Nationals ceased being Expos long ago, but thin ties still bring joy

MLB analyst Jon Paul Morosi joins Lead Off to discuss the “unbelievable” Washington Nationals’ story, from being too old, to almost firing manager Dave Martinez, to winning the fight and winning it all.


Allow me to clear up this whole Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos thing in a way that won’t pick at any scabs or take away anything from anybody.

I spent the best nine years of my newspaper career covering the Expos, but I’d already moved on when they played their final game at Olympic Stadium on Sept. 29, 2004, emotionally and physically.

I’d switched newspapers, moved to Hamilton to work out of Toronto, but still kept my hands in Expos coverage. I wasn’t a Montreal native. Shoot, truth is I was way more of a Minnesota Twins and Cincinnati Reds fan than Expos fan growing up. But I had – have – friends in the city and when your child is born in a place, well, you have a tie that lasts.

Mostly what I remember about that night was a feeling of guilt: I knew that for me, at least, there’d be Major League Baseball to cover on a daily basis in 2005 in Toronto. I’d tired, frankly, of chronicling the slow demise of the Expos and had, I think, a different view of things than most. I saw Jeffrey Loria and David Samson as opportunists. I wrote when they bought into the Expos that only a blind optimist couldn’t see where it was going: that Loria, who had been a finalist in an auction court battle for Baltimore Orioles and still lived in New York City, had bought an asset that was on wheels, and that barring a dramatic infusion of local money and political will, it was only a matter of time before they were gone. I didn’t see the whole franchise swap that saw Loria eventually get the Florida Marlins and John Henry get the Boston Red Sox, and Major League Baseball take over the club and eventually relocate it to Washington, D.C. – which is celebrating the franchise’s first-ever World Series victory on Wednesday.

But I remember Claude Raymond standing on the field at Olympic Stadium at the end of a 9-1 loss to the Marlins — with Samson in the stands wearing his 200x World Series ring — tears flowing as the former All-Star with 449 Major League games spoke to the crowd of 30,000 and change. Raymond, a gentleman of elegance and grace who was a bad SOB on the mound and had gone on to be a coach and beloved broadcaster. “Frenchy” to his teammates. I remember looking around the press box at the Big O, which had been a second home, at the faces of competitors and colleagues: quiet, more tears being shed.

I don’t tear up at sports events, let alone cry. Never have. I get chills and marvel at stuff, but mostly I still feel like staring at a computer screen and putting it down in words. It’s just sports, after all. Business.

I’m not going to start being maudlin now. Not over this. It’s true: for Montreal baseball fans and folks who still trot out the tri-colour beanie-type hats, the Nationals ceased being the Expos a long time ago. Never mind the Expos throwback jerseys, the sense has always been that the Nationals did little more than grudgingly acknowledge their Montreal past. This isn’t the Colorado Avalanche winning the Stanley Cup in their first year after leaving Quebec City.

I mean, you have to really stretch for ties: manager Dave Martinez was the first player acquired by David Dombrowski when he was general manager of the Expos, joining the team on July 14, 1988, in a trade for Mitch Webster. Martinez played 431 games for the Expos before being traded for John Wetteland. Nationals third base coach Bob Henley was drafted in the 26th round in 1991, appeared in 41 career games, spent a second with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a minor leaguer – then moved into minor league coaching and managing with the Nationals/Expos. Club broadcaster F.P. Santangelo is not only one of the most popular former Expos. He gets bonus points for being one of the most popular members of the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx when they were the Expos chief affiliate.

There is some affinity, I guess, for baseball fans in both cities in that they understand loss: Washington, after all, lost the Senators twice. But let’s be clear: Blue Monday? The players’ strike of 1994? No resonance in D.C. None.

Yet … I don’t know. Peeking at social media throughout the post-season, you got the sense that diaspora Montrealers kind of embraced the thing. I mean, I know I spent some time thinking about Expos-ish stuff and Expos-ish people. Cliff, Rondell, Felipe, Mo, F.P., Hubie Brooks, Buck Rodgers … Walk. And, yeah, even now I’m smiling a bit knowing that this is the 25th anniversary of the players’ strike that – possibly – stole the World Series from Montreal. And that’s kind of what sports is supposed to do, isn’t it? Make us feel better. Closer. sharing even the thinnest of the threads instead of feeling apart.

I loved this World Series, man. The whole opener/starters as relievers mess; that call at first base; the bat carrying. The comeuppance for a Houston Astros organization that has seemingly become a model of cold-blooded efficiency and blind arrogance. I don’t know if there’s any great tactical lesson here: the only thing I’ve come away being convinced about is that just like with the Boston Red Sox last season, the Chicago Cubs in 2016 and Astros in 2017, the proper approach to building a team is to develop young position players and either sign free-agent pitchers or trade the excess for starters in their late-20s who have already had Tommy John surgery and all the other things that go into the making of a Major Leaguer starter. That won’t work in every market, including this one.

But there’s going to be time to worry about all that. Right now, I’m happy feeling what I feel about baseball, the Nationals … and Montreal. My baseball home.

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