Typically, when a player is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the final weekend of July, the team whose cap he sports on his plaque in Cooperstown gets a nice attendance boost by holding a day in his honor.
But that will not be the case this year with Andre Dawson, who will be enshrined Sunday, July 25 yet doesn’t have a big league home to which he can return. Dawson will go into the Hall as a member of the Montreal Expos, who, after two decades of dwindling attendance, moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005 and became the Nationals.
While Olympic Stadium (the facility in Montreal where Dawson played his home games from 1977 through 1986) sits unoccupied most of the year, Nationals Park makes no mention of the franchise’s Montreal heritage—much to the disappointment of the Expos’ other Hall of Famer, catcher Gary Carter.
“At least recognize and embrace the fact that they were in Montreal for 36 years,” Carter told the New York Times in January.
Moving to Washington hasn’t solved the franchise’s attendance problems. Like the Expos, the Nationals are struggling to draw fans in a town where baseball is nowhere near the most popular sport.
The NFL’s Redskins, despite their recent struggles and a polarizing owner, are still the team of choice in and around the nation’s capital. The Nationals, meanwhile, have yet to record a winning season in Washington and saw their average attendance at RFK Stadium drop from 33,729 in 2005 to 23,998 in 2007 and from 29,005 in the first year at Nationals Park in 2008 to 22,435 last year.
The Expos could never break the grip the NHL’s Canadiens had on the city, and their status as a small market franchise in Canada made it all but impossible to retain their best players or lure free agents to the city. But Dawson and Carter were part of the golden era of baseball in Montreal from 1979 through 1983, when the Expos were a combined 76 games above .500 and finished among the NL’s top four in attendance every year, including second in 1983.
Yet the Expos made the playoffs just once in that pre-wild card span and suffered a heartbreaking five-game loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series following the strike-interrupted 1981 season. The Expos fell to eighth in the NL in attendance in 1984 and never climbed back into the top half of the league—not even in 1994, when the Expos were a baseball-best 70-44 before the players’ strike ended the season and the best chance for Montreal to host a World Series. The Expos finished last in the majors in attendance in each of their final seven seasons in Montreal and drew just 642,745 fans in 2001.
The Nationals are following in the Expos’ footsteps in at least one positive way: Players such as Carter, Dawson and potential future Hall of Famers Tim Raines and Vladimir Guerrero were drafted and developed by the Expos, who used homegrown talent to finish .500 or better 13 times in 16 seasons from 1979 through 1994.
The Nationals, of course, have received a recent on- and off-field boost from last year’s number one draft pick, phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg, and selected Bryce Harper with the top selection in this year’s draft to add to an impressive young core that also features Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Drew Storen. Perhaps one of them, decades from now, will be voted into the Hall of Fame and enjoy the type of commemorative day at Nationals Park that eludes Dawson.