Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Year the Expos Almost Won the Pennant!

It was 30 years ago this summer that the Montreal Expos had their first winning season, finished second in a wild race for the NL East title, and captured the hearts and minds of the Canadian People. Re-reading Brodie Synder's The Year the Expos Almost Won the Pennant is a bittersweet experience, given the team's sad decline and eventual relocation. I fell in love with Les Expos that long ago summer, a love that only diminished when Major League Baseball moved them to Washington, D.C. I have no love for the Nationals, who recently traded Nick Johnson, their last remaining player who had also played for Montreal.

After a disappointing 1978, the team's tenth straight losing season, manager Dick Williams and GM John McHale sought to improve a few glaring weaknesses on the Expos' 25-man roster. They got lefthander Bill "Spaceman" Lee on the cheap from the Red Sox, for light-hitting infielder Stan Papi. They signed ace reliever Elias Sosa as a free agent, and strengthened the bench by picking up Duffy Dyer, Jim Mason, Jerry White, and Rodney Scott (who would beat out Dave Cash for the starting second base job in Spring Training).

The team already had a good nucleus, with a stellar outfield consistening of Andre Dawson, "The Hawk," who would go on to win the NL MVP award with the Cubs in 1987, Warren Cromartie, and talented head case Ellis Valentine, whose frequent absences may or may not have had something to do with the drug and alcohol abuse that would derail his career in the '80s. The infield was anchored by former Cincinnati slugger Tony Perez, out to prove the Reds wrong for running him out of town, at first base, with Larry Parrish at third, Scott at second and Chris Speier at short. Behind the plate, in his young prime, was Hall of Famer Gary Carter, handling a staff that included Steve Rogers, Rudy May, Ross Grimsley, Woodie Fryman, Stan Bahnsen, David Palmer, and Dan Schatzeder.

The team came out of the gate on fire, and held first place for most of the season, only faltering on a brutal West Coast road trip in August, and against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team that would win the division and eventually the World Series. Reading Brodie's day-by-day account of the '79 season, it is difficult for the Expo-lover in me not to play "What if?"

"What if Steve Rogers had pitched better down the stretch?"

"What if Dave Cash hadn't been in Williams's doghouse for most of the season?"

"What if Ellis Valentine had played up to his potential, and not dogged it at various junctures?"

Of course, the late-season acquisition of former Expo great Rusty Staub lit a fire under Valentine's ass, and he finished strong, even if the team didn't.

I recommend this book to any Expos fan who remembers the 1979 season, or even those who don't, but recall the '94 team, who had the best record in baseball before the ill-advised player's strike ended the season, and effectively killed baseball in Montreal.


Charley said...

That Expos team was special. If they had won a World Series perhaps there would still be baseball in Montrael.

Andre Dawson for the Hall of Fame

Marc Solomon said...

Your wistful recap makes me remember the day when players could be assembled and groomed and propertied in rotisserie-like ensembles. I don't long for the pre-agency days. But for the pure strategist these scenarios are no longer in play for down market teams.