Vladimir Guerrero is one of the top outfielders in Expos franchise history. (George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
This weekend, Major League Baseball will return to Montreal for the first time since 2004 via a two-game exhibition series between the Blue Jays and Mets. More than
75,000 95,000 tickets have been sold for the series, which will be played at Olympic Stadium. The games will serve as the centerpiece for a celebration of the bittersweet 36-season history of the franchise and a reunion for many of its alumni, while a group led by former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie hopes that it will pave the way to MLB's return via a second chance.
Having outlined the history of Montreal baseball — including Jackie Robinson's auspicious debut in organized baseball in 1946 — when the series was announced last fall, I'll avoid repeating myself here and suggest checking out Up, Up and Away, a terrific new book by Grantland writer and Montreal native Jonah Keri that covers the franchise's history (1969-2004). Instead, I'll focus on the amazing talent that wore the Expos' red, white and powder blue during that time, including Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, and strong candidates such as Tim Raines, Larry Walker and Vladimir Guerrero — homegrown talents all eventually forced out of town by the sport's economic realities.
Carter, an 11-time All-Star for the Expos and Mets who died of cancer in February 2012, will be the focus of a pregame tribute on Friday night. His widow Sandy will be on hand at "The Big O," and Raines, Cromartie and Steve Rogers are set to speak. Saturday's game will be preceded by a tribute to the 1994 Expos, who had the best record in baseball (74-40, a 105-win pace) before the strike wiped out the remainder of the season.
In honor of the festivities (which you can learn more about at Expos Nation) and a fair dose of my own nostalgia, I offer my all-time Expos team. Some choices were no-brainers, others took a fair bit of research and consideration. All are based solely on the players' accomplishments while in Montreal. Also be sure to check out Cliff Corcoran's five best Expos teams of all-time, including that 1994 Montreal squad that could have been.
Catcher: Gary Carter
1974-1984: .269/.342/.454, 220 HR, 55.5 WAR
Not just a Hall of Famer but an inner-circle one, Carter ranks second in JAWS at the position behind only Johnny Bench, and he's the franchise's all-time leader in Wins Above Replacement. Drafted by the Expos out of a Fullerton, California high school, he debuted as a 20-year-old in 1974 and spent more time in rightfield than behind the plate as a rookie in 1975, even making the All-Star team in that capacity (he did replace .194-hitting Barry Foote late in the year). Inheriting the mantle of the game's best catcher from Bench, he earned All-Star honors in each of his final six years in Montreal before being traded to the Mets for four players in December 1984. Beyond Carter, the history of Expos catchers is a grim one; only four others ever had seasons of at least 2.0 WAR, none more than once, with Brian Schneider and Darrin Fletcher the only ones with more than 2.0 WAR combined.
First base: Ron Fairly
1969-1974: .276/.381/.440, 86 HR, 17.6 WAR
Fairly spent parts of 12 seasons with the Dodgers before being traded to the Expos in June of their inaugural season in exchange for Manny Mota (the team's first pick in the expansion draft) and Maury Wills. While his power was only modest — he never homered more than 17 times in a season — his keen batting eye helped him put up on-base percentages of .370 or above in four of his five full seasons north of the border; his .422 mark in 1973 placed second in the league and helped him earn All-Star honors for the first time in his career at age 34. Andres Galarraga, who spent his first seven seasons in Montreal, winning a pair of Gold Gloves and returning for a 2002 encore at age 41, is the honorable mention here.
Second base: Jose Vidro
1997-2004: .304/.367/.470, 101 HR, 17.0 WAR
His glove (-28 runs at the position during his Montreal tenure) was nothing to write home about, but Vidro could rake, combining .300-plus batting averages, double-digit homer totals and a barrage of doubles for five straight years (1999-2003) while hitting a combined .313/.374/.489 (119 OPS+) across that stretch and 2004. That elevates him above the three other players — Ron Hunt, Mike Lansing and Delino DeShields — who enjoyed solid stretches of at least three seasons at the keystone.
Shortstop: Orlando Cabrera
1997-2004: .267/.315/.405, 66 HR, 9.6 WAR
Though nothing special with the bat (84 OPS+ as an Expo), Cabrera gets the nod here on the strength of his defense, which was 25 runs above average during his tenure and which netted the team its only Gold Glove at the position (2001). That gives him the edge over glove-first 1977-84 shortstop Chris Speier (83 OPS+, 17 runs above average in the field) and bat-first 1985-87 occupant Hubie Brooks (112 OPS+, −15 runs afield), who was shifted from third base upon being acquired from the Mets in the Carter trade and earned All-Star honors twice in three years before being moved to rightfield.
Third base: Tim Wallach
1980-1992: .259/.317/.418, 204 HR, 36.8 WAR
The club's all-time leader in games played (1,767), Wallach spent 11 seasons as their regular third baseman, earning All-Star honors five times and winning three Gold Gloves. A high-power, low-average hitter who could have stood to walk more often, Wallach was particularly strong at the hot corner; thanks to defense that was a combined 72 runs above average from 1982-90, he averaged 3.9 WAR per year across that span. The only third basemen in the game who exceeded that in the period — Wade Boggs, Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Paul Molitor — are now in the Hall of Fame. Honorable mention goes to original Expo Bob Bailey, who hit .264/.368/.437 (123 OPS+) from 1969-75 while spending three seasons and parts of two others as the regular there.
One of the best players in the 1980s, Tim Raines was a rock for Montreal in the outfield. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Leftfield: Tim Raines
1979-1990, 2001: .301/.391/.437, 96 HR, 48.7 WAR
Only Carter produced more value during his Expos career than Raines, who used an outstanding batting eye, blazing speed and baserunning smarts to become the game's second-best leadoff hitter; alas, he spent much of his career in the shadow of the best, Rickey Henderson. Raines earned All-Star honors in each of his first seven full seasons (1981-87), led the NL in steals in the first four of those (78 steals a year at an 86 percent clip), won a batting title in 1986, and was the MVP of the 1987 All-Star Game. For the 10-year span from 1981-90, he ranked as the NL's second-most valuable player in terms of WAR (48.3) behind only Ozzie Smith (50.7); had he done that in a bigger market, he'd already be in the Hall of Fame. Also of note: Moises Alou, who hit .293/.350/.490 (120 OPS+) from 1992-96 while father Felipe managed the team.
Centerfield: Andre Dawson
1976-1986: .280/.326/.476, 225 HR, 48.0 WAR
The franchise's other Hall of Famer besides Carter, Dawson averaged 24 homers, 30 steals and 5.9 WAR per year from 1977-83, the span during which he was the team's regular centerfielder. He was the 1976 NL Rookie of the Year, and a six-time Gold Glove winner for Montreal. Alas, Olympic Stadium's artificial turf took a toll on his knees, leading to his shift to rightfield for the final three years of his Expos tenure and accounting for two of those awards. Honorable mentions to both Marquis Grissom (19.9 WAR, two All-Star appearances and two Gold Gloves from 1989-1994) and Rondell White (19.4 WAR from 1993-2000, a span that included his transition to leftfield).
Rightfield: Vlad Guerrero
1996-2003: .323/.390/.588, 234 HR, 34.5 WAR
The Expos were a veritable outfielder factory, and in rightfield they produced two players of Cooperstown caliber in Guerrero and Walker, both of whom went on to win MVP awards elsewhere shortly after departing via free agency. Going into this, I thought the choice at this position would be agonizing, but it really wasn't close; Guerrero, the team's all-time home run leader, was at his peak during his time in Montreal, while Walker (.281/.357/.483 with 99 homers and 21.0 WAR from 1989-1994) was merely setting the stage for his own peak in Colorado. From 1998-2002, Vlad the Impaler hit a combined .325/.391/.602 while averaging 39 homers, 22 steals and 5.9 WAR per year; during that span, only six players were more valuable. Also worth an honorable mention: "Le Grand Orange," Rusty Staub, who emerged as the franchise's first star while batting .296/.404/.501 (151 OPS+) with an average of 26 homers and 6.1 WAR from 1969-71.
Starting pitcher: Steve Rogers
1973-1985: 158 W, 2,837 2/3 IP, 3.17 ERA (116 ERA+) , 45.4 WAR
Perhaps the toughest call of the bunch was whether to go for the breadth of Rogers' career or the emergence of Pedro Martinez, winner of the only Cy Young in franchise history (1997). In the end, it's the franchise's all-time leader in most pitching categories who gets the nod. A five-time All-Star and three-time top-five finisher in the Cy Young voting — including runner-up in 1982, when he led the league in ERA (2.40) and WAR (7.7) — Rogers spent the entirety of his major league career with the Expos. From 1973 through 1983, he averaged no fewer than 239 innings per year (topping out at 301 2/3 in 1977) and 4.2 WAR; seven times in that span, he was in the top 10 in each of those two categories. Alas, after carrying the Expos to within one win of a trip to the World Series in the 1981 postseason (two runs allowed in 26 2/3 innings), Rogers was at the center of the franchise's most heartbreaking moment — "Blue Monday" — coming out of the bullpen on his throw day to serve up a pennant-winning home run in the NLCS to the Dodgers' Rick Monday.
As for Martinez, he's worth a few words. Stolen from the Dodgers in November 1993 in exchange for DeShields — in part because Tommy Lasorda didn't think he could withstand the workload of a starter (probably true given the precedents under Lasorda) — he put together a 3.56 ERA (121 ERA+) across his first three years before striking out 305 in 241 1/3 innings en route to a league-best 1.90 ERA in 1997. That earned him the first of three Cy Young awards, but sadly, it was his swan song in Montreal; he was traded to the Red Sox for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. in November 1997. Also worth noting: Dennis Martinez (no relation), whose 30.1 WAR are second in franchise history behind Rogers. El Presidente had fallen on hard times in Baltimore due to alcoholism, but he rebuilt his career in his eight-year run in Montreal (1986-93). From 1990-92, he put together a 138 ERA+ and earned All-Star honors for the first three times in his career, no small feat at ages 36-38. That span included an ERA crown in 1991, as well as the only perfect game in franchise history, a 2-0 blanking of the Dodgers on July 28, 1991.
Closer: Jeff Reardon
1981-1986: 152 Saves, 506 1/3 IP 2.84 ERA (126 ERA+), 8.1 WAR
Acquired from the Mets in mid-1981, Reardon soon emerged as one of the game's top firemen at a time before the one-inning closer job became a one-size-fits-all straitjacket for managers. In his five full seasons with the team, Reardon averaged 67 appearances, 93 innings and 29 saves per year; he threw as many as 109 innings, made two All-Star teams, and led the NL in saves in 1985 (41), a performance that helped him earn the formula-driven Rolaids Relief Award in the Senior Circuit.
Manager: Felipe Alou
1992-2001: 691-717 (.491)
There's no obvious choice among the five men who managed the Expos for more than two seasons. Gene Mauch never broke .500 in their first seven seasons of existence. Hall of Famer Dick Williams piloted them to back-to-back second-place finishes of 95 and 90 wins in 1979-1980 but was relieved of duty with 27 games to go in the second half of the 1981 split-season. It was under vice president of player development Jim Fanning that they overtook the Cardinals to gain a playoff berth, but Fanning only managed one more full season. Buck Rodgers had three finishes above .500 and two right at it in six full years (1985-90) but never finished higher than third in the six-team NL East. Frank Robinson led them to two 83-win seasons in 2002-03 under trying circumstances before the bottom dropped out.
Thus if falls to Alou, who led the team to three second-place finishes and that incomplete first-place finish in 1994. Alou took over from Tom Runnells 37 games into the 1992 season and led them to a 70-55 record the rest of the way, not quite enough to catch the Pirates
, then led them to a 94-win second-place finish (three games behind the Phillies
) in 1993, setting the stage for 1994. Things went downhill after the strike due to the team's financial woes; the Expos topped 78 wins only once in the next five years (88 in 1996, another second-place finish) and spent far more time in the NL East cellar than out of it, but rarely was it suggested that this was Alou's fault. Indeed, players like his son Moises, Walker, Grissom, Guerrero and Pedro Martinez developed into stars under him before moving on to even bigger stardom elsewhere — the fate of the team in a nutshell.