1994: What could have been

In July, that changed when "Sports Illustrated" put Williams on the cover.

"Yeah, but even that had the same tone," Williams says. " Yeah, he's doing this, but it's going to end. I'm sure my teammates were probably saying the same thing: 'He's going to start swinging and missing any time now.'"

The scene sounds apocryphal, but the Expos swear it's true: Walker, the right fielder, and Grissom, the center fielder, used to play a little game within the game to keep themselves amused. They would stare at each other in between pitches, a form of Outfield Chicken, and dare each other not to be the first to turn his eyes back to the pitch.

Confident? Cocky?

Grissom and Walker would sometimes trade gloves between innings, too, just for fun.

"It was the easiest baseball I'd ever played," Berry says. "There was no stress. We were either too young to know better or too good to care."

The bad start didn't last. The Expos began to win and liked the feeling so much they didn't stop. The city of Montreal came along with them. Attendance picked up. The sound of vuvuzelas -- they were ahead of the curve on that one -- overtook the sound of folding seats.

The Braves were in the middle of a lower-case dynasty at the time, winning 14 straight divisional titles. But they'd been in the NL West until expansion put them in the East and made them the Expos' primary competition in 1994. In their first matchups as divisional rivals, the Expos took two of three in Atlanta in early May, and again at home in late July.

In Jonah Keri's recently released history of the Expos, " Up, Up and Away," Walker says, "After the break, we played the Braves and beat 'em again. I remember leaving Atlanta, and we were just laughing. Like, 'This is our competition?'"

Fletcher laughs and says, "Yeah, I guess we had a little attitude."

Things even out in baseball, right? It's an axiom that has soothed the slump-ridden for more than a century. For every line drive out, there's a check-swing single. Unless it's 1994 and you're Gwynn, in which case you're good enough to reject the very idea of a level playing field.

When he was on time, he would drive the ball to right or right-center. When he was fooled by an off-speed pitch, he would keep his hands back well enough to use his famous " 5.5 swing" and drive the ball to the left of the third baseman. In 110 games, he had 165 hits. He slugged .568 and ended the season with a 1.022 OPS.

"He was an artist that year, Picasso at the bat," Roberts says. "At one point late in the season, I went up to him and said, 'What you are doing right now I have never seen in my life.' He just smiled."

On Aug. 11, the final night of the 1994 the season, with the work stoppage looming and nearly every player distracted to the point of disinterest, Gwynn went 3-for-5, hitting a single to each field, and raised his average to .394.

"From beginning to end," Bochy says, "it's got to be one of the most consistent seasons ever."

In an interview with San Diego magazine before his death earlier this year, Gwynn said, "To this day, I really believe I'd have hit .400."

Roberts is more emphatic. "I'd never seen a man hit like that," he says. "He would have gotten over .400 and stayed over .400. That wasn't just me -- that was the consensus in baseball. But watching him every day, there was no doubt."

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