National Attention: The Expos’ 35-Year Journey to Washington D.C. (Part 1)

Major League Baseball, after a long decision process (i.e. delay), finally decided the fate of the Montreal Expos on September 30, 2004. After narrowing the field to Washington D.C. and Dulles, Virginia, the commissioner announced that the Expos would be playing in the nation’s capital. Why didn’t baseball work in Montreal and why did they move to Washington D.C.? What would cause the first baseball relocation since 1972? What sort of ramifications does this present for future relocations? To answer these questions, we not only have to go forward, but we also need to go back, thirty five years back.

The Beginning – 1969

The season that the Expos debuted was definitely a year of transition for the league. After coming off of what’s now termed the “Year of the Pitcher,” the pitcher’s mound was lowered from fifteen inches to ten.

It was also a season of expansion. The Seattle Pilots and Kansas City Royals were added to the American League while the Montreal Expos and the San Diego Padres were added to the National League. The Senior Circuit and Junior Circuit were split into an eastern division and a western division and for the first time, a five game playoff series between division winners would decide who would play in the World Series.

Of the four expansion teams, the Expos were the most noteworthy. For the first time in baseball’s long history, a team was awarded to a city that played outside the United States. In August of 1968, the former Co-Chairman of liquor distributor Seagram’s, Charles Bronfman, made his first $1 million installment to the National League. In all, the fee to the league to create the Expos would run him $10 million. John McHale became the first president of the team and Gene Mauch was named the manager.

The Expos opened the season on April 8, 1969 against the Mets, the eventual World Series Champions, winning 11-10. The Expos lost four of their next five games before they won their home opener at Jarry Park. The team finished with a 52-110 record, with the low point being a 20-game losing streak.

The 1970s

The Expos’ first full decade could best be termed “slow and steady.” In 1973 and 1974, they flirted with the .500 mark, finishing with 79 wins in each year. They took a step back in 1976, going 55-107. Then in 1979, the Expos finally finished with more wins then losses, going 95-65 and finishing only two games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.

One of the most significant events during this decade happened in 1972. For the third time in the twentieth century, Washington D.C. lost their baseball team. Prior to the 1900 season, the original Washington Senators were bought out by the National League (they didn’t call it contraction back then) basically due to poor performance (their best record in nine years was 58-73). The second incarnation of the Washington Senators began play in the American League the following year and that team relocated to Minnesota in 1960 and became the Twins. Once again, baseball fans in Washington didn’t have to wait long, because in 1961 they were given an expansion franchise, and once again their team was called the Washington Senators. After eleven seasons, owner Robert E. Short claimed he couldn’t make money, so he packed his bags, the bags of the team, and moved to Texas where the team became the Rangers.

Two major ironies go along with this final move. The first was that Baltimore Orioles’ owner Jerry Hoffberger voted against the move because he felt a more popular team might relocate to Washington, siphoning fans away from Memorial Stadium. This was in contrast to the current situation where Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos is the most vehement opponent to the Expos’ move to Washington. The second irony was that Robert E. Smith was seeking, and didn’t get, public funding for a new stadium, where as it looks like now the city is currently bending over backwards to provide, at the city’s residents’ expense, the best possible stadium deal they can.

The Expos also moved down the street. In 1977, they began playing their home games at Olympic Stadium. The stadium was originally built for use in the 1976 Olympic Games.

The 1980s

In 1981, the Montreal Expos made the playoffs for the first and only time in the team’s existence. During the strike shortened season, the Expos won the National League East’s second season by a mere half game over the St. Louis Cardinals. They went on to beat the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies in five games before losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a dramatic five game series which ended on a walk off homerun by Rick Monday.

In 1982, the Expos hosted their first All Star Game at Olympic Stadium. Included in the starting lineup were four Expos, pitcher Steve Rogers, catcher Gary Carter, and outfielders Tim Raines and Andre Dawson. Steve Rogers walked away with the win as the National League bested the American League 4-1.

In 1986, Claude Brochu replaced John McHale as president of the Expos. Remember the name, because he plays a big part as the eventual general partner of the team.

In 1989, the Expos got off to a rocky start, but in late May they made a deal for veteran left handed starter Mark Langston who helped pushed them into the division lead. As late as early August, the Expos stood in first place. Things turned for the worse when, according to Claude Brochu, Langston took himself out of a game against the Mets despite winning 2-1, only to see the pen blow the lead. They dropped seven of their next nine games and dropped out of first place for good, finishing the season an even 81-81. To make matters worse, one of the three prospects the Expos traded away for Mark Langston was none other then Randy Johnson.

At the end of the season, owner Charles Bronfman decided to sell the club. President Claude Brochu was given the task of finding a new owner, and preferably one in Montreal.

The Sale – 1990-1991

If Brochu didn’t find an owner within the league’s time frame, the team would most likely be forced to move to the United States where there were plenty of prospective buyers. After being turned down by Quebec business owner Paul Desmarias, the owner of Power Corporation, Claude Brochu reached the conclusion that a sole owner in the area wasn’t a viable alternative. Therefore, a consortium of local businessmen seemed the best alternative.

After getting commitments from the Quebec government and the City of Montreal, who ponied up $18 million and $15 million respectively to purchase the team, the search for private funding began. After some initial resistance, money started trickling in from local business owners to try to bridge the gap between what the government was providing and the $100 million sales price Bronfman was seeking. One person who came forward with his checkbook open, and who we’ll hear from later, was Jeffrey Loria, an art dealer from New York. But after basically demanding complete control of the team, his offer was rebuffed.

When it was said and done, the money trickled in from local business owners, and on June 12, 1991, both leagues approved the sale of the team to the consortium. Claude Brochu put up $2 million of his own money and became general partner of the limited partnership that ultimately owned the team. Brochu was basically given the directive of running the team, while the other owners, although often giving their opinions, were basically on the outside looking in. Brochu was also given extra protection by the league when they stipulated that the league had to approve any change of the general partner as a condition of the sale.

The Beam – September, 1991

On September 20, 1991, a concrete beam fell off of Olympic Stadium. Fortunately, there were no injuries, but it forced the Expos to play their final thirteen home games on the road. The Expos not only failed to reach .500 for the first time since 1986, but they also failed to reach 1,000,000 in attendance for the first time since Olympic Stadium became the home of the Expos. Manager Buck Rodgers was fired and subsequently replaced by Tom Runnells.

Turnaround – 1992-1993

The Expos got off to a rough start in 1992, and after a sub-.500 start, Runnells was fired and replaced by bench coach Felipe Alou. The effects were dramatic as the Expos went 43-31 after the All Star break and finished the season in second place behind the division winning Pirates. Olympic Stadium brought in over 1,600,000 despite the worries of the falling beam the year before, and the Expos seemed poised for a playoff run in the immediate future.

Felipe Alou’s first full season at the helm of the Expos showed what he could accomplish as a manager. After a 4-5 start, the Expos never slipped below .500 the rest of the season. At the All-Star break they were 48-40, but by year end they fell just short of winning the division, as they finished three games behind the Philadelphia Phillies. They fell one game short of tying the franchise record of 95 wins, but they managed to draw another 1,600,000 fans.

The Strike – 1994

On August 11, 1994, the Expos stood on top of the world. Their 74-40 record was the best in the entire league and they had just won twenty of their last twenty three games. They were six games ahead of the second place Atlanta Braves, and in sixty two home games they drew nearly 1,300,000 fans. The only problem was that the season was finished. No playoff run. No playoffs. The season was cancelled because of a strike by the players.

The franchise suffered during this time and I view the strike as the beginning of the end for the Montreal Expos. Because they continued to pay team operating expenses, such as salaries for the scouts, employees, and minor league players, the team lost $16 million because of the strike. When faced with an expected loss in 1995, President Claude Brochu decided to begin dismantling the team to save money.

Breakdown – 1995-1999

With the break up of the successful 1994 team, the Expos began going into a tailspin, both on the field and in the front office. Attendance was stagnant (even in 1994, where they led most of the way, the team was barely drawing 20,000 fans a game), and the team was going to be an inferior product. After a losing record in 1995, the Expos bounced back in 1996 to win 88 games, putting them in second place behind the Atlanta Braves. For the rest of the decade, the Expos and Moises Alou fielded teams that finished with losing records. Attendance steadily declined from 1,600,000 in 1996, to a paltry 773,000 in 1999 (barely 9,500 per home game).

Infighting among the partners of the consortium, while always in the background, began to take center stage. President and general partner Claude Brochu was convinced the Expos needed a new stadium and began seeking assistance from the government. In the meantime, the limited partners began speaking out against Claude Brochu, whose job became more and more difficult. Dealing with one millionaire business owner can be tough, but dealing with several and trying to get agreement amongst them can be practically impossible. Self-made millionaires made money their way, and to a certain extent, their criticism could be justified as the team continued to struggle.

After unsuccessful attempts to sway the government and the local business community, Claude Brochu reluctantly gave up. On October 7, 1998, he decided to step down as President and to sell his general partnership interest in the team. Shortly thereafter, members of the consortium approached Jeffrey Loria. Loria had been rejected as a viable partner back when the original consortium was put together because he demanded complete control, but now, after nearly a decade, he was viewed as the savior of the team.

The Double Switch – 2000-2002

In December of 1999, Jeffrey Loria purchased the Montreal Expos as part of a new consortium of partners. Almost immediately, the team began losing money. The 2000 season saw a slight up tick in attendance, but the more than 900,000 fans who showed up for the games could hardly cover the cost of the team.

When it came time to cover these losses, Loria alone was willing to get out his checkbook. As he began putting his own money into the team, he saw his stake in the team increase faster than the Expos attendance was dropping. By the end of the 2001 season, his stake in the team had increased from 28% to 93%. The team continued to struggle, and attendance hit an all time low in 2001 when the Expos drew only 640,000 fans (less then 8,000 per game). Later that winter, rumors began coming out about the Expos being contracted by the league.

When contraction was taken off the table, the league decided to take matters into their own hands. On February 12, 2002, the league, i.e. the other 29 owners, purchased the team from Jeffrey Loria. At the same time, Loria took his share of the pot and purchased the Florida Marlins.

Why would the league want to own one of their teams? Since it seemed like a matter of when, not if, they’d be relocating, what was in stake for the Expos? Who would win the relocation lottery? I’ll answer these questions, some of which are developing as we speak, in the second and final installment.

References & Resources
My Turn at Bat, The Sad Sage of the Expos, by Claude Brochu

Whither Youppi? The Expo-tortion Racket is More Difficult Then It Looks, by Neil deMause at Baseball Prospectus

The Business of Baseball Committee website, http://www.businessofbaseball.com

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