In May of 1968, major league baseball expanded outside the United States for the first time. Montreal had no name for its team, no logo, no players, no stadium, and less than a year to figure it all out.
Toronto was a bit more organized a few years later. Exhibition Stadium-home of the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts had already been renovated baseball friendly because The San Francisco Giants were relocating to Toronto. It was a done deal until the courts stepped in and killed the move, but Toronto got its team the following year-1977 when the American League expanded.
There were no dueling banjos among Canadian baseball fans. The Expos were Canada’s team. Even when the Jays started winning in the mid 1980’s, Montreal was still number one. Then the 1990’s happened.
That’s when the Blue Jays out Steinbrennered George Steinbrenner. They seduced baseball’s top free agents to play in Canada. Paul Molitor, Dave Stewart, Jack Morris, Tony Fernandez, Rickey Henderson, Joe Carter. They traded for Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, John Wetteland, and Devon White. They drafted and developed John Olerud, Mark Eichorn, Ed Sprague. It all came together.
The Blue Jays won back to back World Series in 1992 and 1993, but that isn’t what doomed the Expos. The year after did. You wouldn’t think so looking at both team’s records. The Blue Jays were 55-60; the Expos 74-40, but the season was killed on August 12 and never revived. Neither did the Expos with baseball’s second lowest payroll.
Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, Ken Hill, and John Wetteland were all gone within two years. Attendance dropped and then dropped some more. It was the beginning of the end for Canada’s first MLB team.
It seems fitting that 1994 is still considered the greatest Expo’s team ever assembled; that season of what ifs. What followed was a slow and painful death with each year trumping the previous in the ridiculous or absurd or conspiratorial. Major League baseball took over the team at one point. Home games were moved to Porto Rico. The right to call up players in September 2004 was denied; all nails in a decade long coffin.
The Expos are now the Nationals and as one last laugh, the city still whispers, “But if we build a new stadium…..” It’s a painful and broken record. The city has been promising a new stadium since August 1968 when the MLB threatened to renege on its offer of expansion. Maybe the miracle of the Expos is that they were ever allowed to exist in the first place.
Jarry Park had a seating capacity of 3,000 people, yes 3,000, but the MLB was OK with it because Montreal added a whopping 11,000 seats bringing the total to league low 14,000 financial bust. But Montreal promised to build a new home for the Expos. Jarry was only a cute and temporary solution.
Then the city was awarded the 1976 Olympics and that promise of a new stadium got shoved to the side. Money was wasted to impress the world so athletes could enjoy two weeks of javelin, shot put, and run around an orange track.
Montreal even provided a low-budget face lift to the Big Olympic Stadium with artificial turf and a few bases, a home run fence. The Expos played their home games there beginning in 1977. It was big and ugly, but the O stood for more than Olympic. It was Overnight as in not forever as in Montreal still promised to build a new Expos home.
There were promises right up until the Expos’ last day in September 2004 and the blueprints of Labatt Park are still viewable online and so is that painful status—Never Built.
So the Blue Jays became Canada’s team. They got a new stadium in 1989; a Rodgers Center previously known as Sky Dome. They won back to back World Series, but since then haven’t won more than 87 games in a season.
The 1994 Expos winning percentage of .615 sits frozen in time as the highest ever by a Canadian team. Who knows if they win the division and World Series that year? Maybe not knowing is better. It keeps the Expos memory alive, but it’s more than cute nostalgia over Jarry Park or anger towards the Big O. It’s a memory of life not always being fair, but carrying on anyway.