Did the 1994-95 strike ultimately help bring MLB to D.C.?

Baseball is perhaps only a few days away from an event that hasn't been experienced in 27 years, one the commissioner himself recently said would be "disastrous" for the sport. Major League Baseball has said if it and the MLB Players Association can't agree to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement by Monday, some regular season games will be canceled.

Whether that actually proves to be true remains to be seen, because the MLBPA insists the Feb. 28 deadline set forth by commissioner Rob Manfred isn't hard and fast, and the season, theoretically, could still begin on time if a deal is reached shortly after that date.

Regardless, everyone must acknowledge we are now closer to losing regular season games as the result of a labor dispute than we've been since the fateful 1994-95 players' strike that had long-lasting, negative ramifications on the sport.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who would claim that strike was good for baseball. It resulted in the cancellation of the World Series, something not even world wars or pandemics had caused. It diminished the national pastime's stature in the American consciousness, and the sport hasn't been able to restore itself in that regard since. It took, arguably, Cal Ripken Jr.'s breaking of Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak in 1995 and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's breaking of Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1998 to win many fans who soured on baseball back into the fold.

The strike also, of course, marked the beginning of the end for Major League Baseball in Montreal. Which, in a perverse way, may ultimately have allowed the sport to return to Washington sooner than otherwise would have been possible.

The 1994 Expos might well have been the biggest casualty of the strike. A roster loaded with young stars (Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez and Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Ken Hill, John Wetteland) owned the best record in the majors (74-40) when the players struck on Aug. 12. They were six games up on the Braves in the National League East, and 8 1/2 games up on the Astros for what would have been the first wild card berth in baseball history.

And they never got to find out how it would've ended. There was no pennant race. There was no postseason.

And, as it turned out, there was never again another championship-caliber team in Montreal. The Expos plummeted to last place in the NL in 1995, finishing 66-78. They did make a run the following year but fell short of the wild card at 88-74. And there were unlikely attempts to contend in 2002-03 despite working on MLB's shoestring budget that ultimately fell short.

Most damaging, though, was the franchise's drop in attendance. In 1994, Montreal ranked 19th in the majors with an average crowd of 24,543. That number dropped to 18,189 in 1995 and then bottomed out at 7,935 in 2001.

With local efforts to secure funding for a new ballpark unsuccessful, the Expos wound up being owned by MLB as part of a three-franchise swap that saw Jeffrey Loria purchase the Marlins and John Henry buy the Red Sox. And within a year, MLB publicly announced its plan to contract both the Expos and the Twins.

Only the Twins' unbreakable stadium lease in Minnesota prevented that doomsday scenario from taking place, though it now paved the way for MLB to seek a new home for the Expos. They played some home in San Juan, looked into bids from Portland, Las Vegas and Monterrey, Mexico, but all along were focused on Washington as the preferred location for the franchise.

RFK first game sidebar.jpgAnd on Sept. 29, 2004, it became official. The Expos played their final game at Olympic Stadium before an emotional crowd of 31,395, and D.C. mayor Anthony Williams donned an old Senators cap while announcing "there will be baseball in Washington in 2005!"

You know everything that has happened since, but have you ever stopped to consider how it all might have played out differently if not for the strike in 1994?

If that season had been played through its conclusion, and if the Expos had reached (or even won) the World Series, would baseball in Montreal have never fallen into so much trouble? Would the city have found a way to build a new ballpark? Would attendance have soared instead of plummeted?

We'll never know, but surely it's possible things wouldn't have collapsed as quickly as it did, leading to MLB's purchase of the team only seven years later. And with no other MLB franchises at that time discussing relocation, Washington may have been stuck on the outside looking in for a while longer.

Really, we might still be without an MLB club here today. The Expos' move to D.C. remains the sport's lone relocation in 50 years, and though the subject has come up in recent years with the Athletics and Rays, at this point both are still working to find solutions to remain in their current locales.

I always try to remind myself that Washington's gain came at Montreal's expense. We can be grateful we got the Nationals, who would go on to become a regular contender and finally win their first World Series title in 2019. But locals of a certain age know all too well the pain of losing a ballclub to another city and can't help but sympathize with Expos fans who are still hoping to bring baseball back to town some day.

It's strange to think of the 1994-95 strike as having had any kind of positive impact on anybody. But it's not crazy to suggest it laid the groundwork for baseball in D.C. a decade later.

And then to wonder what unexpected domino effects another work stoppage in 2022 might have on the sport in the future.

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