WHAT IF ... MLB AVOIDED THE 1994 STRIKE AND THE EXPOS WON THE WORLD SERIES?

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Apr 20, 2017, 8:54:27 PM4/20/17
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by Jon Tayler

On Friday, August 12, 1994, the Montreal Expos boasted the best record in baseball (74–40) and looked to be destined for the World Series. But the labor strike brought that season—and the Expos championship hopes—to a halt.
But what if there was no strike, and Montreal went on to win the World Series? Would the Expos still remain in Canada to this day? There’s plenty of hypothetical situations, but for now, here’s what Sports Illustrated might have written had the Expos won baseball’s biggest title.

NEW YORK — It should have been the furthest thing from Pedro Martinez’s mind, there on the Yankee Stadium mound on a freezing October night, trying to save the Expos’ season while 50,000-plus fans screamed themselves hoarse. And yet, as he faced Yankees catcher Mike Stanley with a runner on and Montreal holding a slim lead, 4–2, in the last game of the World Series that almost wasn’t, all he could think of was a solitary fruit tree in a small Dominican town, over a thousand miles away.

“You reverse the time back five years ago, I was sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to pay for a bus,” Martinez said afterward, champagne dripping off his lanky frame, in the Expos’ clubhouse. “And today, I was the center of attention of the whole city of New York.”

Such was the unimaginable position for Martinez and the Expos, who finished the 1994 season with 105 wins and the first National League pennant in franchise history but trailed the mighty Yankees, three games to one, in a Fall Classic that looked to be over. But then Martinez saved Montreal in Game 5 with the wild Quebecois partisans of Olympic Stadium behind him, and veteran Jeff Fassero put New York on ice in a taut Game 6, and then came Game 7, with Ken Hill matched up with Yankees ace Jimmy Key, as the Bronx Bombers looked to notch the 23rd championship of their long storied history and the Expos prayed for the miracle that would bring them their first.

So here was that miracle: Martinez, all of 22 years old, blessed with an electric arm and a fastball hot enough to leave vapor trails, carrying the hopes of an entire country on his slight shoulders. He was on in relief of Hill, who had allowed just one run through his first five frames but could not avoid the knockout blow in the sixth courtesy Yankees rightfielder Paul O’Neill, who doubled to start the inning, and veteran first baseman Don Mattingly, who cashed him in with a one-out single to right. Out went Hill, in came Martinez, as manager Felipe Alou gambled that his young star could put the rally to an end and preserve that slim advantage against a man who had already homered earlier that night.

It took just two pitches. After Martinez pumped in a 96-mph fastball past Stanley for strike one, the righty looped a curve that dove into the ground. Stanley swung over top of it, weakly rolling it to Wil Cordero at short. Cordero flipped to Mike Lansing at second, who fired to Larry Walker at first. Inning over, rally over, and Yankee Stadium plunged into silence as Martinez practically skipped off the field. The Yankees wouldn’t threaten again.

“There’s no other way to say it: He saved us,” said Alou in his postgame press conference. “He made the perfect pitch at the perfect time.”

Martinez was not alone in delivering the Expos to their first title. World Series MVP Moises Alou, who tortured Yankees pitching all series long and delivered the go-ahead hit in Game 6, struck early in Game 7, bashing a long two-run homer to right off of Key in the first inning to follow Cordero’s RBI double and make it 3–0. Later, in the sixth, he drove Cordero in yet again with a ringing double over the head of Luis Polonia in center to make it 4–1. He was brilliant in the field as well, robbing O’Neill of extra bases and an RBI with a sprinting, diving catch with a runner on and one out in the third. As a visibly frustrated O’Neill slammed his helmet as he ran back to the Yankees’ dugout, the Expos leaped off their bench to salute him.

“Someone please tell me how he did that,” said O’Neill after the game, still fuming as the rest of his teammates quietly undressed or sat slumped at their lockers. “I don’t think I’ve hit a ball harder all series.”

It’s not hard to imagine the Yankees feeling snakebitten in those final three games, when they blew leads in both Games 5 and 6 and seemed listless in the finale. Polonia opened the game with a walk but was caught stealing just four pitches later; that same inning, Danny Tartabull struck out with two on and one out, one of three whiffs for him on the night, all with runners on. Key’s first inning was shaky, full of hard contact, and while he settled down to strike out the side after Alou’s homer and gave the Yankees five solid innings, he couldn’t provide them the lockdown effort they needed to take home a championship that just a few days ago seemed all but theirs.

Instead, it was the Expos who flooded the field after closer John Wetteland—called on to get the final three outs despite an exhausting two innings in Game 6—struck out pinch-hitter Jim Leyritz to end it. It was the end of a long road—one that, in the new playoff system, featured a toughly fought Division Series against the Dodgers and an unexpected showdown with the wild-card Braves for the pennant, then the battering at the hands of the Yankees over the first four games of the World Series. You could have written off the Expos for dead half a dozen times since Game 5, but they stayed alive, buoyed by Martinez and Alou and Hill and others whose names will become legend in Montreal neighborhoods like The Plateau and Pointe-Saint-Charles and Little Portugal.

“To bring a championship to the people of Montreal, to that city, it means so much to me,” Martinez said. “They deserve it. I love them, we all do.”
It’s scary to think of how close we came to not getting any of this—this championship, this series, this historic moment—thanks to the labor strife between the owners and the players’ union, a fight that grew more frantic and anxiety-inducing as summer dragged on and the Aug. 12 deadline set by the MLBPA grew closer and closer.

But the reality we got was worth it. We got Martinez and Alou and Hill and the rest, baseball’s forgotten team from north of the border, stunning the Yankees in the kind of series we’ll talk about forever.
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