Montreal was on a solid winning streak in the late 1960's. The World's Fair, called Expo '67, was a success, the city opened a new subway system and it won the bid for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. To top it off, they also won one of the four expansion franchises awarded by Major League Baseball for 1969.
Even before the Expos played their first game, they ran into the same financial troubles that would hobble them for most of their 35 years. Some of the backers who were to put up money for the team's franchise fee got cold feet as the deadline approached and it was only a late intervention by Seagram's honcho Charles Bronfman that saved the day.
On the field, the Expos had a heck of a first 10 days. They won their inaugural game by outslugging the New York Mets 11-10 at Shea Stadium on April 8, 1969. On April 14, they thrilled fans at Jarry Park by beating the Cardinals 8-7 in the first Major League game played outside the United States. The topper came on April 17 when Bill Stoneman threw a 7-0 no-hitter against the Phillies.
The Expos snapped up veteran talent in the expansion draft, including Maury Wills, Ron Fairly and "Le Grande Orange" — the nickname given Rusty Staub for his red hair and the 78 home runs he hit in three seasons in Montreal. In spite of their electrifying start, the Expos, like most expansion teams, were not very good and it would be some time before they were better. They finished 52-110 that first season and it would be 10 seasons before their first winning record, 95-65, in 1979.
The questionable business decisions and shaky finances suffered by the franchise never affected its farm system. The Expos continually turned out first rate major league talent, and it is not a stretch to imagine they might have enjoyed a long dynastic run had they been able to keep that talent together. The first generation of stars included Larry Parrish, Gary Carter, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines, along with pitchers Steve Rogers, Bill Gullickson and Scott Sanderson.
During the next decade they brought up Tim Wallach, Andres Galarraga, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker, along with a lanky left-hander named Randy Johnson. Finally, in the 1990's, came Cliff Floyd, Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro and Ugueth Urbina. In addition, Moises Alou, Jeff Reardon and Pedro Martinez came of age while playing for Montreal.
Despite this multitude of talent, the Expos made the postseason only once. After notching its first winning record in 1979 and coming within one game of winning the 1980 National League East Title, the Expos won the second half of the strike-split 1981 season as Cromartie, Dawson and Carter all hit over .300 and Raines stole a league-high 71 bases.
The Expos knocked out the Phillies in the playoffs in a five game divisional series before losing to the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series on a Rick Monday home run in the ninth inning of the deciding fifth game.
However, for the Expos, the players strike giveth, and the players strike taketh away. In 1994, manager Felipe Alou had the Expos sitting on top of the baseball world with the best record in the game, 74-40, when the players went on a long strike that wiped out the World Series and the Expos chances of competing in the playoffs.
The franchise never recovered from the strike, either on the field or at the box office. The team bled free agent talent as the business conglomerate that bought out Bronfman refused to invest the money necessary to run baseball operations. Attendance shrunk to less than 10,000 per game.
In 2001, Commissioner Bud Selig announced baseball had decided to contract from 30 to 28 teams and the Expos were one of the teams targeted. However, a new collective bargaining agreement prevented baseball from enforcing the contraction before 2006. The Expos were bought and operated by Major League Baseball with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson installed as manager. The franchise was hamstrung by fiscal restrictions placed upon it to the point where the team could not afford the nominal payments required to call up players from the minor leagues.
With contraction off the table, Selig looked for a new buyer and a new city for the Expos, finally settling on Washington, D.C. The Expos played their last game in Montreal before 31,000 fans, losing to Florida on September 29, 2004.
From the ashes of the Montreal Expos came the third franchise to represent Washington, D.C. This time the franchise took the name Nationals (the original name of the franchise that became more popularly referred to as the Senators) and it came to play at RFK Stadium, where the Senators last played in 1971.
The Nationals lost their season opener to the Phillies 8-4 on April 4, 2005, won their first game 7-3 two days later, and then won their home opener in Washington on April 14, defeating Arizona 5-3. The team had a surprisingly strong first half and remained in wild card contention through August, eventually settling for an 81-81 finish. They drew 2.7 million fans, less than most first-year franchises, but more than what the team attracted in its final three seasons in Montreal combined.
Real estate mogul Ted Lerner brought stability to the franchise when he became owner in 2006. Promising young talent such as Ryan Zimmerman, Nyjer Morgan and John Lannan were joined by veterans such as Adam Dunn and Jason Marquis as the team sought to jell into a competitive unit as the decade ended.