Column: My 50 years with the Expos and Nationals

October 22, 2019

Montreal relief pitcher Dan McGinn, putting on jacket, gets pat on the rear from teammate April 8,1969 as he walks back into dugout in New York after hitting the first home run for the Expos. The hit, a 371 foot fly that bounced off the top of the right field wall at Shea Stadium came in the fifth inning of game against the Mets. McGinn was also credited with the win, an 11-10 Montreal victory. (AP Photo)

It’s taken 50 years, 15 in Washington, for the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals to reach the World Series.

I’ve had a lot of history with this franchise.

I was there at the beginning, the very first Expos game on April 8, 1969. They opened against the Mets at Shea Stadium. Growing up in North Jersey, I persuaded my friend to skip school and experience the first Expos game, while also ushering in a new season for our favorite team.

Former Dodgers great Maury Wills, a D.C. native (how ironic is that), became the first batter in Expos history. With the likes of Rusty Staub and Coco Laboy, they scored four runs off Tom Seaver in five innings and went on to beat the Mets 11-10.

However, my friend and I missed an almost miraculous comeback by New York in what turned out to be the year of the Miracle Mets. We left in the ninth inning to beat the crowd to the subway, only to hear a roar as we climbed the steps beyond the center field wall. Catcher Duffy Dyer hit a three-run pinch hit homer. We watched the end of the game from the top of the steps as the Mets scored four runs and got two runners on base before their rally fell short.

Twelve years later, in 1981, the Expos made it to the postseason for the first and only time. And again, I was there.

It was early in my career as a radio sportscaster in Wilmington, Delaware. I covered a lot of Philadelphia sports. Around that time, all Philly teams were either winning championships or playing in championship games. The Phillies had claimed their first World Series the year before and were in first place when the players strike began on June 12. Major League Baseball split the season in two halves when play resumed on Aug. 10. The Phils played the second-half champs, Montreal, in the first round of the playoffs. It was the first time a Division Series had been played, and it was the only playoff series ever won by the Expos, who shocked the defending champs and their fans.

The Expos then went on to lose their only NLCS to the Dodgers, on a ninth-inning home run by Rick Monday. It took another 38 years, but that Los Angeles playoff defeat was finally avenged, as the Washington Nationals won their first playoff series on a grand slam by Howie Kendrick.

But way before that, I was back in Philadelphia when the Nationals made their 2005 debut in an 8-4 loss. However, they bounced back to win the next game 7-3, with Brad Wilkerson becoming the first Nats player to hit for the cycle.

Livan Hernandez started that first game on Apr. 4 at Citizens Bank Park, and he was also on the mound 10 days later when baseball returned to the Nation’s Capital after a 33-year absence. RFK Stadium was electric that night. President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch and the Arizona Diamondbacks played their role perfectly.

The first batter Livo faced was Craig Counsell, the current manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. The first pitch was immediately taken out of play, destined for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Third baseman Vinny Castilla had a double, triple and homer, driving in four runs and the Nationals defeated the Diamondbacks 5-3. “The Chief,” Chad Cordero, got the save in the third victory of an early-season, five-game winning streak.

The first half of that first season in D.C. was magical for the Nationals, leading their division with a 50-31 record. However, they reversed that mark the second half, finishing with an even 81-81 mark. They were in the pennant race till the final weeks of the season.

Hernandez, though, felt he let the team down. On Sept. 20, he was on the mound in a 4-3 loss to the Giants. He served up an upper deck blast to Barry Bonds, in what he angrily told me was probably the longest homer he ever gave up.

Over the next 14 years, I was fortunate to witness a lot of Nationals historical moments.

On June 18, 2006, on a very hot Father’s Day, a friend and I had second row seats behind the Yankees dugout as Ryan Zimmerman delivered his first of his many career walk-off home runs.

Two years later, Zim did it again, to christen the first game at Nationals Park on March 30, 2008, as the Nationals beat the Braves 3-2.

The crowd roar at RFK was loud, but it was goose bump level on opening night at Nats Park.

Still, it reached a new level during Stephen Strasburg’s MLB debut against the Pirates on June 8, 2010. The pregame buzz felt like a playoff game. The press box was packed and Strasburg exceeded expectations with a franchise-record 14 strikeouts. Hall-of-Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez guided him through the game.

In 2012, the Nationals started having regular season success as a team. It was great to see the joy on the faces of Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and owners Ted and Mark Lerner as they clinched their first division title on Oct. 1.

The Nationals split the first two games of the NLDS in St. Louis and faced elimination after losing game three at home. That’s when Werth provided the biggest moment in Nats history with a ninth-inning walk-off homer to tie the series 2-2.

But that ecstatic finish only made the next day’s letdown even worse.

The Nationals built an early 6-0 advantage, Zimmerman contributing with a homer, but they couldn’t hold the lead. Afterward, Werth ripped down the protective plastic in the clubhouse.   There would be no champagne celebration. Instead, you could hear the hollering coming from the Cardinals clubhouse.

The Nationals returned to the playoffs in 2014, but had one final regular season game to play. It turned out to be Jordan Zimmerman’s no-hitter, the first in Nats history, when Stephen Souza, Jr. made a diving catch in left-center field. Afterward, a joyous Zimmerman said he’d buy Souza whatever he wanted.

Unfortunately, Zimmerman never got to finish Game 2 of the playoff series against the Giants.   Drew Storen, who blew the save against the Cardinals two years earlier, couldn’t hold the lead again. Zimmerman was pulled by manager Matt Williams with two outs in the ninth after issuing his only walk. San Francisco followed with two hits to tie the score and nine innings later, in the 18th, Brandon Belt homered off Tanner Roark and the Giants pulled out a 2-1 win for a 2-0 series lead. They finished it off in San Francisco. That 18-inning game took 6 hours, 23 minutes — postseason records in both length and time. I was a miserable night with the concession stands closed for hours, so cold that a number of people in the press box warmed their hands over the empty, heated hot dog rollers.

In 2016, the Nationals won their third division title, but again could not win a playoff series, even after leading the Dodgers 2-1 with the final game at home. Clayton Kershaw came out of the bullpen to save the decisive game.

The final game of the 2017 Division Series against the Cubs may be the craziest game I ever saw. The fifth inning featured a passed ball, a catchers’ interference and a hit batsmen, leading to four runs off Max Scherzer, who had come on in relief with the Nats leading 4-3. The next inning, Jayson Werth misplayed a fly ball in left for another run.

As deflating as the other playoff disappointments were, the one against Chicago was a kick to the stomach. It was the quietest clubhouse I’ve ever been in. Nats players had no answers, and couldn’t believe they lost in such stunning fashion.

So, with that 0-for-4 playoff history, what could we expect this year, one in which the Nationals had to play a Wild Card Game for the first time?

Well, they weren’t daunted at all. In fact, closer Sean Doolittle said they were weirdly calm. After all, the Nats had rebounded from a slow start to their year, and just reaching the postseason was a huge accomplishment. It culminated in as satisfying a champagne celebration has they had in previous years.

Then, the oldest team in the Majors showed the importance of experience.

They rallied late to beat the Brewers in the Wild Card game.

They followed that up by winning the final two games to knock off the Dodgers, claiming their first-ever series victory against the team that had handed the franchise its first postseason loss back in 1981. In the process, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto homered in succession off Kershaw to tie the decisive Game 5.

In the Championship Series, the Nationals swept out a Cardinals team that had handed them their first postseason loss seven years earlier. Game Four started with a seven-run first inning and the clinching party was on. The crowd got a little uneasy when St. Louis came back with four to make it close, but the Nats finished it off.

They’ve updated their mantra from “Stay in the Fight.” Now, against the Astros, will they “Finish The Fight?”

It will certainly be one.

Both teams are built on starting pitching. Combined, they have five of the Top 10 strikeout pitchers in the majors.

To complete this full-circle season, the Nationals now finish up against the team they started against, who hit their own low point just as the Nationals rose to contenders, their spring training partners. I call this the West Palm World Series.

When it’s over, after all these years, it would be nice to finally call the Washington Nationals World Series Champions.

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