The Montreal Expos never did win the World Series.
The ‘Spos had the best record in Major League Baseball on August 12, 1994 and were primed to take their talented, small-market approach deep into the playoffs. In 2009, the Expos are now named the Nationals, residing in Washington D.C. and occupying the dregs of the National League East.
Standings aren’t the only thing that has changed in the 15 years since the MLB Players Association staged a strike that cancelled the ’94 postseason. Steroid use became the story of the new millennium, and big-budget clubs dominated the postseason. With such a dynamic shift in the fabric of the game since the strike, it begs the question, was 1994 the baseball tipping point from national pasttime to third-tier American sport?
The strike of ’94 was hardly the first time the MLB had ground to a halt: eight stoppages had occurred since 1972. Long-standing distrust between the players and the owners led to a widening gap between expectations, with Commissioner Bud Selig wanting a salary cap and MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr hearing nothing of the sort.
Given the sides’ various tiffs in the late 20th century, a strike was hardly new news. The cataclysmic difference was that this strike cost baseball its postseason.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were left on the table for both the players and the owners. Television revenue couldn’t be collected. For owners who already saw their bottom lines shrinking, it was bad news bears.
More than the financial aspect, MLB lost its emotional connection to the fans, who felt hurt and disenchanted with millionaire owners and players squabbling over dollars and cents. The boys of summer and Mr. October were replaced by lawyers and union representatives. Some fans watched the ugliness unfold and walked away from the game for good.
After 234 days, the strike ended; the MLB played a nearly complete ’95 season. A federal judge (recent newsmaker Sonia Sotomayor) ruled against the owners – there was to be no salary cap.
Though protests and negative messages littered stadiums, the season was not without its brights spots: Cal Ripken Jr. broke the consecutive games played streak to much fan fare.
But baseball harmed itself to the point that even the efforts to boost its image were damaging. The 1998 season-long home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa – hailed at the time as the game’s rebirth – turned out to be a steroid-fueled barrage on Roger Maris’ 40-year-old, single-season home run record.
In recent years, players have justified steroid use as not-quite illegal (technically true) and a necessary feature to keep up with competitors in the age of high line drives and higher salaries. Though steroid use is morally questionable, America frowned on the besmirching of records like Maris’. Fans have taken more offense at baseball’s steroid use than other sports, precisely because baseball’s historical records have more to do with the current presentation than those other sports.
And those other sports have taken the ground once held by baseball. Boosted by quicker pace and more spectacular highlights, the NFL and NBA appeal to a faster-moving America. Those sports feature parody, while the Yankees and Red Sox of the world dominate year after year in the MLB. The Expos never seriously contended after the strike.
Baseball has been passed in the last 15 years by a culture that never really forgave it for leaving. Steroids gave critics all the ammunition they need, and the giant payrolls of a select few ensured that, unlike its competitors in the sports world, baseball’s winners would be determined by who spent the most.
Baseball is still a very enjoyable sport to watch. It’s still not in danger of being passed by hockey or soccer (yet). But, in some critical ways, it’s still reeling 15 years later.
The Expos didn’t even make it that long.
David Gregory – GooseRadio