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Washington Nationals

A professional baseball team in the National League

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America's Baseball Team

  • Jan 8, 2013
Rating:
+2
The big question about the Washington Nationals is, why did they choose to call the team the Nationals at all? Washington had TWO baseball teams depart, after all: From 1901 to 1960, there was an American League team called the Washington Senators who eventually took off to become the Minnesota Twins. From 1961 to 1971, there was another team called the Washington Senators brought into existence to replace the original Senators. In 1971, they left and became the Texas Rangers. Nationals? What gives?

Well, I actually covered this in my Twins review. The proper, official name of the original Senators actually WAS the Washington Nationals for the vast majority of their existence. They began as the Senators in 1901, officially changed their name in 1905 to the Nationals, and went back to Senators in 1956. It's just that "Senators" stuck around as a nickname, and it just became very very prominent. As for the replacement team which turned into the Rangers, they WERE officially called the Senators for all ten years of their time in Washington, but many people still referred to them as the Nationals on an informal basis. Really, calling the new team the Nationals makes perfect sense. It's the team's old name that doesn't make a lot of sense. Even newer baseball fans might recognize their former identity: The Montreal Expos.

Before 1960, there was minor league baseball in the Canadian province of Quebec. The Montreal Royals were one of the most powerful and respected teams in the minor leagues. They had gained popularity in the 40's because they were attached to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Dodgers had to bring up a young player named Jackie Robinson through their system. That system included a drop in Montreal, and it's popularly theorized that the stop in Montreal was a big help in Robinson's story. People give the Boston Red Sox a lot of shit for not signing Robinson when they "had the chance" (the quotation marks indicate the fact that they never REALLY had the chance, because baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a racist who personally intervened on integration more than once dating at least to the early 40's), but even if Kenesaw Mountain Landis and Tom Yawkey had been eager to jump on board, Boston's farm team still ran through Louisville, an ornery southern city where the crowd might have been hostile enough to force the hotheaded Robinson to quit. Instead, Robinson got to play in Montreal, a far more tolerant atmosphere where the crowd supported everything he did and is reported to have viciously booed many teams who attacked him for being black.

By 1960, the Dodgers were out of their native borough and in Los Angeles, trying to set up a new identity. They decided it would help if their farm team was closer, so they packed up the Royals. They becameā€¦ The Syracuse Chiefs?! Okay, how a move from Montreal to Syracuse, New York makes sense in bringing a minor league affiliate closer to Los Angeles is anyone's guess, but I'm not going to pontificate about it right this second. It really isn't my point.

Montreal City Council member Gerry Snyder was apparently a big Royals fan. He was also a high-profile dude in the Snowdon district within the city, and he wanted a new baseball team to cheer for. He had success in bringing Montreal the 1976 Summer Olympics and the Formula One Grand Prix of Canada, so he was the right guy to get a new baseball team. It took seven years, but he got the team with a little help from Dodgers President Walter O'Malley. The new Montreal team was to start playing in 1969. Royals was among the candidate names for the new Major League Baseball team, but the American League team in Kansas City had taken it for themselves by the time Montreal came in. Montreal's people sent in some suggestions which included "Voyageurs" and - in one of baseball's most supremely ironic twists - "Nationals." But they decided to tie it in with Expo '67, thus making them the Montreal Expos. It was a name that had the advantage of being the same in both English and French, the two languages spoken by the people of Montreal.

The Expos were the first Major League Baseball team in Canada, and they made a big social impact. The presence of the Expos helped Montreal win its Olympic bid and open a new subway system, as well as create a new baseball team for Canada - the Toronto Blue Jays - eight years later. It also raised the city's international profile.

Better international profile, however, doesn't necessarily mean good baseball on the diamond, something the Expos spent the next ten years proving under three managers: Gene Mauch, Karl Kuehl, and Charlie Fox. It wasn't as if the Expos could match any of the legendarily bad squads like the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, 1899 Cleveland Spiders, or 1962 New York Mets. This is a team on which a pitcher, Bill Stoneman, pitched the team's first-ever record no-hitter TEN DAYS after they played their first-ever game. Rusty Staub and Mack Jones became popular players among Montreal fans. Staub was traded to the Mets in 1972, breaking a lot of hearts, but the Expos did get three young players who really helped them out: Mike Jorgensen, Tim Foli, and Ken Singleton. Even so, they still burned through those three managers pretty quickly. In 1977, they hired Dick Williams as manager, and for the first two years he had as much luck as the first three. In 1979, though, he broke the Expos out, taking them on an 88-day ride in first place before finishing second with a 95-65 record.

That was the first of five straight winning seasons, and in the famous split season of 1981 it culminated with Montreal's only postseason appearance. The Expos even managed to beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS, only to lose the NLCS to the eventual World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. At least they took the Dodgers the distance, finally losing the Pennant on a ninth-inning home run from Dodger Rick Monday in a famous game known as the Blue Monday game.

The 80's were filled with tantalizing promise for the Expos. Lord knows they were loaded - Gary Carter, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Tim Wallach, Steve Rogers, and Bill Gullickson were all playing for the Expos early in the 80's. Even so, the team was never able to finish above third place from 1982 to 1991. In 1984, Carter was traded to the Mets, where he became a keystone on their legendary 1986 champion team. Dawson left as a free agent in 1986. He bolted for the Chicago Cubs. They still didn't win anything with him, but he became a beloved figure in Chicago sports lore and is still very well known for his play as a Cub.

In 1989, the Expos did something even stupider than the Carter trade and letting go of Dawson: They traded Gene Harris, Brian Holman, and Randy Johnson (yes, Big Unit) to the Seattle Mariners for Mark Langston. To be fair, Langston did perform for the Expos, finishing the season with a 2.39 ERA and an 8.9 strikeout per game average. But the Expos were in a hard fight for the postseason when they made this trade, and afterward, they fell hard, finishing 81-81 in fourth place. And oh yeah, Langston left Montreal in free agency afterward too. Tim Raines was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1991, and the Expos again finished with a losing season. Pitcher Dennis Martinez did give the fans a highlight by pitching a perfect game, though.

In 1992, the Expos asked Felipe Alou to manage, making him the first Dominican-born manager in MLB history. He took them to a winning record that year and managed them to winning years from 1992 to 1996. 1994 was of particular note. Of course, there was the players going on strike, and that hurt the Montreal Expos badly because they had a solid and dedicated fanbase at that point. They were hurt by the strike in large part because by the time the strike hit, Montreal was sitting pretty with a fantastic 74-40 record, the best in baseball. There seemed a very strong possibility of the Expos going to the World Series that year to potentially take on the best team in the American League, which by that point was actually the Chicago White Sox. The strike was extremely bad for the Expos, because for fans not in the know, Montreal also has this incredible, storied hockey team called the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens are the oldest team in hockey, and in 1993, they won the Stanley Cup for the 24th time in their great history, which is more than any other team. So without the Expos and with a hockey team totally worth seeing, Expos fans jumped ship and reacquainted themselves with their beloved Canadiens, an actual champion playing in a league which would never, EVER have the chutzpah and gall to so much as THINK of stopping play! The collapse of the Expos from 1994 onward is a hot discussion point for baseball fanatics because it might have set the stage for their departure, and it wrecked their campaign for a new stadium.

After that, all the marquee played with the Expos were pretty much out the door by 1997. The team even traded pitcher Pedro Martinez, who had won the Cy Young that year. Moises Alou and Mel Rojas were gone after 1996. Jeffery Loria bought the team in 1999, looking for a new stadium, but that idea was rejected when Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard said he wasn't going to give money to a fucking ballpark when the province was being forced to close hospitals. (Hey, what do you know! A politician with a sense of priorities!) Attendance had been dropping since the strike; by 2001, it had completely collapsed, falling to under 10,000 per game. That raised questions about the team's viability in Montreal. They were also losing. They lost on the field from 1996 to 2002. They lost their superstar, Vladimir Guerrero, and in 2004, the Expos went 67-95 to end it all. On October 3, 2004, the Expos played their final game. It was against the Mets - the same team the Expos had played in their first game. They lost, 8-1.

Baseball was now scouting locations. Portland, Oregon was a popular choice. Northern Virginia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia; and Las Vegas, Nevada also crossed lips. There was also a chance the Expos might have doubled their stop south of the border by going to San Juan, Puerto Rico or Monterrey, Mexico to be the first MLB team in a Latino country. Then someone said hey, wait a minute: Our damned national capitol still doesn't have a baseball team! The only team close to them is the Baltimore Orioles, and their fanbase is disaffected! Let's give them a new option! Washington quickly became the front runner, and on September 29, 2004, the baseball gods spoketh: They shalt resurrect baseball in Washington! Orioles owner Peter Angelos let his problem with this be known, claiming there weren't any fans in Washington, and claimed his Orioles would suffer financially with another team in the market. But hell, if anyone was speaking fiction, it was Angelos. Do you blame him? He considered the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area to be a single market, perhaps because he was running his team right into the ground.

The move was done. A new stadium deal was also done. In 2005, the Montreal Expos took to the field for the first time as the Washington Nationals. They were also starting to load up again, and surprised everyone halfway through the year when they hit the half point in first place. In 2008, they took a nasty spill and finished in last with a 59-102 record. They managed to do even worse the next season, losing one more game. By 2010, though, they were slightly improving, and they introduced a dominant pitcher that year named Stephen Strasburg. He was seen as a keystone, and the Nationals took him and a bunch of other players and pushed their way back to relevance. They finished 80-81 in 2011, and their manager, Jim Riggleman, quit on June 26. His replacement for the interim, as many do, came from the front office. The unfortunate downside of this sudden promotion, however, didn't happen to the Nats. It was much more of a downside for every other team in baseball. The interim was the great Davey Johnson! Previously, Johnson established himself as the winningest manager in the history of the New York Mets in a run which included their 1986 title. He made Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott look like a fucking idiot for firing him because she disapproved of him living with a woman he wasn't married to and fired him after a great season. (Of course, Schott was in many ways an ACTUAL fucking idiot.) Then he plied his trade in Baltimore, breathing life into them too. He worked his magic touch on the Nationals, taking them to a division title and the best record in baseball that year, at 98-64. They lost a great playoff series to the Saint Louis Cardinals, but Johnson is still signed and ready to go for 2013.

Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tony Perez, Dick Williams, and Frank Robinson are the team's Hall of Fame players. Carter and Dawson are in as Expos, which is surprising because while Carter's career was exponentially longer in Montreal than anywhere else, one can make a solid case that he reached his true potential playing for the Mets. (He caught the 1986 team.) Dawson is a very beloved figure in Cubs lore, and he arguably hit his prime playing for the Cubs. Of course, Carter and Dawson are also the only two players to have their numbers retired by the Expos, so maybe that has something to do with it too.

Playing in the NL East, the Nationals are exposing themselves to what is probably baseball's most difficult competition. The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are also in that division, and both are playing very good baseball right now. The New York Mets are also in that division, and they're frequently a threat at some time or another, even counting their collapses. And who wouldn't want to play for The New York Team, otherwise known in baseball parlance as The Rich Team in the Baseball Capitol of the World? The Miami Marlins are in the division too, and they, um, make things interesting for the other four teams. The Nats also share an interleague rivalry with the Baltimore Orioles. Orioles owner Peter Angelos kinda wants his crown as The Sole Baseball Provider of the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area back, and the presence of the Nationals is forcing him to put money into the Orioles to get it. It's why he loaded up with manager Buck Showalter.

There's no real identity to the Nationals. Not yet, anyway. They're still trying to shed a little bit of the old Montreal crust, and a lot of fans still seem to know them as Montreal's old team. They're being embraced by fans all over Maryland and DC, though, for providing the option out for former fans of the Orioles who were pissed at Peter Angelos. The way both are starting to play now, though, I'm sort of hoping for a Beltway World Series.

It seems like the Washington Nationals will be a hip new team to follow for at least the next few years. It will be interesting to watch them, and with Davey Johnson at the helm, they almost certainly won't be boring.

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January 08, 2013
Nice history and thanks for the clarification of the various incantations of teams and the changing back and forth of names.
January 09, 2013
My pleasure. I'm a little surprised you didn't comment on my little potshot at the NHL.
January 09, 2013
Not a hockey fan. I do remember the Expos had a French PA announcer who tried to make all the players sound French. It was funny when he gave that heavy French twang to John Boccavella. I never got a chance to visit Jarry Park but did go to Olympic Stadium a few times. By far the worst ballpark for viewing a game I have ever been to but they did have excellent hot dogs.
 
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Nicholas Croston ()
Ranked #19
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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