March 29, 2014 11:21 am
Updated: March 29, 2014 6:35 pm

Baseball makes a comeback at the ‘Big O’

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MONTREAL – On Saturday, Montreal fans were reminded that they once had a brilliant National League baseball team.

The crowd of 50,229 at Olympic Stadium for an exhibition game Saturday between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets stood and cheered as most of the 1994 Montreal Expos walked onto the infield in a pre-game ceremony.

That year, the Expos led baseball with a 74-40 record only to see the regular season and playoffs wiped out in August by a players strike.

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That talent-packed squad was likely the Expos’ best shot at winning a World Series.

And the selloff of top players that followed was probably what caused the team’s slide until it was sold and moved to Washington, D.C a decade later.

“It is my opinion, the 1994 club was hard to compare with anybody because we had three closers, we had incredible starting pitchers and we had speed, power and defence,” said the team’s manager Felipe Alou. “Not too many teams can say that. And they were young. They were getting better.”

The team was reunited as part of a special presentation of two pre-season games at the Big O organized by concert promoter Evenko and the Montreal Baseball Project, a group trying to bring a major league team back to the city.

A gala was to be held for the team on Saturday night.

The 1994 squad had Darren Fletcher catching, Cliff Floyd at first base, Mike Lansing at second, Sean Berry at third, Wil Cordero at shortstop and an outfield of Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and Moises Alou.

A young Pedro Martinez and 16-game winner Ken Hill were the top starters, and the bullpen closing duo of Mel Rojas and John Wetteland was particularly devastating to opponents.

It was a team that had been building toward greatness in the three or four preceding seasons and looked ready to overtake the Atlanta Braves as the NL’s top club and contend for the World Series for a few years.

But a sinking Canadian dollar and an ownership group unwilling to spend forced management to trade away top talents Hill, Wetteland and Grissom in April 1995 and let Walker go as a free agent to the Colorado Rockies.

Grissom said some veterans would have signed for less than market value just to keep the squad together, but the owners weren’t interested.

WATCH: Baseball back in Montreal means a walk down memory lane for die-hard fans

“We wanted to stay together here for a least another two or three years,” said Grissom. “But Ken Hill was up. I was up. Larry Walker was up.

“We wanted to make sure that wasn’t an issue, so we took it upon ourselves to try to go upstairs and tell them ‘hey, we’ll take less money to stay together.’ We don’t know how much less that would have been, but the strike took effect and there really wasn’t anything we could do.

“Even if we took less money, I still don’t think we would have stayed here.”

The team went 11-19 in spring training, worse in the NL, but when the real games started, the Expos were a force.

“I would say it was the chemistry we all had, starting at spring training,” said Cordero. “For some reason, on that team, everybody got along great and we felt comfortable with each other. We got off to a great start and kept it rolling.”

Walker, a standout left-handed power hitter from Maple Ridge, B.C., said there was a rare confidence in the ’94 Expos dugout.

“We took the field kind of knowing we were going to win and the teams we were playing had that feeling too,” he said. “You could see them in the other dugout just crapping their pants.”

The Expos were still a competitive team after the so-called fire sale. They still had Martinez and lefty Jeff Fassaro as first-rate starters and youngster Rondell White was a quality replacement in the outfield. But they never dominated again.

Attendance dwindled. Plans for a new downtown stadium fell through and finally, in 2004, the team moved south.

Has the 1994 Expos had a chance at a World Series, who knows if the stadium would have been built and the team would still be in Montreal?

“I’m guessing that’s when it happened,” said Walker. “If the ’94 team stays together and the strike ends and we finish that season, I’m not going to say we would have won the World Series, but there’s a pretty good chance that we were going to be in the World Series.

“Good things could have happened from there. Revenue comes in, more guys stick around, contracts get offered and people don’t leave town. That’s what probably would have happened and who knows how long the franchise would have stayed here. It could still be here now.”

Fans optimistic about bringing baseball back to Montreal

It isn’t every day that Montrealers line up to watch a team from Toronto play, but with the movement to bring baseball back gaining steam, baseball fans responded enthusiastically by crowding Olympic Stadium for the first time in 10 years.

“To come back here is a dream,” said Rodger Brulotte, a former Expos announcer who now does Jays games.

He spoke just before the opening pitch of the first of a two-game pre-seasons series between the New York Mets and the Toronto Blue Jays.

“I never thought that we’d ever come back. The last game played here in 2004, I said, ‘we’ll never see major league baseball again.’

“Ten years later, we’re here.”

Over the two-game series, the promoter, Evenko, said that more than 85,000 tickets had been sold.

As a point of reference, only a little more than 30,000 had been sold for the Expos last home game in 2004.

“You know what? If we get a good stadium and a good setting and a good atmosphere, people from Montreal would buy into it 100 percent,” said Donald Nolan, a converted Jays fan who grew up watching the Expos in Montreal.

Yet officials, while optimistic, warn that if Montreal does manage to lure a major-league team back to Montreal it won’t happen overnight.

“We have to be realistic about it, we showed a lot tonight, it’s going to be amazing,” said Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre.

“We’re excited about the game, obviously,” Nolan said. “Baseball back in Montreal, you couldn’t ask for more.”

“Long term is good, because there’s a willingness,” Brulotte said. “There’s a willingness with the business world, there’s a willingness with the fans. The next thing to see is if there’s a willingness with major league baseball.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Friday night’s exhibition game at the Olympic Stadium 

-With files from The Canadian Press

© 2014 The Canadian Press

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