Allons-y Nationals!

There’s not a lot happening in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium these days. The Alouettes and McGill Redmen play at Percival Molson Stadium out at the university. The Montreal Impact play soccer at Saputo Stadium and the Concordia Stingers play at their campus stadium.

This means there’s a lot of open dates at the Big O; its website only lists four events this month.

Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals are making a playoff push.

The Expos left Montreal after the 2004 season; after a series of disastrous summers. They only won more than 70 games twice between 1997 and 2004 and only ever finished first in their division once, which happened in the strike-shortened 1994 season. While Toronto’s Blue Jays were able to pull off successful seasons only a few years after joining the American League, the Expos only made the postseason once: 1981, when they lost their one and only postseason series in five games to the LA Dodgers.

It’s a streak that continued in Washington when the Expos became the Nationals. They finished fifth in a five-team division in five out of their first six seasons. They dropped over 100 games two times as well (something the Expos only ever did twice in their history).

But last year things started looking up. The franchise runners rebuilt the outfield by adding Rick Ankiel and Laynce Nix through free agency, and pitching prospects Drew Storen and Jordan Zimmerman had solid years. Mike Morse – picked up in a trade two years prior – flourished in a starting role, hitting .303/.360/.550. And it would have been a lot better had their missing piece played the whole season, too: limited by a 2010 surgery, in a widely-publicized move, phenom pitcher Stephen Strasberg was shut down in early September. 

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This is the year the Nationals are putting it all together: Strasberg will finish with a 15-6 record, a 3.16 ERA and a 2.6 WAR. Now starting at first base, Adam LaRoche is hitting with an .842 OPS and Ian Desmond’s OPS is .846. As a team, the Nationals are second in the NL in home runs (172), fourth in OPS (.749) and first in ERA (3.28). Their wins total tops both leagues and gives them a comfortable division lead. As the season winds down, the Nationals might be the best team in baseball.

As they get set for the postseason, is it worth it to keep thinking back to what could have been in Olympic Stadium?

There are Expo fans out there, even now. A bunch of them descended into the Rogers Centre a few weeks ago (about 200 of them, according to the National Post’s John Lott). One of those fans is Annakin Slayd, whose video tribute to the Expos has over 100,000 hits on YouTube. He’s got another video about the Expos, too: a tribute to Gary Carter, who died earlier this year (it’s also got over 100k views). When Carter died, tributes came in about the one-time Expo from all over. Even the Montreal Canadiens honored Carter in a pre-game ceremony, wearing sweaters with his name and number.

Where were all of these people 10 years ago, in the fading days of the Expos, when the team could barely draw anyone to the park? In the early 1990s, the team drew over 1.6 million people to the Big O. By their last season, they had shed nearly a million from that total. In 2001, fewer than 650,00 people came to their games. Florida, with the next lowest attendance, had nearly double that number.

The Nationals, meanwhile, have had their attendance rise in the past couple seasons. This year they’ve already passed the 2 million mark. In other words, people are coming out to see them, something the Expos weren’t able to enjoy.

So, are these Nationals the successors of the Expos? Are there any ties between the two clubs? If things had gone differently, would Strasberg or Bryce Harper be lighting up the Stade Olympic?

0It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it doesn’t pass the smell test: consider how the fans turned out in Montreal. Consider the moves made by the current owners of the Nationals. Consider the nice new park, the free agent signings and a nice TV deal that has every one of their games broadcasted, something the Expos struggled with in a bilingual market.

Fingers can be pointed for the reasons why the Expos failed: because of language laws that drove away corporate sponsors; because of an awful-for-baseball stadium located too far away from the downtown core; because of owners who never shelled out the cash to keep star players like Pedro Martinez or Larry Walker around. It doesn’t matter. The Expos failed and left town. The new owners in Washington have done these things: they’ve brought in talent and play in a great-for-baseball stadium.

Seeing Carter’s or Andre Dawson’s name at Nationals Park is very cool, but remember, for all intents and purposes, the Expos were a different team. After all, the Nats also honor players from the Washington Senators and Homestead Grays. If the Nationals weren’t where they are now geographically, they wouldn’t be where they are in the standings.

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