The last professional baseball team to carry the nickname Expos was not from Montreal, but rather Burlington, Vermont. When the Montreal Expos moved to Washington DC after the 2004 season, the team’s short-season single-A affiliate did not have time to change names before the 2005 campaign started.
“When Major League Baseball owned the team at that point, they kind of wanted to forget the Expos and move on to the Nationals,” Vermont’s general manager Nate Cloutier said. “With our name piggy backing on theirs, they had asked us to consider renaming the team, and at that point, we just didn’t have enough time to do so. It was a couple months before the season, and anyone in the industry knows that it takes months and months and months to not only rebrand but also get inventory in terms of merchandising and uniforms and stuff like that.”
In the process of deciding on a new nickname during that 2005 season, a name-the-team contest generated overwhelming support for naming the team after their own mascot, Champ, the legendary and mythical* lake monster of nearby Lake Champlain. (*Note: MAYBE.) The legend of Champ dates back to a sighting by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1609. The mascot Champ, who shares my birthday, dates back to the inception of the Vermont Expos in the mid-1990s. But despite overwhelming support for naming the team after its mascot, there was a problem.
“Champs was the number one vote,” Cloutier said, “but having not made the playoffs since 1995, we didn’t figure it was an appropriate name.”
While the Vermont Champs were never meant to be, the team realized that their future identity had been right under their noses all along. “Every time we would think of something unique like Snow Devils or something like that,” Cloutier said, “everyone would ask us, ‘What’s going to happen to Champ?’ At that point the bell went off and it was like, ‘Wow, we’re sitting on something special and we’re thinking of changing direction away from our biggest asset?’ That just didn’t make any sense.”
The team adopted the nickname Lake Monsters in 2006, changing the logo from the Vermont Expos’ gray cartoon lake monster, which appears to be part golden retriever, to a more sophisticated green monster. But while the Lake Monsters logo was a good one, something didn’t sit right about it. There was a disconnect between the logo, which was a pointy, kelly green monster, and the beloved mascot, a roundish, lime green goof ball. So the team unveiled a new logo before last season.
“Champ is a lime green monster,” Cloutier said. “He is our identity and that is why we have the new look that we have today…. You see him in the community and you recognize the big lime green figure. Why would our team colors not resemble that as well?”
The Lake Monsters’ new new logo didn’t feel new at all to fans of the team. It was the familiar face of the franchise that they had known for years—probably better than they knew any of the team’s players. “Being a short-season team, our players aren’t around enough to even promote,” Cloutier said. “If they’re good enough, then they’re typically not here very long.”
Basing a baseball team’s nickname on an urban legend, which is something the Las Vegas 51s have also had success with, inevitably leads to questions. Specifically, Is it real?
“I’ve never personally seen anything,” Cloutier said. “But it’s something that the community holds onto, and tourists love…. I know one thing: You can see Champ 38 times each summer at Centennial Field.”
I may be predisposed to liking the Lake Monsters because I miss the Expos (Vermont is an A’s affiliate now), but I like the logo and the nickname. I can’t think of another instance in which a team has named itself after its own mascot, but I think that some Major League teams should follow suit—like the Philadelphia Phanatics, the San Diego Chickens, or the New York Mr. Mets. I’ve long advocated for a return of the Montreal Expos, but if they ever do come back, I hope the team in Vermont remains the Lake Monsters—and that some day they win a New York-Penn League title and can call themselves the Champs.