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Past & Present: From Dawson to Walker, les Expos et Denver

Before their move in 2005, the Washington Nationals were one of the most unique franchises in North American pro sports, the Montreal Expos, a team that also seemed intertwined with the city of the city of Denver and the Rockies at times.

On his way through the Montreal Expos' farm system, Andre Dawson played with the Denver Bears in 1976, kicking off a nearly three-decade baseball relationship between Montreal and Denver.
On his way through the Montreal Expos' farm system, Andre Dawson played with the Denver Bears in 1976, kicking off a nearly three-decade baseball relationship between Montreal and Denver.
Greg Fiume

After hitting .322 with 19 home runs, 86 runs batted in and 15 stolen bases for the Montreal Expos in the strike-shortened 1994 season, Larry Walker signed a four-year, $22 million contract with the Colorado Rockies in 1995, perhaps the most notable link between two franchises, and two cities, that have seemingly been tethered to one another throughout the last 40 years.

The association between the Expos franchise and the city of Denver goes back to 1976, just seven years after the Expos began play at Jarry Park in Montreal. Prior to the 1976 season, the Expos bought the Denver Bears--who the previous season had been a White Sox affiliate--and made them Montreal's AAA club.

The move brought future Hall of Famer Andre Dawkins to Mile High Stadium for a portion of the 1976 season. The Hawk hit .350 with 20 home runs and 10 steaks in 240 at bats in Denver, helping the Bears to a 86-50 regular season record and their first American Association title since 1971. The Bears successfully defended their championship in 1977 with a team that included Gary Roenicke, father of future Rockie Josh Roenicke.

Seven-time MLB all-star Tim Raines' trip through the Expos minor league system brought him to Denver for the 1980 season. Raines stole 77 bases for a Bears team that went 92-44 in the regular season, but fell short of their third league title in five years. The Bears did capture their third championship in six years as an Expos affiliate behind the consistent hitting of Terry Francona (who hit .352) and the solid pitching of Bryn Smith (more on him later).

The Bears became a Rangers affiliate for the 1982 season, and the relationship between the Expos and the city of Denver was put on hold for a decade.

The connection between the Expos and the expansion Rockies was established almost as soon as the latter franchise was established, as the Rockies selected former Expos player and executive Bob Gebhard as the team's first general manager.

One of Gebhard's first free agent signings was former Expos (and Cardinals) first baseman Andres Galarraga. The Big Cat spent his first seven big league season in Montreal, hitting 106 home runs, winning three gold gloves and making an all-star appearance in 1988. Galarraga went on to become one of the Rockies' first stars, hitting .370 in 1993 with 22 home runs and 98 RBIs, good for his first career NL batting title and his second all-star appearance.

When the Rockies finally did take the field at Mile High Stadium, the team's first home game was against, naturally, the Expos. On the mound for the Rockies that day was none other than former Expo Bryn Smith, who won 15 games and posted a 3.05 ERA for the Denver Bears in 1981. Smith was one of three players in the Rockies lineup who played with the Expos at some point in their career, along with Galarraga and shortstop Freddie Benavides.

Despite Walker sitting out, the Expos lineup for the first game in Denver featured three players that would become Rockies, starting pitcher Kent Bottenfield, second baseman Mike Lansing and left fielder John Vander Wal. In fact, Bottenfield was traded to the Rockies later in 1993 for Butch Henry. Benavides and Vander Wal switched teams prior to the 1994 season.

After the 1994 season that saw the Expos finish 74-40 and the ensuing strike, the Rockies picked up Walker as part of a fire sale that saw John Wetteland, Ken Hill and Marquis Grissom depart the Montreal as well.

Like Galarraga before him, Walker saw his career take off in Colorado. He hit a career-high 36 home runs in his first season at Coors Field, helping the Rockies make the playoffs faster than any expansion team in history. From 1995-1997, the two former Expos joined forces with Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla to become the Blake Street Bombers, leading the Rockies to a 243-225 record, a .519 winning percentage, over those three seasons. As Galarraga, Walker and the Rockies found success, the Expos faltered to a 232-236 record after posting a 255-183 record from 1992-1994.

Though Galarraga departed after the 1997 season, the Rockies traded for two more Expos, Lansing and reliever Dave Veres, prior to the 1998 campaign in the last two trades the Rockies and Expos would ever make.

The Rockies-Expos connection was severed somewhat with Gebhard's departure following the 1999 season, as new general manager Dan O'Dowd has no connections to Montreal. However, Walker remained with the Rockies until 2004, the same year as the Expos' final season in Montreal. By opening day 2005, there were no more former Expos on the Rockies roster and no more Expos to speak of at all, the franchise having moved to Washington and become the Nationals, thus ending a nearly three decade connection between baseball in Montreal and Denver.