Much has been made of the fact that the 2012 Washington Nationals will provide the first major league baseball postseason appearance for a District of Colombia team since 1933, when the first-generation Washington Senators lost the World Series to the New York Giants in five games.
That is all ancient history, of course; a very long time for a city to be without a postseason appearance, but in perspective, there was a long period (1972-2004) in which the city did not even have a franchise, after the second-generation Senators moved to Texas. It is hard to win anything without a team on the field.
Less realized is the fact that the Washington Nationals franchise, formerly known as the Montreal Expos, will be making its first postseason appearance since 1981 and only its second overall. Yes, in 41 seasons before 2012, the Expos/Nationals made only one trip to the postseason and have never appeared in the World Series.
Not only that, but the Expos’ appearance in 1981 was due to a fluke. A players’ strike interrupted the season and created a hiccup in the scheduling; the leagues played a split season. The Expos finished third in the first half, and then finished first in the second half to force a Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. After taking that five game series 3-2, the Expos faced the NL West Division Series-winning Los Angeles Dodgers, losing 3-2.
Little known is the fact that combining the totals (and without a split season) the championship series would have featured the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. The Expos and Dodgers both finished second when totals are combined. But neither the Cardinals nor Reds, of course, made the playoffs at all. (The Houston Astros were the NL second-half champions).
The strike has been well documented over the years. Essentially, the disagreements between players and owners boiled down to compensation over free agent signings, and culminated in the free agent compensation draft, a compromise that allowed teams losing a star player to free agency to pick a replacement player from a pool of others stocked by all the major league teams. This system lasted only four years.
The 1981 season came to a screeching halt on June 12. Negotiations continued through July, and the second half of the season kicked off Aug. 10, after the previous day’s All-Star Game.
Baseball-Reference, citing Bowie Kuhn’s autobiography, notes that the decision to have a split season was to create “marketing spice” and fans welcomed the novelty with “good attendance through Labor Day and record attendance thereafter.”
One can conclude that fans in St. Louis and Cincinnati were a little less welcoming of the owners’ creativity, along with Baltimore fans who wound up on the outside looking in as well.
For the Expos, it was a transition season. Dick Williams had managed the club since 1977, but when the team stumbled to open the second half at 14-12 and was stuck in third place, the Expos replaced him with Jim Fanning. Well, to be more accurate, the general manager fired the manager and hired himself. Under Fanning, the team won 16 of its last 27 to be eligible for the freshly created Division Series.
That Expos team of 1981 was a powerhouse and essentially home grown. Fitting then that Fanning would be able to actually lead the team he had assembled into the playoffs.
Andre Dawson had a tremendous season, good enough for second place in the MVP vote that year, with a slash line of .302/.365/.553, 24 homers and 64 RBIs (and 26 steals) in 103 games. Dawson was second in WIN scores offensively to only Mike Schmidt, the eventual MVP. Defensively, he was second to his teammate, Gary Carter.
The 1981 season was also Tim Raines‘ first as a regular; he led the league in stolen bases with 71 and hit .304/.391/438 to finish second in the Rookie of the Year vote.
The offense for the Expos didn’t depend on just those two, however. Future Hall of Famer Carter was behind the plate, Warren Cromartie was on first, Larry Parrish manned third base, and Tim Wallach patrolled right field. The middle infield was steady, if unspectacular—Chris Speier at short and Rodney Scott (a Williams favorite) at second. Bench players included a trio of future managers—Terry Francona, Brad Mills and Jerry Manuel.
Like the 2012 Nationals, the 1981 Expos had good pitching. Ace right-hander Steve Rogers was so-so in 1981 compared to other seasons, but he did notch three shutouts and pitch seven complete games. Bill Gullickson posted a 2.80 ERA, and third starter Scott Sanderson finished with a 2.95 ERA. Ray Burris and Charlie Lea rounded out the five-man rotation. The closer? Well it was a complete bullpen effort, between Jeff Reardon (1.30 ERA, six saves) and 41-year-old Woodie Fryman (1.88 ERA and seven saves). “Spaceman” Bill Lee also had six saves and deposited a 2.94 ERA.
Rogers took two of the Division Series wins against the Phillies. In the first, a 3-1 win, Reardon came on to record the final out; the finale was Rogers all the way, outdueling Hall of Famer Steve Carlton for a 3-0 complete game shutout. In Game Three of the Championship Series against the Dodgers, Rogers pitched another complete game, a 4-1 victory. As was customary in those days, Game Five meant all hands available in the pen. This Game Five was supposed to have been played on Sunday, Oct. 18; rain in Montreal postponed the game until Monday. Blue Monday.
A duel developed between Burris and Fernando Valenzuela of the Dodgers, and manager Fanning called on Rogers to protect the tie game in the top of the ninth against the heart of the Dodgers lineup—Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Rick Monday. Rogers retired the first two on a pop up and a flyball but Monday put the Dodgers up by a run with a homer on a 3-1 count. The Expos were unable to answer in the bottom of the ninth.
With that Blue Monday blast, the Expos season and postseason history was complete. The run of second place finishes from 1979 ended with the 1981 squad; the team slid to third in 1982 and 1983, then fifth in 1984. The best finish for the Expos from that point on was a first place finish in the 1994 season.
First place? So, newer fans may ask, “How can it be there was no other postseason appearance?” Well, you win by a strike and you lose by a strike. 1994’s player strike wiped out the only legitimate, non-gimmick, postseason appearance for the franchise. Thank you Mr. Selig, we still love you for that.
When considering the history of the three franchises in Washington, D.C, it is easy to understand the joy D.C. fans must feel at finally reaching the postseason. But for long-suffering Expos’ fans, that joy is even greater. Finally, they are also getting an opportunity that has eluded them – one way or another – for a long time.
The Nationals have come a long way from the days of Jim Fanning and the Expos’ multicolored hats, and stand at the beginning of the maze to determine a World Series champion. It’s about time.
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