"The difference between this year and the past four years,” Montreal Expos catcher Gary Carter said last Thursday afternoon, minutes before a doubleheader with the National League East-leading Philadelphia Phillies, “is that this year we have to win it.” Hours later, after losing both games, the Expos effectively had taken themselves out of the pennant race for the fifth straight year.
In 1979 and 1980 the Expos were eliminated on the final day of the season. In 1981, the year of the major league players’ strike, they were knocked out in the last inning of the final playoff game. Last year Les Expos went sour on the Monday of the season’s final week. This year, after having once again been favored to win their division, the Expos were six games behind with only seven to play. The Pittsburgh Pirates humiliated them 10-1 on Friday night and beat them again 1-0 on Saturday.
There were bitter ironies this time around. In past seasons, as the team’s reach repeatedly fell short, the experts said that it needed another pitching “ace” to complement Steve Rogers; that it needed another strong arm in the bullpen to relieve Jeff Reardon; that it had to solve the problem at second base. This season the club erased the shortcomings. Bill Gullickson and Charlie Lea developed into fine pitchers with 16 and 15 wins respectively at week’s end.
And on Aug. 18 the Expos acquired allstar second baseman Manny Trillo from the Cleveland Indians. The team arguably was stronger, position by position, than any rival.
But Thursday night against the Phillies, Lea and Rogers were shelled. The hostility echoed from the stands at Olympic Stadium. Fans booed as the men who had carried the team through the years faltered. Centre fielder André Dawson, generally acknowledged as the best all-round player in the game, got
one hit in eight times at bat in the two games and threw the ball into the Phillies’ dugout, costing a run. And Gary Carter, acknowledged as the game’s best catcher, was hitless in eight attempts. Each time he picked up a bat the fans booed and whistled. Recalling the reception, Carter grimaced and said: “I’m not a machine. I’m a human being.”
It is not simple explaining why the Expos have not done better. Having lived the history, Carter said: “This one ranks right up there with all the other frustrations. You can’t say that we have been unlucky, because we have certainly had the talent.” The talent ranged from Rogers, Dawson and Carter through the National League’s leading base stealer, Tim Raines, to perennial .300 hitter AÍ Oliver. It is a lineup studded with names that make baseball men slaver. No fewer than five Expos were on the National League All-Star team this season, and there are Expos at or near the top of the leaders in almost every category of baseball achievement. The fact remains, however, that the team has been less than the sum of its parts ever since the 1979 season when the Expos won 95 games, a team record that remains unmatched.
As the Phillies have proved, a unique blend of talent, maturity, leadership and camaraderie is required to win. In Montreal there seems to be a growing realization that the time may have come to stir the mix.
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