SPORTS

Returning to glory

The Montreal Expos surprise skeptical fans

TRENT FRAYNE June 26 1989
SPORTS

Returning to glory

The Montreal Expos surprise skeptical fans

TRENT FRAYNE June 26 1989

Returning to glory

The Montreal Expos surprise skeptical fans

TRENT FRAYNE

It seems like only the day before yesterday that everybody was getting ready for the World Series to be played in Olympic Stadium, Montreal’s hulking ode to concrete. But now it is going on eight fruitless summers, and so the fans are responding with caution to a new threat by the once-cherished Expos.

Remember? In mid-October, 1981, the Expos won the National League East and needed only one win over the western champion Los Angeles Dodgers to nail down the pennant. But the momentous moment was put on hold for years to come: the Dodgers deadlocked the series in the Big Owe and then won it in the deciding game on, of all dispiriting climaxes, a ninth-inning home run by Rick Monday.

Now, the Expos are back, a whole new array of them, with only a few old hands, including the glowering Tim Raines, remaining of 1981’s familiar band. But even though the Expos— who were only a half-game behind the National League’s eastern divisionleading Chicago Cubs before the two played a crucial series last weekend— are a genuine threat to the New York Mets, who have dominated the division in the recent past, they’re being viewed warily by the folks at home.

“Montreal is winner-oriented,”

Claude Brochu said earnestly. “There was a real turnoff at the gate between 1983 and 1986. We lost half our customers.” Brochu is the 44-year-old Expo president, a relative Johnnycome-lately to baseball. He was from Expo owner Charles Bronfman’s Seagram’s distillery, where, until September, 1986, he was the executive vice-president for marketing, brought in to market the ball club.

But half the customers?

“More than half,” said Brochu. “We went from 2,320,000 in 1983 to 1,129,000 in 1986. We didn’t lose fans. The people are still fans. But we lost customers. There’s a difference.”

Thoroughly alarmed by the harsh decline, the Expo brass undertook the slow business of rebuilding, swiping a 30-year-old dynamo named David Dombrowski from the Chicago White Sox organization to become the boss of their minor-league operation, the Expo incubator. And after the Expo general manager,

Murray Cook, resigned for personal reasons (he has since become Cincinnati’s GM), Dombrowski became his successor in Montreal—at 32, the youngest man in that key job in the big leagues.

Now, the Expos are approaching the niche they knew nearly a decade ago in the era of such stars as Gary Carter, André Dawson, Steve Rogers, Bill Lee, Larry Parrish and Ellis Valentine. Filling their polyesters are accomplished players still a trifle slow to be acclaimed by the wary Montrealers. As Brochu says, “It’s still a wait-and-see attitude by many fans.” Expos now include such players as Andrés Galarraga, Tim Burke, Hubie Brooks, Tim Wallach, Kevin Gross, the world-class Tim Raines, known as Rock, and now the newest

Expo, a flaxen-haired, smoke-throwing lefthanded pitcher, Mark Langston, who looms as the first genuine nonskating sports hero in Montreal since Rusty Staub.

Everybody sought Langston, a 28-year-old survivor of five seasons with the frugal Seattle Mariners, who becomes a free agent at the end of the current season and who will command millions. Nobody expected Seattle owner George Argyros to make a serious effort to resign this strikeout specialist. The team that would land him in a trade, the feeling was, was the team that offered Seattle the best deal in promising players so poorly paid by baseball standards as to be compelled to dress like sportswriters, practically.

Toronto was in the fight. The Blue Jays had young pitchers, including Todd Stottlemyre and Alex Sanchez, whose salaries had not yet soared, but the Blue Jays were outmanned by the Expos, who offered the six-foot-10 left-hander Randy Johnson, whose salary is $70,000, Brian Holman ($82,500) and Gene Harris ($68,000).

“Sure, they’re three real promising young pitchers for the future,” Montreal manager Buck Rodgers readily agrees, “but the NL East is wide open. For us, the future is now.”

Landing Langston, for the rest of the season at least, gave the starting rotation the look of champions—an experienced staff of Dennis Martinez, Kevin Gross, Bryn Smith and the flaky fastballer Pascual Perez. If the Expos have a problem, it may be the bullpen, where only the closer, Tim Burke, has been consistently effective.

Langston has been spectacular in more ways than one. He began by beating San Diego in a 10-2 romp, fanning 12, then got involved in a squeaker in Philadelphia. In the eighth inning, score tied 1-1, a hit and two walks loaded the bases with none out. After the second walk, manager Rodgers did not even

walk to the mound for a chat, much less go to his bullpen.

Ö “I was curious to see what he was “ made of,” Rodgers recalled, a faint smile creasing his tanned kisser. Langston soon showed him. He struck out Dickie Thon, Tommy Herr and cleanup hitter Juan Samuel, and the Expos went on to win 2-1 in 13 innings. Next, the St. Louis Cards. The Cards roughed him up in Montreal and won the game 5-2. But Langston got even last week in St. Louis, shutting down the Cards 2-0.

An added asset is the point that Langston is not necessarily a temporary indulgence. Asked owner Charles Bronfman: “Who says we don’t have as good a chance as anybody to sign him when he becomes a free agent? I’m sure he'll love Montreal’s charm.”

And Montreal’s money, perhaps even topping the current richest Expo, Tim Raines, who pockets $2,1(74,889 per annum—U.S., of course.