MONTREAL – Professional athletes tend to best remember the teams with which they win a championship. A bond is forged for life. A group gets together, slogs through the adversity of a long season, plays its best when the games matter most and shares the glory of its achievement.
The 1994 Montreal Expos didn't win the World Series. Nobody did. A players' strike saw to that. But there's this lingering feeling among the nearly two-dozen players and coaches who gathered to celebrate their special team that they would have been champions, that the 1994 Expos would have secured a third-consecutive world championship for a Canadian-based team.
“I think that's the one thing that sticks around too much,” said Cliff Floyd. “If you'd played it out, you'd feel better about it. If we lost you still feel better about going and getting the opportunity to play. When you don't play it out you wonder what if we'd gotten the opportunity to play in the playoffs.”
“We built a special bond in 1994,” said Marquis Grissom, a two-time All-Star in a 17-year career. “It didn't just start in '94, it started in 1990, in 1989-1990 when we were all in spring training trying to make the team. It just festered all the way up to '94 to where we all came together for one common cause and that was to win a World Series. We didn't expect to do anything less.”
Championship baseball teams need a lot to go right. They must do the obvious, like outpitching and outhitting and outscoring their opponents on more nights than not. Emerging clubs - that Expos team was still so young - must also experience breakthrough moments.
Floyd, a rookie that year who would go on to play 17 seasons in the big leagues and make an All-Star Game, provided such a moment. It was June 27. The Expos were hosting the then-National League East-leading Braves. Floyd blew open a close game with a two-out, three-run home run in the seventh inning off of future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux. Montreal won the game and closed to within a game-and-a-half of the division lead. By the time the strike started a month and a half later, the Expos led the Braves by six games in the standings.
“I think about that a lot,” said Floyd. “I think about when I walked up to the plate that day. I think about what was on my mind that day. I just told myself get a good pitch to hit. The type of team we had then, the expectations and what I did in the minor leagues, they were showcased in '94 but I just said if I can just help us go out and win some games, you don't know what games or how important they're going to be when you do it but that was one of the biggest moments of my life was for me to get that home run.”
Felipe Alou pulled the strings from the dugout. He'll be 79 in May and he speaks of the 1994 team like a proud father. He is, in a literal sense, because his son, Moises, was among the club's many young stars. Charged with cultivating that entire unit, two decades later Alou marveled at the talent the franchise had assembled.
“The 1994 club was hard to compare with anybody because we had three closers, we had incredible starting pitching and we had speed, power and defence,” he said. “Not too many teams can say that and they were young. They were getting better.”
Surely the manager deserves some credit?
“Anytime you have a team like that you're a good coach,” said Alou.
Much has been theorized about the breakup of the team in the aftermath of the strike.
Larry Walker, a could-be Hall-of-Famer who's yet to be voted in and would like an Expos cap on his plaque if the day comes, didn't want to leave. He signed with Colorado when the strike ended and embarked on a tremendous 10-season run with the Rockies before wrapping up his career in St. Louis.
“There wasn't a contract on the table for a lot of us and the game kind of dictates that and you move on,” said Walker. “It's the nature of the game. I didn't leave because I hated anybody or hated the city or anything crazy like that. I know there's been some dumb stuff written about it from what I've been told but I was just another ballplayer trying to win. We had a winning franchise that got broken up.”
Grissom insists a group of top-end players went to ownership to try to persuade the group to keep the young core together.
“We took it upon ourselves to try to go upstairs and tell them, hey, we'll take less money to stay together,” said Grissom. “We don't know how much less that would have been but, really, the strike took effect on us and there wasn't anything we could do. Even if we'd taken less money I still don't think we would have stayed here.”
There are more gray hairs. In some cases, the bellies are bigger. But the memories came flooding back, the reunion a chance to ask the “what if?” question one more time.
If this weekend accomplishes nothing else, it's reminded the powers of Major League Baseball that Montreal is a baseball town. Right now there's no ownership and no stadium for the franchise pipe dream but at least one man is hoping that the energy that still surrounds the 1994 Expos will contribute to the momentum to bring a team back to Montreal.
“I believe that if we ever get a team back here it will be because of the 1994 team,” said Alou. “That is what the people in these communities, Montreal, Laval, the cities around here, they are holding on to the 1994 club. They believe that this memory, they talk about it. We are here, the 1994 team. It's not the 1993 or the 1995, it's the 1994. The people hope and I hope that that club that was so good will help bring baseball back to this city.”