Recently while watching a documentary on the 1995 MLB season, I started thinking about one of the big question marks of that time period - how could things have changed if the Expos 1994 season had finished? Since we’re less than two years removed from that franchise winning a World Series in DC, I wanted to explore whether finishing the 1994 season really has a chance of changing anything.
What Actually Happened
The 1994 Expos were one of the better stories in the league at the time of the strike - at 74-40 they had the best record in MLB, six games ahead of the Braves in the NL East. The team was outstanding in every facet of the game - the offense included in their prime Larry Walker, Moises Alou, and Marquis Grissom, along with young emerging key players in Cliff Floyd and Wil Cordero. Meanwhile, the pitching staff was dominant, and of course included an emerging Pedro Martinez. The team ended its season on a 46-18 run.
Off the field, things were a bit more of a mixed bag. The Expos did draw relatively well for them in 1994 and may have surpassed two million fans for the first time in more than a decade; however, that attendance still ranked in the bottom ten of the league on a per game basis. Montreal was a decent sized market that typically saw attendance and revenue more in line with baseball’s smaller metro areas. While it’s easy to blame that on a lack of interest and Montreal being a hockey city, the team’s stadium situation certainly did them no favors.
Virtually from the time it opened, Olympic Stadium was a disaster as a baseball venue with a roof that never functioned as intended, multiple safety issues, and poor sightlines for baseball. Meanwhile, the team and city were unwilling to pay the relatively small amounts to improve the poor playing surface or padding on the walls - not only did that fail to attract free agents, it’s clearly a bad sign for the potential of a new stadium ever becoming a reality.
While the Expos great season was going on, decades of mistrust between MLB’s owners and the Players Association continued behind the scenes. As expected, it largely came down to financial impacts on the game. The owners put forward a position that revenue sharing between teams and a hard salary cap were needed, along with changes to the free agency structure. The players union, led by Donald Fehr, rejected those as helping the owners cleanup their own mess without benefitting the players.
In August the players went through with their threat to strike once there was no progress towards a deal. This led to the cancellation of the playoffs and the World Series, ending potentially the best Expos season ever. Perhaps most frustrating of all, the strike was ended the next year with the players and owners needing to operate under the prior CBA until a new one could be negotiated.
For the Expos, returning to the old CBA meant the Expos team coming out of the strike was nowhere near the team that went into it. According to the owner at the time, Claude Brochu, keeping the full 1994 team would have driven a loss of $25 million in 1995. I never trust the financial figures provided by those who benefit the most PR-wise from them, but it is safe to say that the Expos ownership was either not able or not willing to spend the amount of money it would have taken to keep the team in place. By the time the 1995 season started, Larry Walker, Ken Hill, John Wetteland, Marquis Grissom were all gone.
From there, the downfall of the Expos franchise was rapid. Disillusioned by both the strike and the selloff, Expos fans stayed home and attendance dropped . While Pedro was still on the team for a few seasons and Vladimir Guerrero would join later on, there was never enough success or investment to fuel interest in Montreal.
By the 2000s, the situation in Montreal had become untenable. Attendance continued to dwindle down to under 10K, which again is not a matter of Montreal fans not caring. Olympic Stadium continued to be unfit for baseball, the team’s ownership had no willingness to invest in the product, and Major League Baseball had made its intention to move the franchise clear. The team split time between Puerto Rico and Montreal for two seasons, and by 2005 had moved to Washington.
So What Happens if There Was No Strike?
There are a couple scenarios to play out here, but we’ll start with the most straight-forward - what if the players never decided to strike, but the same scenario of nothing materially changing plays out after that?
In the most optimistic scenario, the 1994 Expos continue their dream season and end it by winning the World Series. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the sure thing many people like to play it up as; the playoffs are always unpredictable, and at the time of the strike the Braves were still just six games back. That certainly would have been a steep hill to climb, but not unreasonable, and in either case the Braves and Expos likely would have matched up in the first round.
Even if the Expos did end the season with a World Series win, I find it hard to picture the future really playing out much differently. Attendance may not have fallen off quite as quickly, but it is unlikely that the situation in Montreal would have changed enough to promote investment by the team or the building of a new stadium.
Ultimately, the best comparison here may be what’s happened to the Marlins after their first World Series championship.
If nothing else changed, this doesn’t point to success alone being enough to increase attendance and save the Expos. Instead, I think it’s likely that Montreal would have followed a very similar path to Florida - selling off a successful team and alienating their fan base in the process. The difference would be that Montreal wouldn’t have the backing of MLB’s focus on keeping the market, leaving them in the same place they ended up in reality.
The more interesting scenario would be if the conflict was resolved through revenue sharing and a salary cap being instituted, as in theory this would make the Expos more likely to contend. Ultimately, I think this still doesn’t keep the Expos in Montreal.
Expos ownership at the time did not show any interest in a salary cap, because they claimed to be unable to spend to the cap anyway. Based on that, the Expos likely become a combination of the Marlins and a team like the Pirates in this scenario - teams who can contend at times, but typically use their revenue sharing money to increase their bottom lines instead of enhancing the on-field product (it’s worth noting that this is not in the spirit of how revenue sharing is intended to be used under the CBA).
In that scenario, it still seems unlikely that investment actually comes to support the team or a new stadium. Again, fans in Montreal would be left without a team.
Is There Any Scenario Where Things Change?
As I’ve covered, I don’t see a scenario where Montreal gets to keep their team in any set of circumstances. However, I don’t think that necessarily has to mean that the Expos become the Nationals.
One of the more interesting potential scenarios would involve the Seattle Mariners, though a few teams could probably be substituted in here. The Seattle situation is extremely similar to Montreal - a team playing in a disastrous stadium, yet making a run at the division in 1994. In Seattle’s case, the big difference is that they were contending for the division despite being well under .500.
The Mariners fortunes turned around drastically in 1995, but do they even get to that point if they finish out the 1994 season while the Kingdome is literally falling apart? I think there’s at least the potential that it becomes the last straw for MLB, without the labor issues to focus on, and the Mariners end up set to move.
From there I think there are two scenarios, neither of which ends up the Expos moving to DC. At the time, MLB was very focused on contraction as the cure to their woes instead of expansion. I’d predict that the most likely scenario is that they end up in the middle - instead of expansion being announced in 1995, it’s announced that the Mariners end up in Arizona and the Expos move to Tampa. That could be where we end up at least until the 2000s, with Washington potentially getting an expansion team later on.
The other option is that Seattle just moves to Arizona, and another city gets the second expansion team for 1998. Northern Virginia was a finalist in the actual search, so I’d predict either they or DC end up with that second team. From there the question becomes where do the Expos end up a decade later? Could Buffalo have their own team instead of the Blue Jays temporarily? How much does the landscape of baseball change without a team in Seattle, including whether Ichiro ends up somewhere else? Either way, history changes and we don’t end up with the Nationals celebrating a World Series in 2019.