WASHINGTON -- When baseball left Montreal in 2004, the world's last image of America's pastime in the Canadian city was one of empty seats and a franchise lost.
But that's not the Montreal that Andre Dawson remembers.
Considered one of the best players in Expos history, "The Hawk" said there were years the Expos drew upwards of two million people, most of whom he said were still "learning the game" but still came out to cheer heroes like Dawson, Hall of Famer Gary Carter and Tim Raines.
"I think we had some good careers over the time that we were there," Dawson said. "I played in an era when we were very competitive."
He certainly did. Selected in the 11th round of the 1975 Draft by Montreal out of Florida A&M, Dawson -- a Miami native -- made it to the Majors a year later and played on the only division-winning team Montreal ever had.
Along with players like Carter, Raines, Bill "Spaceman" Lee and now-Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona, Dawson helped Montreal to a 3-2 series win over Philadelphia in the 1981 National League Divisional Series. They would fall in the NLCS to Los Angeles by that same margin.
Now a special assistant to the president with the Florida Marlins -- the team with which he retired from baseball in 1996 -- Dawson said he splits his time between the Major League club and affiliates, helping young players develop and grow through Florida's system.
"I enjoy it, because it's a very flexible situation," Dawson said, adding that he particularly likes the work he does in the Marlins' Minor League system. Still, when you're considered one of the best overall players of your generation, Minor League baseball players tend to be a bit shy.
"They're kind of hesitant to approach you at first," Dawson said. "It takes them a couple days to warm up to you. ... Then, they're full of questions."
Dawson ought to have plenty of answers. In addition to his 10 years in Montreal, the right-handed outfielder spent time with Chicago, Boston and Florida over his 20-year career. He hit at a career .279 clip with 438 home runs, 1,591 RBIs, 503 doubles and 314 stolen bases. Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays, Steve Finley and Reggie Sanders are the only other players in Major League history to hit 300 home runs and steal 300 career bases.
Still, Dawson played half of his career north of the border, presiding over arguably the most successful period for baseball in Montreal. He acknowledged, however, that by the time the team left for Washington, its situation was beyond fixing, victim to a "perfect storm" of factors. He said he realized just how bad things had become soon after Sept. 11, when he returned to visit the team.
"The writing was on the wall," Dawson said. "You could hear people in the stands talking to each other, and I was in one of the boxes. I realized then that the game in Canada was at an all-time low."
Still, Dawson thinks the possibilities could be bright for a Major League return to the city he described as "a small New York City, without the crime." He said he thinks if that does happen, it ought to be with a smaller stadium in the city.
As for Montreal's descendant Washington Nationals, Dawson can't really identify with the new franchise -- too few familiar faces, he said -- but he does try to follow some former Expos, including injured Washington first baseman Nick Johnson and some clubhouse personnel that made the switch from Montreal to Washington.
For now, the man Expos fans dubbed simply "Le Hawk" enjoys his job and spending his time close to home and the city where he grew up.
"This is my home," Dawson said. "This is where my loyalty is."
Zachary Osterman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.