U.S.A

REACHING FOR THE PENNANT

Hal Quinn July 23 1979
U.S.A

REACHING FOR THE PENNANT

Hal Quinn July 23 1979

REACHING FOR THE PENNANT

Hal Quinn

It's been a long and painful road.— John McHale, president, Montreal Expos.

It was April 8, 1969, Shea Stadium, New York. The sun streamed into the park, trying futilely to out-beam Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau; CBC TV and radio crews scrambled for unhockey-like vantage points; and American baseball fans were introduced to multiples of “stand on guard for thee.” In the top of the eighth inning in this first-ever Expo and international major league baseball game, with two runners on base, Mets pitcher AÍ Jackson delivered. Jose (Coco) Laboy launched the ball out of the park. The Expos won 1110 and started down that long, painful road.

It is now just past the mid-point of the Expos’ 11th season. Laboy is a coach in Puerto Rico, and of his former Expo team-mates, John Boccabella sells appliances, Bill Stoneman advertising, Mack Jones is on a chemical plant assembly line—and the Expos don’t play at Jarry Park anymore.

The Expos have meandered to respectability, their route to Olympic Stadium and first place in the National League East dotted with bungled trades, dropped flyballs and an addiction to losing streaks that threatened records.

The changing cast of characters has managed at various times to lose 20 games in a row; play 30 innings at home without scoring a run; lose by 14 runs— twice; and commit 184 errors in a single season.

The Expos were an expansion club, and they played like one. “The Mets spoiled it for the rest of us,” said John McHale, watching his team last week from his glassed-in booth in Olympic Stadium. (The New York Mets won the World Series in their eighth year.) But this year the Expos are an expansion

team no longer. After a tiresome string of “year of the Expos” that didn’t materialize, they are contenders at last.

As the major league players take a couple of days off this week while the fans’ choices—the All-Stars—play their annual game, the guys in the funny tricolored hats are in first place. In fact they’ve been in first place in the National League Eastern division since June 12. Each time they tottered on the brink of one of their traditional annual losing streaks, they paused and won. Their record against last year’s Eastern

champion Philadelphia Phillies was eight wins, one loss. Their only losing record with division rivals was against the Chicago Cubs, and that was four wins, six losses. At home in the Olympic Oval that taxes built the Expos have been awesome. Going into the last weekend before the All-Star break, they had won 29, lost only 10—three of the losses coming last week. There they are, the old laughable, lovable Expos, in first place at midseason.

The transformation to legitimacy began in 1976, the year of the youth movement. It was the gamble that is now paying off. Montreal management decided to bring up the best from their farm team: outfielders Warren Cromartie, André Dawson and Ellis Valentine, joined third-baseman Larry Parrish and catcher Gary Carter who had been brought up in ’74. All are now bordering on stardom.

“We thought we damn near blew it,” said McHale as he watched his team in action last week. “It was tough to swallow for a while, but you can’t trade for a championship. You have to have a nucleus of young players to succeed.” McHale looked up as San Francisco’s Darrell Evans lined a shot to right field in Olympic Stadium. Ellis Valentine

took it on one hop and fired to Tony Perez at first base. A shocked Evans was out by five feet—thrown out by an outfielder.

“You just don’t see that play,” McHale shouted above the roar of the crowd. The standing ovation for Valentine lasted two minutes. “What a fantastic throw. That guy has a buggy-whip arm.”

The Expos bracketed the talented youngsters with veteran Tony Perez and free-agent second-baseman Dave Cash, and traded for shortstop Chris Speier. Last year they added free-agent pitcher Ross Grimsley who won 20 games for them. After last season the management and coaches sat down and analysed each player on the squad and decided how to improve the team. By spring, they had a contender.

They got rid of all their substitute players except Tommy Hutton, a career .300 pinch hitter. They traded outfielder

Sam Mejias to Chicago and got Rodney Scott (who beat out Dave Cash at second base) and utility man Jerry White. They traded utility infielder Stan Papi to Boston and received the notorious “Spaceman” Bill Lee (see box) in return. After 17 starts as pitcher, Lee had nine wins-for the price of a guy who couldn’t make the team. To top it off, they signed free-agent relief pitching ace Elias Sosa. (“I was offered more money by three other teams,” says Sosa, “but I liked the way the Montreal management handled the negotiations and so I came here. Anyway, it’s more fun to play here than in Toronto.”)

The dramatic moves are reflected in the standings and the box-office. Montreal has had a love affair with the Expos since the first cold and cozy days of Le Grand Orange, Rusty Staub, in little Jarry Park where they played until 1976. But now the fans are lusting after their summer heroes. For the first

doubleheader of the year, May 27 against St. Louis, 60,496 tickets were sold—because that’s the number of seats in Olympic Stadium. During a four-game series with Los Angeles beginning July 6,161,513 cheered, quaffed beer and clapped to the Expos’ Muppetlike mascot Youppi.

The moans and groans have been replaced by roars and standing ovations; the waiting to see who’s going to lose it by wondering who’s going to be the hero. But beyond the maturing of the young players and the additions, there are two more reasons for the Expos, success story—the team’s physical training program and “Doggy,” firstbaseman Perez.

“We brought in a couple of doctors to set up a training program for us,” manager Dick Williams explained. “They developed programs for all the players, special ones for the pitchers. We worked hard on it at spring training and maintain it with a training room and all the equipment here at the stadium.” (Says McHale: “With this beautiful ballpark, a spacious clubhouse and the training facilities, we’ve taken away all the players’ excuses.”) The remarkable results of the exercise programs is that after playing half their games, the Expos had not had a single major injury. Valentine had missed six games with minor hurts, and three games for sailing his batting helmet too close to an umpire before sort of . . . bumping into him. Parrish missed three after banging a Rick Reuschel sinker ball off his ankle. While their rivals in the National League East, the Philadelphia

Phillies and Pittsburg Pirates have been plagued with injuries, the Montrealers have been shockingly healthy. “I can’t remember a team not making a major roster change by midway since 1941,” says McHale.

The dividends go beyond health. Sosa is having a great year, allowing only an average 1.80 runs per nine innings after 33 appearances. “My fastball is better than last year and so are my off-speed pitches. I feel stronger, and the training program is the reason.” Their livelihoods dependent on the condition of their bodies, the Expos are enthusiastic about their management’s program and to a man say they are stronger and in better shape than ever.

Larry Parrish is particularly happy, for a couple of reasons. The knee he injured late last season is creating no problems, he’s feeling strong and hitting the ball well, but mostly he’s happy about being able to chew tobacco. “I’ve been trying to chew since my first year in the minors, but I’d always get as sick and dizzy as you ever want to be,” Parrish confesses. “Well this chew company has been sending me the stuff and back home (Haines City, Florida) this winter I was working the cows, getting the calves ready for market. I popped some in my mouth and I was so busy I

didn’t have time to think about getting dizzy. And [spoit] I’ve been able to chew ever since. Heck, like beer and hotdogs, chewin’—that’s baseball.”

For Parrish, the difference in the Expos this year is in the team’s attitude. It’s easy going, no sense of pressure except for the pressure they put on themselves. “A lot of it has to do with Dick [Williams]. He doesn’t hold a grudge and you don’t have to like him to play

for him. And an awful lot of it had to do with Doggy.”

Doggy, or Big Dog Tony Perez, is, at 37, the quiet cornerstone of the Expos. “Through his influence,” says Parrish, “the players get on the guys who mess up. After this past week (three straight losses to San Francisco) we buried some guys in the dressing room. It’s good natured, but we take care of it. Management doesn’t have to step in and no resentments are built up. It’s because of Tony.”

Big Dog says that the difference this year is that the young players are realizing what it’s like to win, and are starting to like it. “We just come out here everyday and have fun and win games,” says Perez. “Just like we had when I was at Cincinnati, we have a wim/^g feeling on this team. Now everybody feels they have a job to do, that they have to help the club. That is what it takes.”

Last year the Expos bench hit an anemic .161 but this year Hutton and his new mates, known as the BUS Squad, (see box) are executing when called on. The relief pitchers in the bullpen— Sosa, Rudy May, Stan Bahnsen and the ageless Woodie Fryman—have been bailing out the starters. And Rodney Scott has been playing superb defence at second base.

McHale says it took a lot of courage on Williams’ part to bench Dave Cash and play Scott. A lot of people were surprised by the move, but not Scott. “I only would have been surprised if I wasn’t starting somewhere.” That somewhere is now shortstop.

Last week Chris Speier became the first Expo to be placed on the 21-day disabled list (due to an off-season back injury). Tony Bernazard, picked in spring training as the most likely rookie-of-the-year candidate, has been called up from the minor league to play second. This is the kind of depth of talent that a pennant contending team must have, something the Expos haven’t had before.

But their greatest reservoir of talent is their outfield of Cromartie, Dawson and Valentine—often called the best young outfield in baseball. “I don’t know who coined that,” says Williams. “They’re not the best—yet. None of them has hit .300 in majors, but they all have the potential to be great. Cromartie and Dawson have fine arms and Valentine has a fantastic one.

Valentine is the troubled soul brother of the young threesome, currently feuding with the Montreal press. “I’m still hurting. I’m playing under a lot of pressure. There’s no telling how good I could be if it wasn’t there. There have been a lot of complications, but I’m just happy I’m still playing. They could just leave me on the bench.”

At the centre of the Expos’ run at the pennant is catcher Gary Carter. He has been hitting in and around .300 all year, knocking out home runs and handling

the pitchers. “We had 11 shutouts this year,” Larry Parrish points out, “so Gary must be doing a heck of a job.” As far as Williams is concerned, “I don’t know of a better catcher in baseball right now.”

Carter was selected by manager Tom Lasorda as a catcher in this Tuesday’s All-Star game in Seattle, as was the Expos’ ironman starter, Steve Rogers. “All we needed was the experience,” says Carter, explaining the Expos’ fine first half. “A lot of us have played together for three years now and we’re working as a unit. We enjoy coming to the ballpark, we laugh together, our wives get together—that’s what winning does.

“I feel our pitching staff is the best in our league. Rogers has pitched five shutouts, Grimsley tantalizes opponents, Lee keeps them off balance, and our relievers have been great. We’ve become a unit.”

It’s a long season. Leads can evaporate almost overnight. If the Expos needed any reminders, they came last week as they bungled away two of their three losses to San Francisco. They’re cautiously optimistic, trying not to think ahead, following Big Dog’s “We’ll just have to wait and see” lead. As Cromartie says, “The Montreal fans are used to winners and they’d like us to win this pennant more than anything.”

For Gary Carter there is just one goal: “To win the National League East, the National League pennant, and then that other one.” That other one is played in October; they call it the World Series. We’ll just have to wait and see.