You can trace the roots of the Montreal Expos’ demise all the way back to a strange day in the early 1960s. This was back in a time before they even existed, back on a day when Sears came to the odd conclusion that their department store should be selling modernist art.
For nine years, the Sears catalogue offered Picassos and Rembrandts and Mondrians alongside sofas and footstools and chairs. The most expensive paintings were $3,000; some were as cheap as $10. They even offered an installment plan. And the man they hired to help them sell these famous works of art? Vincent Price, of course.
It was a bizarre choice — but not quite as nonsensical as it might seem at first: the horror film legend had studied art history at Yale before becoming an actor. So, Sears named their fine art department "The Vincent Price Collection" and hired him to curate it. But Price was a busy man; Sears would sell 50,000 pieces of art in those few years, and the actor didn't have time to seek them all out and personally pick them for the collection. To help, he hired an assistant: a young man from Manhattan who'd also gone to Yale, who'd stumbled into art history there while doing his pre-med. His name was Jeffrey Loria and he could art-deal his ass off. Soon, he was stinking filthy rich.
And as it happens, Loria also liked baseball. He'd gone to his first Yankees game as a young boy with his father back in the 1940s — the decade of Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto. Now that he was rich enough to buy his own team, he purchased the Oklahoma City 89ers, a minor league club in the Texas Rangers’ system. (The Rangers, in turn, were owned by the son of the American president who had growing political ambitions of his own: George W. Bush).
Things went so well in Oklahoma that Loria decided to buy a big league club. In 1994, he went after the Baltimore Orioles. But Peter Angelos (the interventionist, thoroughbred-breeding trial lawyer who still owns the team today) beat him to it. Loria would have to wait another five years for his big chance to come along.
And it came from Canada.
Montreal was a great baseball town. The city had cheered for a series of minor league clubs since all the way back in the 1800s. Most recently, it had been home to the Montreal Royals, the minor league team that famously welcomed Jackie Robinson in the season before he broke the Major League colour barrier. In 1969, the city’s enthusiasm was finally rewarded with their first big league team: the Montreal Expos were born.
For a while, it looked like the Expos were destined to be a lasting success. They were originally owned by one of the richest men in Canada: the booze baron Charles Bronfman, whose family owned Seagram’s. Players raved about Montreal and quickly won a beloved place in the city’s heart; the team earned the nickname Nos Amours. Our loves. Even their mascot Youppi! was wildly popular; created by the same Jim Henson designer who made Miss Piggy, he would eventually become the first mascot ever to get ejected from a game. Over the years, the Expos boasted future Hall of Famers like Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Gary Carter. At the height of their popularity, they were drawing more than two million fans a year. Some say they were even more popular than the Canadiens.
By 1994, the Expos were the best team in baseball, well on their way to following up the Blue Jays' back to back World Series championships with one of their own. And then... a strike. The season was cancelled; there was no World Series to win.
In the wake of the work stoppage, the Expos' downward spiral began. The team was now owned by a consortium of interests, including CP Rail, Provigo, BCE and the City of Montreal — led by former Seagram’s executive Claude Brochu. And as the owners refused to invest more money in the team, his order came down: reduce costs. The Expos sold off their most valuable players or let them leave in free agency. Larry Walker. John Wetteland. Marquis Grissom. Moises Alou. Pedro Martinez. All gone. Montreal would never make the playoffs again. Attendance tanked: from 24,000 per game down to 9,000. Claude Brochu started travelling with a bodyguard. And as the century came to a close, he bailed on the Expos — selling his shares to none other than Jeffrey Loria, leaving him in control of the team.
For a moment it might have looked like the Expos might thrive under their new owner. Loria immediately raised payroll. But he also made it clear that for the Expos to survive, they would need a new ballpark. Olympic Stadium, full of problems from the very beginning, was now literally crumbling. “We cannot and will not stay there,” he announced.
But chances for a new stadium didn’t look great. The Expos had been trying for years to secure the necessary funding to build a new home. They even had a concrete plan. Labatt Park would be an intimate venue with a view of the Montreal skyline. But, of course, in order to build that new park, Loria — like previous owners — wanted a ton of public money. Québec Premier Lucien Bouchard refused to give a millionaire millions of dollars to build a ballpark. “When we’re closing down hospitals, I’m not sure we should be opening stadiums,” he explained. Especially not when the government was still paying off Olympic Stadium.
The Expos were in trouble. As the ballpark plans stalled and Loria seized more and more control of the team, rumours swirled: that the MLB head office had secret plans to kill the Expos and move them to Washington, D.C. That the league was much more interested in having a team playing America’s pastime in the American capital than they were in reviving the dwindling crowds in Canada.
Meanwhile, many fans didn’t trust Loria. There were signs he might not be entirely dedicated to keeping the Expos in Montreal. He’d only ever attended one meeting about the potential new stadium. And the fans blamed him when English-language broadcasters lowballed him for the rights to air games and he walked away. Under Loria, the Expos had continued their downward spiral; now anglophones couldn’t even watch the games on TV or listen to them on the radio. The team was haemorrhaging its fanbase. And many thought Loria was to blame.
In 2001, it finally happened. The fans’ worst nightmare was coming true. Major League Baseball voted to kill the Expos, along with the Minnesota Twins. Every other team agreed to the plan — even the Toronto Blue Jays.
But thanks to a strange game of musical chairs, Loria was actually going to benefit from the death of his team. He would hand the Expos over to the League to be axed. The League would help the owner of the Florida Marlins buy the Boston Red Sox. And then Loria would get the Marlins. It was a deal so suspicious that the other owners of the Expos tried to sue him under the RICO act usually used to fight organized crime. They failed.
On his way out the door, Loria left the Expos with practically nothing. He took it all: the team’s manager, the coaching staff, the computers, radar guns, all the scouting reports… even a cardboard cut-out of the team’s star player, Vladimir Guerrero. And once he got to Miami, he would continue right where he left off, implementing a notorious cycle of boom-and-bust investments and selloffs that would cement his place as one of the most infamous villains in the sport.
Many years later, his reign in Florida would end in tragedy. His good friend and ace of the Marlins pitching staff, José Fernandez, died in a boating accident. Devastated, Loria decided to leave baseball, selling the team to former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter — who has since continued Loria's tradition of trading away all his best players.
As for the Expos, they did manage to survive for a few more years. The Twins had sued the League and won a stay of execution for both clubs. But things didn’t get any better. Major League Baseball clearly wanted to move the team to the United States; they weren’t going to spend any time or money revitalizing the franchise in Montreal. By the end, MLB had the Expos play a quarter of their home games three thousand kilometers away in Puerto Rico. And even when the Expos somehow defied the odds and found themselves in the thick of a playoff race, the League wouldn’t give the team permission to call up the promising minor league players who might have helped them win the pennant.
In 2005, the Expos were moved south across the border and renamed “The Washington Nationals.”
But Montreal, of course, never forgot. You’ll still find people wearing Expos caps on the streets of the city — and across the rest of Canada, too. In recent years, the Blue Jays have started making the trip down the 401 every spring, playing exhibition games at the old Olympic Stadium, showcasing the city’s love for baseball.
And every year, the rumours swirl: maybe the Expos will be reborn.
This spring, a potential new ownership group stepped into the light. Fifty years after his father gave birth to the Expos, Charles Bronfman’s son is trying to revive the team. Stephen Bronfman has been giving interviews, openly declaring his intentions. "I think we're close," he says. And while there are still many obstacles to be overcome, maybe, just maybe, this time, the Expos really will rise again.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)