Day 6

The 1994 Montreal Expos could have been champions — then came a strike

Major League Baseball went on strike 25 years ago this week. At the time, the Montreal Expos were the best team in baseball. Dave Van Horne shares what made the team so special and how it almost saved baseball in Quebec.

The eight-month strike dashed the team's chances at a World Series finish

Two Montreal Expos fans remember the strike of 1994 before the game between the Expos and the Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 12, 2004, in Montreal. (Francois Roy/Canadian Press)
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August 1994 was a bittersweet month for the Montreal Expos.

The baseball team was at the top of their game: their 74-40 win-loss record was the best in Major League Baseball and the team's collection of homegrown players were in sync.

"It was a team that played together as a team. They enjoyed each other in the clubhouse, in the dugout and on the field. And there wasn't a superstar among them," recalled longtime Expos play-by-play announcer Dave Van Horne.

But then, with only weeks left in the season, Major League Baseball players walked out. The strike began on Aug. 12, 1994 — 25 years ago this week — and the Expos wouldn't return to the field that year.

It was expected that the Expos would do well in the coming World Series.

"There were interviews that I saw in Montreal on television with, particularly, young fans that just couldn't believe that the carpet had been pulled out from under this wonderful season that the Expos were having," Van Horne told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Montreal has been without a baseball franchise since the Expos, who played at Olympic Stadium, were moved to Washington D.C., and renamed the Nationals after the 2004 season. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The Expos were a dream team for Montreal with players making a significant mark in league stats and fan adoration. But after the strike, the team couldn't keep the team together or regain that momentum. 

The team traded some key players and let others leave for more lucrative contracts with other teams. Ten years later, the franchise was relocated to Washington, D.C., and renamed the Nationals.

232 days without baseball

The call for a strike came following a proposed salary cap and changes to free agency rules. Professional baseball in the 1990s was a multi-million dollar industry; wealthy MLB owners still struggled to keep pace with the ever-increasing player salaries.

Van Horne remembers the day before the strike well.

He was on a team flight from Pittsburgh to Montreal. While many players worried about the possibility of a work stoppage, others were optimistic that the situation would resolve overnight — Van Horne included.

"Well, my optimism was misplaced," he said.

Dave Van Horne speaks after receiving the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in baseball broadcasting during a ceremony in July 2011. (Mike Groll/Associated Press)

The strike ran until April 5, 1995 — 232 days in total — wiping out the remainder of games in the '94 season, cancelling the championships and forcing a late start to the following year's season.

The strike's effects rippled beyond Montreal and its beloved team, Van Horne says, putting a dent in baseball viewership.

"A lot of people got very bitter and disappointed in baseball in general, and some of them never came back to the game," he told Bambury.

Montreal Rays?

Though the Expos survived nearly a decade more in Montreal, it was a tumultuous time for the franchise.

The team desperately needed a new stadium. While plans for a new, retractable roof stadium in Montreal's downtown core were drawn up and tickets sold for the new venue, it was never to be.

The Expos played in Montreal's Olympic Stadium from 1977 until 2004. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Van Horne believes that such a location would have fostered a new generation of fans uninterested in travelling to Olympic Stadium in the city's north.

"I think that would have helped immensely — a smaller ballpark that was walking distance from people in St. Catherine [a suburb of Montreal]," he said.

There may be good news for baseball fans in Quebec, however, with a proposal that would see the Tampa Bay Rays play half of their season home games in Montreal. 

MLB's return to the city is not something that Van Horne would've bet on years ago, but investor Stephen Bronfman's plan had the announcer rethinking it.

"The finances are in order, their plan is a terrific plan for baseball to return of Montreal and I've changed my mind," said Van Horne.

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