1994: What could have been

Williams, now the Nationals' manager, is one of the baseball world's most accomplished self-effacers. As a player, he could always find the dark cloud in the clearest, most sparkling sky. He would hit a home run and round the bases with his head down and his legs moving in double-time, as if apologizing for the interruption. No matter what he did, he remained severely unimpressed with himself.

He hit behind Barry Bonds in the Giants' lineup in '94; and from the beginning of the season, he knew he was going to see more fastballs than a bullpen catcher. He had 10 homers by the end of April, and precisely one double.

"It was just one of those weird deals," Williams says. "I wasn't having a very good year. I wasn't hitting .330 and pounding the ball. I was even below my career average throughout that season. It's just that every once in a while, I would club the ball."

He kept running into them until it turned into something that might make history. He hit his 20th on June 5 and his 25th on June 23. Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas and Bonds were running in the same neighborhood and getting far more attention. "Nobody talked to me about it," says Williams, sitting in the visiting manager's office in San Francisco earlier this summer. He shrugs, the shine from his bald head adding light to the room. "With everything else going on, it just wasn't a topic."

He's got a standard description of his '94 season:

"It was the year of the 1-for-4, with a solo homer."

For years, the principal sound of baseball in Montreal's Olympic Stadium was a form of reverse applause: the loud snaps of the ballpark's tightly sprung seat bottoms folding up as fans headed home, often around the seventh inning, when it was clear the Expos were headed for another loss. It was baseball inside a giant popcorn popper.

The Expos were always young and always improving. In their 25 years of existence, they made the playoffs just once, in the weird split-season of 1981. Throughout the team's history, management decisions -- based on the realities of small-market finances or the cheapness of ownership; your call -- kept potential from being realized. After four or five years -- "It was the college model," says former play-by-play announcer Dave Van Horne -- the best Expos spread to the wind, like seed, before youth could become experience and potential could become achievement.

A second-place finish in the National League East in 1993 made the Expos an underground pick to win in '94. For once, a core of young, exuberant players -- under the chamomile direction of Felipe Alou -- got good enough fast enough.

They had one of the fastest, smartest and most athletic outfields of all time in Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and Moises Alou. They traded for Pedro Martinez -- giving up fan favorite Delino DeShields -- in the offseason. Catcher Darren Fletcher was an All-Star and starting pitcher Ken Hill was a revelation. The bullpen -- back-ended by Mel Rojas and John Wetteland -- made most games six- or seven-inning propositions.

"I know it's obvious, but man, that was such a good team," says Sean Berry, the Expos' third baseman in '94 and now the Padres minor league hitting instructor. "One thing that sticks out: We were so much faster than everybody. Everyone on the team would score from second on a single and first on a double -- every time."

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