If I had a brother in Pittsburgh and a brother in jail, I’d work on getting my brother out of Pittsburgh.—Anon
The tragedy of sports is not in losing, it’s in almost winning.—Hey wood Hale Broun
Since the days when the myth began that Abner Doubleday invented a game called baseball, there has evolved, year in and year out, an allencompassing phenomenon of Americana—the pennant race. It was decided in a smoke-filled New York saloon on St. Patrick’s Day, 1871, that the baseball team with the best record at the end of the season was entitled to fly the championship streamer at its ball park.
The patriarchs of the game, who filed their $10 entry fee on that day in ’71 and started the first quest for the “whip pennant,” could hardly have imagined that 108 years later the race for that innocuous symbol would captivate an entire nation—especially one north of the 49th parallel.
The pennant race is uniquely American, an autumn tradition, an impetus to check the line scores in the morning paper, grist for endless barroom debates during and long after, and the object of one of New York Yankee great Yogi Berra’s many legendary assaults on the mother tongue, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
They call it the “race,” its effect “fe-
ver” and, until this year, it was only a vicarious happening in Canada, pockets of rational and irrational loyalty to cities and teams far removed. But this year the race and fever came to Canada in general, Montreal in particular; only the names and the accents have been changed. Suddenly the CBC is tagging newscasts with “the Expos were rained out in Atlanta last night” and on street corners from St. John’s to Vancouver people are talking about “lost columns” and “half-games” and a thumb injury to a guy born in Culver City, California.
Big-league baseball came to Montreal 11 years ago, a fleeting taste of the race and day-by-day fever in ’73, but really arrived this spring. Les Expos were supposed to be respectable this season, supposed to win more often than lose (for the first time in their history) and finish respectfully behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies. But somewhere along the stretch, they lost the script.
There they were leading their Eastern Division of the National League by seven games in June, six in July, one at the All-Star midway point, and embarking with the nation on a rollercoaster ride through August and September.
With a combination of deft trading (acquiring infielder Rodney Scott and pitcher Bill Lee) and signings (freeagent relief pitcher Elias Sosa and rehiring the original Expo star, Rusty Staub), the Expos went out and beat the Phillies the first eight times they played them and tamed the Pirates in five of their first eight meetings. The scribes scribbled “maybe,” the fans hollered “please” and the Expos headed into Pittsburgh in the final week of the season a half-game ahead of the Pirates. In the unfriendly confines of Three Rivers Stadium, they were to decide the race, balm the fever and play four games.
It has oft been said that baseball is a funny game, in a strange sort of way. Team tumbles in the dog days of September are legendary (ask any Chicago Cubs fan, of any era). On heady “race” days, average players become heroes (ask any Red Sox fan about Bucky Dent’s home run last year) and routine plays can become menacing, even hazardous (ask Expos’ Ellis Valentine). “It was just a pop fly (in a game with the New York Mets in the second last week of the season). I called for it, Tony Perez told Dave Cash to take it—I didn’t hear Tony, and Dave didn’t hear me. Man, did we collide!” Cash left the game, after catching the ball, to get some stitches in his head; Valentine left holding his jaw and looking for a temporary cap to fill a new gap. “My chin hit his head. Man, I thought I had a Kirk Douglas there for a minute.”
So, alive, and fairly well, the Expos arrived in Pittsburgh last week along with a group of their fans and the hopes and telegrams of those left behind from sea to sea.
In the first game of the doubleheader last Monday, second baseman Cash’s glove turned to stone as he committed three errors, helping the Pirates win 52, and the teams were tied. A few hours later the Expos pulled out another miracle and won 7-6 after trailing 6-3, and the roller coaster was on its way.
But in this funny game, what could prove to be the most important play of this long and storied Expos season, there appeared on the scene a guy named Lois. Oh, there have and will be “Tugs” and “Scrap Irons,” “Leftys,” “Busters” and “Babes” in this game, but a crucial play in a pennant race involving a guy named Lois?
It was in that second game that night in Pittsburgh. It was innocent enough, apparently, but surely grist for salooned debates. This sometime outfielder, this Pirate, this guy named Alberto Lois came charging in to home plate where Expo Gary Carter, from Culver City, was waiting. The ball and Lois arrived at about the same time. Carter attempted a “sweep” tag, and . . . “My thumb must have hit his knee or something. I wasn’t thinking injury, I was just going to try to throw the ball to third base. Then I realized I couldn’t grip the ball. My thumb was just wobbling there like the ligaments were all shot.”
Carter (“the best catcher in the National League, maybe all baseball, the key, the heart of our ball club,” says Expos Manager Dick Williams) watched the rest of that game and the
next two with the Pirates. He, and a national CBC audience for the second game, watched the Pirates trample the Expos 10-4 and 10-1 and take a gameand-a-half lead. The Pirates had four games left, the Expos five, and the Expos were looking for brothers to get them the hell out of Pittsburgh.
But fevered baseball is funny. The next day the Pirates hosted the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that shouldn’t threaten a first-place club. But they did. Out in centre field, for two innings, the American flag flew upside down, the international distress signal. It was prophetic. The Cards won 9-5. The Expos, meanwhile, were staring out at the rain in Atlanta. The race that might have been decided, but for Pirates in
distress and some precipitous rain, was tightened and simultaneously lengthened—the effects of Lois specifically and a tortuous two weeks in general granted time to heal. But the roller coaster was heading home.
It arrived at Olympic Stadium last Friday night with the two millionth paying customer and Gary Carter pencilled into the lineup, but really scheduled for surgery the following morning. Lois had torn tendons and a fractured bone. Rain fell in Pittsburgh but the Pirates eventually beat Chicago. Though the Expos had improved their record over this time last year from 73 wins and 84 losses to 94 wins and 63 losses and trailed the leader by 2 games rather than 141/2, their old tragicomedy of errors was revived.
In the 11th inning third baseman Larry Parrish and left-fielder Warren Cromartie committed consecutive errors on the same play and Philadelphia won it 3-2. Not a funny game.
Saturday. If the World Series is the American Fall classic, this was a leather-bound Canadian edition. Two weekend wins by Pittsburgh would end the race. In the top of the seventh inning with Montreal ahead 2-0, the electronic scoreboard at Olympic Stadium flashed—Chicago 5, Pittsburgh 3—and 50,332 fans gave a cluster of lightbulbs a standing ovation. The Expos won 3-2 in the ninth inning and waited for the report on Pittsburgh, where the score was tied 6-6.
It finally arrived, one hour and fortyfive minutes later. Chicago won 7-6 in the 13th inning. It would take the last day of the season to decide if the tragedy of sports would visit Pittsburgh or Montreal.0?
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