No, you didn’t stumble on the wrong website. This is still Habs Eyes on the Prize. This is still a hockey website. When SB Nation put out the idea to write about the best teams to never win a championship, there was one answer that came to mind when you think of Montreal, and it would be a shame to see this topic come and go without this team being mentioned.
What if I told you that as a nine year old — the strike, on August 12, 1994 happened two days after my birthday — I was more heartbroken by the baseball season stopping than I was excited when the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1993?
I can’t remember the Canadiens record when the season was suspended a month ago, but I can rattle off 74-40 like it’s nothing.
Let’s face it, the 1994 Expos had some competition for best Expos team to not win a championship because, well, there was a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of talent.
Most people will point to Blue Monday and the 1981 National League Championship Series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers which is the closest the Expos got to the World Series. The Dodgers went on to win the World Series. That team was the culmination of three years where the team got agonizingly close to the playoffs.
In 1979 and 1980 the Expos finished second in the National League East Division. In 1980, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series. In 1979, the Pittsburgh Pirates did. The Expos finished one game behind the Phillies in 1980 and two games behind Pittsburgh in 1979. There was no Wild Card back then.
But let’s face it. This theme is built for the 1994 Expos. They didn’t finish second after all.
One thing that most people forget, or at least not mention, about the 1994 team is that it was — like 1981 — three years in the making. Felipe Alou took over as manager of the Expos in 1992, when the team was 17-20. He took that team and went 70-55, which would be a 90-win pace over a 162 game season.
Then in 1993, the team went 94-68 but finished three games behind the Philadelphia Phillies, who went on to play in the World Series, losing to the Toronto Blue Jays.
The 1994 season started with some controversy. The team traded starting second baseman Delino DeShields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Pedro Martinez.
At the time, people saw the trade of 25-year-old DeShields as yet another cost cutting measure. Local media went so far as saying that they made the move so that they didn’t need to waste jerseys prepared for the departing Dennis Martinez, who left as a free agent.
By now, we know more of the story. The Expos hired Kevin Kennedy, who worked for the Dodgers minor league system. He made reports on all players in 1991 when he managed the Dodgers AAA team. When the Expos hired him that winter, Kennedy realized that he never gave the reports to the Dodgers, who let him go. He gave them to the Expos.
Kennedy could be linked to the acquisitions of John Wetteland, Darrin Fletcher, and Pedro who were major parts of that 1994 team.
Kennedy was hired as minor league coordinator for the Expos and became the team’s bench coach in 1992. In 1994, Kennedy was managing the Texas Rangers, but the impact he had lasted with the team.
The 1994 season wasn’t all sunshine and roses — even the part where they played the games. The team was 4-9 on April 18 and were 8.5 games behind first place. They ended the month of May 28-22, 3.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves, who moved to the National League East division as baseball had realigned that winter.
It became clear that the Expos were a team to start watching closely in June. They started the month winning 12 of their first 14 games, but in the process only gained one game on the Braves.
Atlanta would come to Montreal for a three game series starting on June 27. The Braves were still up 2.5 games on the Expos, who were now 44-29. Team operators were coming off of a series where they drew around 25,000 fans a game. The buzz, though, was starting with this Braves series. Over 40,000 would fill Olympic Stadium for all three games, a great amount for weeknights.
Greg Maddux, one of the best pitchers in baseball, and a Hall of Famer, would start for Atlanta in the opener. It was 2-1 Expos in the seventh inning. Two runners were on base and rookie Cliff Floyd stepped to the plate.
Floyd’s home run is seen by many as the turning point of that season. The Expos would win the next night as well, beating Hall of Famer Tom Glavine (yeah, the Braves were pretty good) and the Braves bullpen, pulling them within 0.5 games of first place.
Montreal wouldn’t take first place from Atlanta until July 10. They wouldn’t take it for good until July 22, but when the season ended on August 12, the Expos held a six game lead on the Braves, who were holding down the Wild Card spot in the National League. The Expos and Braves had the best records in the NL, and only the Yankees (70-43) were better than Atlanta.
The Expos finished 1994 on a 20-3 run when the strike started.
We know what happened by now, there was no World Series and before the 1995 season started, ownership mandated a payroll cut. That meant Larry Walker left in free agency without a contract offer. In a two-day span, the team traded Marquis Grissom, Wetteland, and staff ace Ken Hill.
I was able to speak to Marquis Grissom a few years ago about the 1994 team. Grissom was traded to Atlanta and ended up winning the World Series in 1995, then lost to Wetteland and the Yankees in 1996.
“They reminded me. ‘Y’all had our number that year.’ I heard that all the time,” Grissom said. “Not only from position players but from Glavine and [John] Smoltz. Guys who were warriors out there on the mound.”
Many say that was the end of baseball in Montreal, but just two years later, in 1996 the team was once again a contender. If baseball’s playoff structure was what it is right now, they would have made the playoffs. They were just two games behind the Dodgers for the Wild Card at 88-74.
It was the closest they would get to the playoffs until they moved to Washington.
Many believe that the Expos would have won the World Series that year had it been played. They surely would have at least made the playoffs, and who knows what would have happened with extra playoff revenue — never mind a growing attendance for the last two months of the season.
“In baseball you just never know,” Grissom said. “We say we would have won, we had the momentum going our way but in baseball one pitch, one out, one swing can change the dynamics of any game and change the momentum just like that. We won’t say we would have won but we would have had a good chance.”