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It is disingenuous to present the ’94 lockout as Galactus, a life-draining world eater that robbed MLB of an All Star and French Canadians. Matt Williams continued to play well, winning another Gold Glove in ’97 and coming in third for the NL MVP in ’99. He won a World Series with Arizona in 2001, driving in seven in the Series. Baseball continued, more or less, in Montreal until 2004 with Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero putting up monster campaigns. Montreal finished over .500 three times before the move to D.C., and in ’96, they did technically finish with the same win total as the Central winning Cardinals. So, you know, there’s that.
If ’94 brought us heroes, post-lockout turned those men heels. Fans avoided stadiums like they were TB wards. Attendance was down 20% in ’95, and even after the spectacle of bear hugging Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire warmed our collective hearts in ’98, attendance levels remained below ’93 and ’94 standards. Boo greedy baseball.
If the few remaining Montreal fans weren’t disenchanted enough, post ’94 began a trend of trading away established players for cheaper, cost controlled alternatives. Is it any wonder, then, that the Québécois turned to other entertainments such as hockey and film festivals? The Expos were what those upstart Marlins wanted to become, which makes total sense because former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria (he bought the team in ’99) alienated one fan base, sold the team to MLB, then bought the Marlins, so ruining baseball should be a North American affair.
Speaking of Loria, how is it that under his ownership the Expos finished no higher than fourth in the East, attendance hit rock bottom, and he destroyed fan relations, yet somehow he sells the club a little over two years later for more than twice the purchase price and is able to buy the Marlins? I can only imagine Clay Bennett is next in line for a team.
Nevertheless, MLB eventually moved the team to Washington in 2005 and even found them an honest to goodness owner in ’06. While the hopes for a new beginning are as easy to slip on as a red W’d cap, the ghosts of that former era remain behind. So too did most of the talent. The lean years continued for the newly named Nationals as the club never finished above .500 until ’12 when the team won 98 games and looked poised to make the World Series.
Of course, even in a season of surprise, the team took the long view and shut Strasburg down in early September. Would he have helped against the Cardinals? After the starters were torched in that series, he couldn’t have hurt.
These may be different uniforms, but didn’t it seem like nothing much had changed from those Expos years? This was the opportunity to separate this franchise from all that it was, all those years of failure, and go for it. Like that ’94 team, 2012 was a complete surprise. Gio Gonzalez and Adam LaRoche were playing out of their minds. This was the baseball gods smiling down upon a hapless franchise, and how many times will a season like this happen?
Management, though, saw what this team could become. All those years of failure turned into picks spent on Ryan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler, Drew Storen, and Anthony Rendon. Oh yeah, somehow the Nationals had been the best at being the worst in back to back years when two of the most celebrated prep players in recent memory were entering the draft: Strasburg and Bryce Harper. If you want to draw a parallel, this is what the Expos should have been after their flirtation with glory: a team stacked with young talent with more on the way.
Success, though, doesn’t follow a linear path. In 2013, now expected to win, the Nationals started slowly and were buried by July. Injuries and an inevitable regression from career years were the main culprits. No one seemed to get it going until the second half. Coupled with an Atlanta team that ran away with the East from day one, it certainly felt like déjà vu.
After the season, out went manager Davey Johnson and in came Matt Williams. So, here we are. Once again expectations are sky high entering the season. You couldn’t find someone who didn’t believe this was the year: the year Gonzalez/Zimmerman/Strasburg won the Cy Young; the year Harper truly arrived and won MVP; they year the Nationals stopped being one of two MLB franchises to never make it to the Series, much less win it.
We are twenty years removed from when Williams and the Expos dominated baseball and had a chance to make history, one way or the other. Perhaps it is fitting that the two have joined up all these years later, one still searching for an opportunity to win a championship, guided by a man who’s won a championship but knows what it means to have opportunities lost.
It’s far too early to think about such things, but isn’t April the season of renewal? That also includes hope.