Marty Niland: Memories of 1981 Expos, franchise’s last playoff team

Nationals fans no longer have to dream of the day their team makes the playoffs. It’s a reality. Thursday’s night’s win over the Dodgers put the city of Washington, D.C., in the baseball postseason for the first time since 1933 and this franchise in the playoffs for the first time in 31 years.

The team that moved to Washington to become the Nationals, the Montreal Expos, made its first - and only - National League playoff appearance in 1981. In a year when baseball fans endured a nearly two-month strike, the Expos not only made the playoffs, but fell one game short of the World Series. Their lineup included many household names for baseball fans in the 1970s and 1980s, including two Hall of Famers and one of baseball’s most famous flakes.

Gary Carter may be best remembered for his World Series heroics with the 1986 New York Mets, but he had his best years with the Expos, including the second of three consecutive Gold Glove seasons in 1981. Carter hit 16 homers and drove in 68 runs in the strike-shortened season, but his coming out party was at the All-Star Game.

Voted to the starting lineup for the first time after Cincinnati stalwart Johnny Bench moved to first base, Carter responded with a pair of home runs to win MVP honors in the 5-4 NL victory. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983, but his story turned tragic last year, when he was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. He died in February.

Like Carter, Andre Dawson had some of his most productive years in Montreal before moving on to another city to find fame, in this case Chicago. “The Hawk” was known for his power, belting 225 homers in 11 seasons with the Expos, including 24 in just 103 games in 1981. Dawson’s accomplishments in Montreal and Chicago eventually got him elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010, his ninth year of eligibility.

The hallmark of any great team is pitching, and the 1981 Expos had plenty. Their staff included Steve Rogers, probably the greatest pitcher in Expos history; Charlie Lea, who threw a no-hitter on May 10, 1981; and Jeff Reardon, who would go on to become one of the game’s top closers. But perhaps the most well-known member of the Montreal mound crew was Bill “Spaceman” Lee. The nickname came from off-the-wall remarks Lee would make, including claims that he sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes. The Expos cut him in 1982 after he walked out in protest when one of his friends was released, and Lee never played again in the majors.

Fans hated the 1981 strike, but the resulting split-season format that year was the reason the Expos made the playoffs. Montreal won the NL East second half with a 30-23 record. The St. Louis Cardinals actually had a better overall record, but did not win either half and missed the playoffs.

The division series against the Phillies went five games, and Rogers outdueled Steve Carlton, pitching a complete-game shutout in a 3-0 Expos win over the Phillies. The league championship series, also best-of-five in those days, was against the Dodgers and rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela. The teams split the first two games at Dodger Stadium before returning to Montreal, where Rogers pitched another complete game in a 4-1 win in Game 3. The Dodgers pulled even the next day, setting up a one-game showdown for the pennant.

Tim Raines gave the Expos a 1-0 lead in the first after doubling off Valenzuela and scoring on Dawson’s double-play grounder. But Valenzuela blanked the Expos after that, while the Dodgers manufactured a run off Ray Burris in the fifth. It was still 1-1 in the top of the ninth, when Expos manager Jim Fanning summoned Rogers from the bullpen. He retired Steve Garvey and Ron Cey, but then served up a home run by Rick Monday that gave the Dodgers the pennant and ended the Expos’ only playoff run.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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