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SCOTT STINSON: In Washington, the Nationals prepare to host the World Series game that should have been in Montreal

WASHINGTON • The only way this World Series could have put more salt in the wounds of fans of the departed Montreal Expos would be if the American League was represented by the New York Yankees.

It that darkest of timelines, the Yankees would be an extra reminder of the death throes of Canada’s first Major League Baseball franchise: the New York art dealer, Jeffrey Loria, who bought a chunk of the Expos in 1999 and quickly steered them into oblivion. That would be salt in the wound, plus a squeeze of lemon.

As it is, it is bad enough. Friday night’s Game 3 of the World Series, the first one to be played in Washington since 1933, could very well have been the first one ever to be played in Quebec. This is the Series that is the living reminder of what Montreal lost. It throbs like an open wound. The team of The Kid and The Hawk, of Rock and Pedro, has given way to one with Mad Max and Zim.

Where the Expos in the waning years had Vlad Guerrero, a fabulous young Dominican, in the outfield, these Nationals have Juan Soto, a fabulous young Dominican, in the outfield. It took 15 years after the franchise left its impossibly ill-suited stadium on the St. Lawrence for an ideal one not far from the Potomac, but the Montreal Expos are hosting the World Series.

Sort of.

The direct ties between these Nationals and those Expos are few. Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-serving player on the team, began his major-league career in 2005, right after the Expos had been relocated. Dave Martinez, the Nationals’ manager, wore Montreal’s tri-colour for three-plus seasons in his 16-year career. That is about it. This is not like when St. Louis lost its National Football League team to Los Angeles in 2015 and almost immediately watched the Rams become a playoff contender.

But what makes Washington’s arrival in the World Series, for the first time since the franchise began play at Montreal’s Jarry Park in 1969, so bittersweet — or perhaps just bitter — is how much the baseball landscape has changed in the relatively short time since the Expos were lost. Baseball certainly wasn’t thriving in Montreal when the team left. But it certainly could now.

It is, admittedly, just a thought exercise. Whatever the sport’s changing conditions over the past three decades, baseball might never have recovered in Montreal after the events of 1994. That was when, despite years of tight-fisted ownership and a long list of stars who eventually became too expensive for baseball’s northern outpost, the Expos managed to put together the best team in the sport. Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Pedro Martinez and company were young and talented, and the Expos caught fire as the season wore on, piling up a 74-40 record.

Then the players’ union went on strike in mid-August, determined to avoid a salary cap that the league and its owners planned to impose, and the remainder of the season was cancelled a month later. It is the only time in major-league history that a season was lost due to labour issues.

Not only were the Expos, and perhaps more importantly their fans, denied an excellent chance at only their second-ever playoff berth, but 1994 wiped out a team that was set up for years of competitiveness. That team averaged only 26 years of age, and it was relatively inexpensive. When baseball returned the following spring, the ownership group led by Claude Brochu ordered a slashing of payroll, gutting the team of some of its best players: closer John Wetteland, starting pitcher Ken Hill, outfielder Marquis Grissom. The team cratered, and so did attendance.

The combination of that hole blown into the championship-worthy 1994 team and the subsequent napalming of the roster are the kind of events from which a franchise doesn’t recover. And the Expos didn’t. By the time Loria came along five years later as an investor, none of the local ownership was willing to put a loonie into a team with few sources of revenue and an uncertain future. Barely two years later, he bought up a majority stake from his uninterested partners, and Major League Baseball was talking about folding both the Expos and the Minnesota Twins — a new scheme to try to convince the players that they were overpaid.

Loria would soon sell the team in a three-party switcheroo — he got the Florida Marlins, whose owner John Henry got the Boston Red Sox, while MLB took over the Expos. It is a deal that to this day has all the pleasantness of a fart in an elevator.

Two years after that, the Expos were the Nationals, sold to businessman Tom Lerner.

Was it a plot? Were Loria’s brief attempts to make a go of it in Montreal merely to provide cover for a relocation that MLB sought? It hardly matters now.

But, in the intervening years, baseball has tried to make it easier for smaller-market teams to compete by increasing revenue sharing and imposing a luxury tax on teams with massive payrolls. Realignment and expanded playoffs mean that 10 teams play at least one post-season game; for the whole of the Expos’ existence only four teams made the playoffs and had the benefits of the extra revenue they brought. Montreal had post-season money exactly once in 35 seasons, Washington has had it in five of its 15. It’s still an advantage to spend big, but small markets routinely make the playoffs.

Just this season, Oakland, Tampa Bay, Milwaukee and Minnesota — the team once destined to be scythed out of existence, along with the Expos — all advanced beyond the regular season. Big-money rights deals, in traditional media and on the internet, have become major sources of revenue for teams in smaller markets, too. Where the Expos couldn’t get someone to pay two nickels for their broadcasting rights in their latter years, they would today command a full-on bidding war.

There remains hope that major-league baseball could return to Montreal, but the good vibes created by the annual end-of-spring-training visit from the Toronto Blue Jays, which reached its zenith last year when Vlad Guerrero, Jr., won a game with a home run on the same field he had once run around as a chubby toddler with his dad, have yet to turn into anything concrete. The owners of the Tampa Bay Rays have floated a half-cocked idea to have Montreal take half of their home games, which makes about as much sense as that time the Expos played a chunk of their season in Puerto Rico. (This actually happened.)

Bringing baseball back will be hard. The problem is that it should never have left.

And so now, it is the Nationals that will play the home game on Friday night. They have an unexpected 2-0 lead over the Houston Astros, and need to win just two of the next three games at Nationals Park to clinch their first World Series.

It’s a title that, in some way, fans of the Montreal Expos would share. I would not expect them to feel good about it.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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