Someone asked me the other day to name the best season the Montreal Expos have ever had in their seven-year tenure in the National League.
“Winter,” I said.
The Expos have been called the most promising team in baseball. Every year they keep promising to soar to adequacy by winning as many games as they lose — and with incredible consistency they have failed seven times in succession.
Undaunted, this winter they made another series of trades, acquiring a wealth of inexperience in return for proven mediocrity. Since their inception, their team motto seems to have been “hire the handicapped.”
They traded away pitcher Mike Torrez, a suave, six-footfive right-hander who looks like Rock Hudson and throws the ball like Doris Day.
They traded away fleet-footed centre fielder Willie Davis who could, in baseball vernacular, “really go get ’em.” Trouble was, once Willie got there, he couldn’t find ’em.
They traded away outfielder Ken Singleton who hit more than adequately but led the league in sensational catches of routine fly balls. He once had the audacity to charge a line drive only to have it hit him squarely between the eyes, prompting one coach to say, “I told Kenny never to take his eye off the ball, but this is ridiculous.”
They traded away veteran outfielder Ron Fairly, one of their heaviest hitters. Trouble was, he just kept getting heavier until he used to fall down chasing ground balls and rock himself to sleep trying to get up.
Shortly before the 1974 season ended, the Expos also dumped veteran second baseman Ron Hunt, who holds the dubious record of being hit by more pitched balls than any major-leaguer alive. In 1972, he was hit 50 times in one season. Some hitters are noted for getting “good wood” on the ball. Ron Hunt, by contrast, always managed to get good flesh on the ball when the team needed it most. Former New York Mets pitcher Danny Frisella, after drilling Hunt in the ribs and watching him trot calmly to first base without even wincing, once grumbled to me afterward in the clubhouse: “I think the son-of-a-bitch drinks novocaine.”
As limited as all these veterans were, they at least gave the Expos a veneer of respectability. In fact, in 1973, they even created the illusion of being a pennant contender, mainly because they were fortunate enough to be playing in the National League “Least” Division. To show you to what depths of mediocrity the division sank that year, the Expos finished four games under 500 with a 79-83 record and were still in contention on the final day of the season.
But last year, reality reared its round, leathery head and the Expos fell from the penthouse almost into the outhouse, much to the chagrin of the inhabitants of Jarry Park, baseball’s largest bilingual outdoor insane asylum. Actually, Expo fans are as normal as any others, if you ignore the guy who brings his pet duck to the park on a leash, the dancer who entertains fans between innings by mincing up and down the
aisles doing a cro^s between a buck and wing and the rectal itch polka, and the fiddler on the roof of the Expo dugout who plays Bob Bailey Won’t You Please Go Home.
Bailey is the only Expo original remaining from the baptismal class of ’69, playing third base last year in an infield that combined to make the routine ground ball extinct. Manager Gene Mauch has threatened to platoon him this year, preferably with the Canadian forces in Cyprus.
Still the best pro the Expos have, Bailey is a victim of what the Expo hierarchy calls Phase Two — a youth movement which is a direct steal from that Mormon rallying cry, bring ’em young. For example, Mauch intends to live or die at third with 21-year-old Larry Parrish, which means that either or both of them will be spending time at St. Anne de Beaupré this summer getting rope burns from the beads.
At shortstop will be 24-year-old Tim Foli, whose arm is so strong he can throw a water cooler the length of the dugout after striking out. Foli is a throwback. In fact, the Mets threw him back when he spent an entire night sleeping on the grass at short stop after making three errors in a game.
Second base is a smorgasbord of inexperience starting with 21-year-old Pete Mackanin, considered expendable by the Texas Rangers, Jimmy Cox, who finished last season with the Expos’ triple A farm club at Memphis, and Larry Lintz, who can run like an antelope. Unfortunately, Larry also hits and fields like an antelope. So you can see there is considerable depth at second — enough, in fact, to bury the Expos in the cellar.
Mike Jorgensen at 26, is a fixture at first base, with the best glove in the majors (a Wilson Willy McCovey modd which retails at $39.95).
Barry Foote is a superb rookie catcher and the Expos have a lot of depth behind him. Some 5,000 season ticket holders in the box seats.
Then, alas, there’s the outfield. Rookie Gary Carter, a converted catcher and Seventh-Day Adventurist who has all the makings — which means he rolls his own — compared to tailor-made major leaguers on other teams.
In centre, there is that perennial spring flower Pepe Mangual, up for this third try at age 22. Pepe has renewed confidence this year, based on the thesis that he knows the Expos have no one else to play the position. His specialty is stealing home. And the Expos keep flying him back.
Left field is up for grabs, and the prime candidate is Baltimore Oriole cast-off Rich Coggins, who suffered from sophomore jinx last year. That’s when the pitchers around the league find out what you can’t hit.
Mauch’s only claim to sanity this summer will be his pitching staff, led by former Oriole Dave McNally, who won 16 games with the best defense in baseball behind him last year. Dave is an excellent fielding pitcher but the question is: can he cover all nine positions at once?
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