 career HR. Raines was probably the best player in the NL on two occasions, but never merited serious consideration, due to the presence of doppelganger Rickey Henderson, who had even more stolen bases over in the AL.
The 1979 team had two Hall-of-Famers. One was first baseman Tony Perez, obtained from Cincinnati in a surprising trade that sent the Reds relief pitchers Woodie Fryman and Dale Murray in exchange for reliever Will McEnaney and Perez. Perez was no longer an elite hitter, but was still valuable enough, both as a hitter and team leader, to merit more than a couple relief arms.
The other Cooperstown inductee on the '79 team was catcher Gary Carter. Carter is the only player in Cooperstown wearing a Montreal cap. Despite the fact that he became more famous as the veteran team leader of the World Champion '86 Mets, 12 of Carter's 19 major league seasons were in Montreal, where he had most of his best seasons. Not only was Carter a quality backstop, he was one of the best-hitting catchers of his era. Unfortunately for Carter, he began his career in 1974 under the shadow of superstar Johnny Bench, and never escaped it. Comparisons to Bench (unfair, since no one really compares to Bench) delayed Carter's induction to Cooperstown, but the belated honor finally came down in 2003.
With this solid core of young talent and veteran leadership, the Expos became competitive for the first time in team history. More importantly, their 2nd-place 1979 drew over 2 million fans for the first time in team history. They followed it up with an even-better 2.2 million drawn in 1980, when they went 90-72, again finishing second. It was another close finish; in 1979 the team finished 2 games behind the division-winning Pirates, and in 1980 they narrowed the gap to just 1 game, this time behind the Phillies.
The club finally moved into 1st place in 1981, when they finished 1st in the NL East in the second half of the split season. With additions such as young third baseman Tim Wallach and starting pitcher Bill Gullickson, the Expos were able to secure their first (and to this day, only) postseason appearance in the special 5-game divisional playoff series. The Expos faced off against 1st-half NL East champions (and defending World Champions), the Phillies. The Expos took the first two games in Montreal, but the Phillies came back with victories in Game 3 and Game 4. The deciding Game 5 in Veterans Stadium was a pitching showdown between Montreal ace Rogers and Phillies ace Steve Carlton. Rogers outpitched Carlton, and the Expos took the game 3-0. Their series victory ensured them a spot in the NLCS against the Dodgers.
After splitting the first two games in Los Angeles, the Expos won Game 3 at home in Montreal, with ace Rogers outdueling Dodger pitcher Jerry Reuss 4-1. The victory gave the Expos a 2-1 Series lead and moved them just one game away from the World Series.
The Dodgers scored 6 runs in the final two innings of Game 4 to nab an easy 7-1 victory. Game 5 in Montreal was a showdown between Expo starter Ray Burris and Dodger phenom Fernando Valenzuela. The game was tied 1-1 going into the 9th inning, and Burris was lifted for ace Rogers, pitching on just two days rest after his Game 3 victory. Rogers gave up a solo home run to Dodger Rick Monday, and Bob Welch retired the Expos in the 9th to send the Dodgers to the Series and hand the Expos a tough loss.
The rest of the 1980s saw the Expos always competitive, but not quite as good as their 1979-1981 team. As their stars aged (Rogers) or left for free agency (Carter, Dawson, Raines), the Expos had difficult replacing them with top-notch rookies. Some exceptions would be first baseman Andres Galarraga, who unfortunately had his best after leaving Montreal, third base stalwart Tim Wallach, and rehabilitated starting pitcher (and Nicaraguan national hero) Dennis "El Presidente" Martinez, obtained in a trade with Baltimore.
After a last-place 71-90 finish in 1991, the Expos underwent a shift in the front office that saw wunderkind Dan Duquette installed as GM. Duquette was known for his friendliness toward statistics as well as his sometimes unorthodox decisions. But along with new manager Felipe Alou, Duquette helped turn the decent Montreal franchise into a true contender. The 1992 team went 87-75, moving up to 2nd place in the NL East for the first time since 1980. Along with stalwarts Wallach and Martinez, the Expos added a group of very talented youngsters to create a potent lineup. There was second baseman Delino DeShields, a top-of-the-order speedster, whose greatest value proved to be a few years later, when the Dodgers gave up Pedro Martinez to get him. Most important, though, was a juggernaut outfield. In left field was the manager's son, Moises Alou, who could prove to be the Most Valuable Alou, as he combined power with all-around hitting prowess. Alou was acquired from Pittsburgh as the Player to be Named Later in a trade for Zane Smith (a good example of why the great Pirates' teams of the early 90's died off). In center field was prize farmhand Marquis Grissom, a power/speed threat and all-around quality player. But the best of them all was probably right fielder Larry Walker. Walker was a good right fielder, hit for average, hit for power, had great plate discipline, and even stole some bases in his younger days. Walker became more famous with the Colorado Rockies, but even with Coors Field juicing his career statistics, Walker was quite a hitter who lost his spot in Cooperstown due to rampant injuries that cut short his later years.
The Expos didn't have an equally fearsome pitching staff, but behind a list of seeming no-names were some quality performers. The Expos got the best out of underrated starter Ken Hill and had a killer bullpen, a group that included Jeff Fassero and Mel Rojas and was anchored by ace closer John Wetteland.
After such a strong 2nd-place showing in 1992, the Expos did even better with a 94-68 performance in 1993, just 3 games behind division-winning Philadelphia.
The team peaked in 1994. At the time the strike ended the season, the Expos sported a 74-40 record, which was tops in baseball. They had a 6-game lead over the second-place Braves, and were looking like the team to dethrone the then 3-time division champions. The Expos returned all the stars from the past two seasons, including hitting prospects Rondell White and Cliff Floyd. Their pitching staff was top-notch, thanks to a young pitcher picked up in a trade with the Dodgers. His name was Pedro Martinez, and we'll talk more about him later.
At long last, it looked like the Expos had a team that would not only return to the postseason, but win once they got there. The strike stopped those efforts altogether. The team that returned in 1995 went 66-78 and finished last in the NL East. The Expos did manage to win 88 games in 1996 and finish in 2nd place, but it was 8 games behind the 1st-place Braves. After that, the team finished in 4th place for 4 straight years before falling into dead last in 2001.
What happened to the 1994 team? How did all those potential stars disappear so quickly? In 1995, right field superstar Larry Walker went to Colorado as a free agent (where he won the 1997 NL MVP). Ace closer John Wetteland was traded to the Yankees for the immortal Fernando Seguignol and cash. Center fielder Grissom was traded to the Braves for 3 no-names in what must have been a salary dump. Starter Ken Hill was traded to the Cardinals for 3 players I've never heard of. Left fielder Alou stuck around through 1996, before going to Florida as a free agent. Hitting prospect Cliff Floyd was abandoned in 1997, traded to Florida for mediocre players Dustin Hermanson and Joe Orsulak.
The most notoriously evil trade of all saw ace Pedro Martinez, fresh off of winning the 1997 NL Cy Young Award with a brilliant pitching performance, traded to the Red Sox for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas. Both Pavano and Armas were good prospects, but it was still an absolute steal for Boston, and a cynically brutal cost-cutting move on the part of the Expos.
A suspicious person might suspect that the team was being intentionally dismantled. The Expos were always near the bottom of the league in attendance, but the nadir of less than a million in attendance in 1991 was nearly doubled when the team became competitive in the mid-90's. So while the team admittedly did not draw a lot of fans, it wasn't until the 1994 was sabotaged that attendance slipped to the dismal figures that enabled the league to move the team.
So did the league intend to destroy the Expos in order to move them? Was Major League character Rachel, the evil owner, secretly running the team? GM Kevin Malone seemed to think along those lines when, after the last-place 1995 campaign, Malone resigned claiming he wanted to "build a team, not dismantle it." It's too convenient to claim that MLB planned the demise of the Expos as early as 1995; what's more likely is that ownership sold off the team for parts (not exactly an uncommon occurence) which ended up, a few years later, playing right into the MLB's hands.
It was no surprise, then, that with ownership all but admitting that they wanted to run a Bullsh*t team, that fans stopped showing up to Olympic Stadium, a not-so-baseball-friendly location in the first place. The only bright spot for the franchise was the development of hitting star Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero spent his first 8 seasons in Montreal, hitting over .300 with over 230 HR. His powerful right arm also generated praise, although Guerrero excelled in relative silence, with very little baseball news escaping Montreal. As he approached free agency, however, everyone talked about how underrated he was until he became overrated (the Garret Anderson Effect). With the Expos at death's door, Guerrero signed a big-money contract with the Angels, nabbing the 2004 AL MVP as the Angels won their division.
As the team fell to last place in 2001, it was new owner Jeffrey Loria presiding over the team. As the team continued to make only halting attempts at improvement, Loria blamed the empty seats in Montreal on the 1994 strike, ignoring the fact that it wasn't until the team's superstars were jettisoned that attendance plummeted. The 1996 Expos actually drew nearly as many fans as their 1993 counterparts. So if the fans weren't showing up because of the 1994 strike, it took them about 2 or 3 years to make up their minds to do so.
With the Quebec government not interested in funding a new stadium closer to downtown, it became clear that everyone's priority was to kill off the Expos and move them. Not only that, but they would blame the move on the lack of support in Montreal. This became clear in an ownership do-si-do that took place after the 2001 season. To save Loria the trouble of supervising a team on Death Row, the 29 other owners bought the Expos from him. Loria then took over the Florida Marlins, with Marlins owner John Henry buying the Boston Red Sox. It seemed as if the 19th-century syndication schemes were back in force, with the lords of baseball pulling strings among allegedly independent team organizations for their own benefit, regardless of the fans involved. Here's a before-and-after look at the 2001-2002 Shameful Shift of Shit:
Before (2001):
Expos: owned by Jeffrey Loria
Marlins: owned by John Henry
Red Sox: owned by Yawkey Trust, the estate of deceased former owner Tom Yawkey
After (2002):
Expos: owned by the MLB itself
Marlins: owned by Jeffrey Loria
Red Sox: owned by John Henry
It seemed to be a flagrant conflict of interest to have a baseball franchise run by its 29 competitors. It was no surprise then, when the MLB, owners of the Expos, made only a modest show of running the franchise well. The decision was made in 2003 that the Expos would play half of their home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This was done mainly as part of Bud Selig's attempt to globalize baseball. Selig undoubtedly knew that the move would further kill support for the Expos in Montreal, and I'm sure that's exactly what he wanted. Ownership kills off the team, and so the fans stop showing up. Then ownership blames the lack of attendance on the fans, and thus keeps killing off the team. A similar situation is taking place now with the Florida Marlins. And who currently owns the Florida Marlins? None other than former Expos chief Jeffrey Loria. Hmm . . .
Despite the Herculean efforts of manager Frank Robinson and GM Omar Minaya, the Expos were only able to remain competitive for so long. Fatigue rose to historic levels, as the Expos home games themselves were a road trip, since their two homes were thousands of miles apart. A sad example would be in 2004, when the Expos and Blue Jays played an interleague ballgame on Canada Day. It makes perfect sense, right? Except, of course, that the game was played in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The utterly shameful charade of the MLB-owned Expos came to an end when baseball finally announced that the team would be moved to Washington, D.C. for the 2005 season. Selig and the MLB, however, were characteristic in not factoring in the practical difficulties involved in the move. There's a very short time between the end of the World Series and the beginning of Spring Training, and the shift of an entire baseball franchise takes a little more time than that. It was an abysmal mess of practicalities, with the Washiungton team offices housed in a few on-site trailers for a time. New GM Jim Bowden (Minaya fled to take over the Mets after the 2004 season) turned his great energies toward putting a competitive team on the field.

Washington Nationals
Most of the problems facing the now-Washington Nationals, however, were beyond Bowden's powers to solve. The greatest roadblock was the D.C. City Council which, quite wisely, sought assurances to contain the amount of public money spent on the new stadium. The MLB, used to violating city councils with sweetheart deals on new stadiums, leases, etc., was shocked at the delay, and vilified the councilwoman who tried to introduce the proposal. The roadblock put the team's future in temporary jeopardy (the offices were actually shut down for a while), but a compromise was reached, and the team went forward with the 2005 season, to be played in old RFK Stadium until a new ballpark could be constructed.
The 2005 season, all things considered, was an on-field success. Manager Robinson continued to exercise great patience in dealing with the off-field horrors while forming a decidedly competent team. Stars included outfielder Brad Wilkerson (recently traded to the Rangers), young closer Chad Cordero, and firebrand outfielder Jose Guillen. The team's 81-81 finish may have been good enough only for last place in the NL East, but all things considered, it was a success.
However, two great problems still stand in the way of the Washington franchise finally existing on its own terms: 1) a new ballpark, and 2) new owners. Numerous practical issues, mostly involving the spiralling costs of the planned new ballpark, continue to prevent a final agreement on a lease for the team. Until a lease is agreed upon, Selig is unwilling to decide upon a new owner. No one really believes Selig anymore when he sets deadlines for these decisions to be made, because he's been promising answers to these problems for months now. It's a significant embarassment for Selig and the MLB that they can't get the relatively simple issue of a ballpark lease decided. It's most likely due to the fact that the MLB owners, flush with new money, are not willing to give an inch on the ballpark issue when other cities never gave them this much trouble when building new parks.
The most important fact concerning the Nationals is that they are still, for the fourth season now, owned by the MLB. This is a travesty of justice and a farce of competitive balance, which makes Selig look more and more like a paper tiger more interested in protecting the best interests of the 29 millionaires than the best interests of baseball. On-field, the Nationals are a competitive, if still unspectacular team. They have great support among the Washington, D.C. fanbase, although they're playing in what is now one of the older ballparks in baseball. Off-field, they're still a mess, and it's a mess that Bud Selig has proven entirely unable to fix. Rob Neyer once said that he hopes, one day, that someone writes a book about the mess that was the Expos of the 21st century. I hope it comes, so that we can finally placed a considerable amount of blame upon the few higher-ups who truly deserve it.
And neither Bud Selig nor Jeffery Loria would read it.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella

Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.

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