If international sport is lacking only live rounds, then last week's battle for baseball's National League pennant was not lacking in assaults. Fans, non-fans and even constitution-weary politicians claimed that the Expos of Montreal were doing more to unite the country than any other pretenders to the nation’s psyche. The series with the Dodgers of Los Angeles to decide who would meet the Yankees of New York in the World Series was as riveting as any battle for the Grey Cup—or, for that matter, the Stanley Cup. In any official language, the excitement verged on hysteria.
Montreal’s magnificent obsession with Les Expos began on April 8, 1969, when they won the first major league baseball game played after two anthems. But it wasn’t until last Friday night that the first championship series game was played outside the United States. The adoration of the 54,372 fans at Olympic Stadium shook the still uncovered edifice and a group of topless, well-fortified young men rebutted the American media’s fixation with the true North’s climate. It was a relatively balmy 10°C at game time and the wet snow that whipped Baltimore’s base paths in 1979 and the chill that gripped Philadelphia’s stadium last October were conveniently forgotten by prognosticators from the South. As Canadian and Quebec flags unfurled in the stands, Montreal fans basked in the glow of their adopted sons.
After defeating their nemesis of last season, the Philadelphia Phillies, in the fifth game of a strike-induced playoff round, the Expos travelled last week to Los Angeles where they had won but once in 19 games. They stranded runners, didn’t steal bases, hit into double plays or popped out harmlessly (Larry Parrish three times) whenever they threatened. Pitcher Bill Gullickson had one bad inning, the second, and reliever Jeff Reardon a worse one, the eighth, and the Expos lost 5-1. In game two, they had only to face Mexican national hero, rookie left-hander Fernando Valenzuela who had flirted with invincibility all season.
Amid tinseltown’s glitterati and Eskimo jokes, Expos pitcher Ray Burris walked to the mound. A journeyman right-hander playing for his fifth team in 8V2 years, he has lost more than he has won during his travels. But in the second half of this troubled season he had been sparkling. He would call this Los Angeles night “the most rewarding experience of my life,” allowing the vaunted Dodgers just five singles in five separate innings. The Expos managed to bunch some of their hits for once and got three runs past Valenzuela. This, combined with defensive play that dazzled on occasion and was airtight throughout, gave the Expos a 3-0 win and sent the series north tied at one.
If Burris has been sparkling of late, then veteran Steve Rogers has been almost perfect. He pitched a two-hit masterpiece to set up Montreal’s first postseason adventure and then beat the ace of the defending champion Phillies, Steve Carlton, twice in the playoffs. Friday night he was at it again. The Dodger lead-off man reached base in the first five innings, but Rogers gave up just one run. Jerry White delivered one of his rare homers to produce three runs after Larry Parrish’s erratic bat had driven in one. Parrish, the favorite goat for Montreal fans when euphoria hasn’t transported them (which is most of the time), also did a Brooks Robinson imitation at third base to help Rogers past his third post-season win. Rogers, the target in years past of a whispering campaign about his inability to win the big ones, has transcended redemption. In the past two weeks he has won four critical games, allowed just two runs in the process and even (against Carlton) done some hitting.
The dream faltered along with the Expo pitching on Saturday as the Dodgers came back to tie the series with a 7-1 thrashing of Canada’s favorite Americans on a delightful Indian summer afternoon. But with horrible weather predicted for Sunday, and Ray Burris back on the mound, all hope had not been abandoned.
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