SPORTS

Hopes of glory

The reborn Expos are gunning for the title

DAN BURKE August 7 1989
SPORTS

Hopes of glory

The reborn Expos are gunning for the title

DAN BURKE August 7 1989

Hopes of glory

The reborn Expos are gunning for the title

SPORTS

For a Californian who went to Montreal only two months ago, Mark Langston has had a remarkable impact on a city where fans have traditionally treated major-league baseball only as something that happens between hockey seasons. Indeed, when the Montreal Expos acquired the lefthanded pitching star from the Seattle Mariners on May 25, the Expos had attracted only 378,171 fans to 25 home games and ranked fourth in the National League’s East Division with a 24-24 won-lost record. But that had all changed by the time Langston took the pitcher’s mound at Olympic Stadium last week before a crowd of 30,000 to face the Philadelphia Phillies. Cheered by the Montreal fans, Langston struck out 10 Philadelphia players on his way to a five-hit shutout. The game marked the Expos’ sixth consecutive win and kept the team in first piace in its division, 3lh games ahead of the Chicago Cubs. Said fellow Expo pitcher Bryn Smith: “When Mark is pitching, you kind of feel sorry for the other team. He is one of the premier lefties in the game."

Indeed, Langston has brought new meaning to the term “Big O,” the popular nickname for Montreal’s 59,893-seat Olympic Stadium. A week before the Phillies game, he struck out 13 in his 2-0 victory7 over the Cincinnati Reds at the stadium. Those masterly performances by the 28-year-old Langston have galvanized Montreal’s team, as well as its once-reserved and often disappointed supporters. Against Philadelphia, the crowd even applauded Langston when he struck out to end a second-inning Expo rally. Said Langston, who had won eight games and lost only three of the 12 he had pitched for the Expos going into the weekend: “Ever since I have been here, the fans have been making noise for us. It pumps you up.” The Expos’ newfound success, after years of lacklustre performance and declining fan support, has clearly been a welcome development for the team’s owner, Seagram’s distillery millionaire Charles Bronfman. Since the Expos first took to the field in 1969, they have finished first in their division only once—in 1981. In subsequent years, support for the Expos declined as they failed to win the National League pennant despite having many superstars, including catcher Gary7 Carter, outfielders André Dawson and Tim Raines, and pitcher Steve Rogers. As a result, attendance at Expos games has been dropping since 1983, when 2,320,651 went to see the team’s 81 home games. Last year, the Expos had the secondworst attendance in the league, attracting only 1,478,659, compared with 3,055,445 for the

top-ranking New York Mets. Said Expos president Claude Brochu:

“Montreal is a little guarded when it comes to baseball now. They are afraid of being disappointed.”

Now there are signs that Montrealers are overcoming that concern.

Average attendance at Expos games has climbed to almost 21,000 from 18,255 last year. That still compares poorly with the more than 47,000 fans who regularly flock to Toronto’s new domed stadium to watch the Blue Jays, who are currently in second place in the American League’s East Division. Two weeks ago, the tabloid Montreal Daily News began giving away T-shirts bearing a mock front page with the headline, “Expos win the World Series.” For her part, stadium souvenirvendor Pierrette Portelance, 56, said that she has been doing a brisk business. She added:

“Montreal is a great sports town, but people here like winners. That is why they are starting to get enthusiastic about the Expos again,”

Strong pitching performances are largely responsible for the Expos’ first-place standing. Two years ago, the team gave the St. Louis Cardinals an unexpected run for first place in the division, finishing only four games behind after losing a lateseason series to the Cardinals. Now they have one of the most effective starting-pitching rotations in major-league baseball, with Langston, Smith, Dennis Martinez, Pascual Perez and Kevin Gross. Smith, 33, who has recovered from elbow surgery that threatened to end his career in 1987, entered last weekend’s series

with the Cardinals with a 9-3 won-lost record and a 2.03 earned-run average—the best in the league.

Martinez is another Expo who has made a remarkable comeback. Playing for the Baltimore Orioles, the 34-year-old Nicaraguan native, who joined the Expos in 1986, overcame alcoholism and a recurring injury to his right shoulder. Healthy this season, Martinez has missed only one start—because of an injured finger—on his way to establishing an 11-1 record. Said the Expos’ centre fielder and best

base-stealer, Otis Nixon, a self-declared recovering cocaine abuser: “We got a lot of hungry guys on this ball club. It makes success all the more sweet when you have paid your dues.” Although the team’s performance is firmly anchored by stars including Raines, third baseman Tim Wallach and power-hitting first base-

man Andrés Galaragga, a key element of the club’s success has been the contribution of its journeymen players. In a July 22 game with Cincinnati, the Expos overcame a 5-1 deficit in the ninth inning to win after utility infielders Rex Hudler and Damaso Garcia-—the former Blue Jays star who missed the 1988 baseball season with a knee injury—hit three-run and two-run homers respectively. Hudler, who until last year had spent most of his career in the New York Yankee farm system, ran into the dugout after the home run with tears in his eyes.

The presence of such players as Hudler and Nixon, who was released by the Cleveland Indians, has instilled a sense of cohesion in the team’s clubhouse that has made the team one of the most harmonious in the league. Players say that not even the arrival of the high-priced but low-key Langston has upset the atmosphere. Said Smith: “As far as chemistry goes, this is one of the best clubs I have played on.” Added manager Buck Rodgers: “We have a lot of guys on their second, third and even fourth chances. There are no egotistical superstars here.”

Players and team officials give much of the credit for turning the Expos into a division leader to David Dombrowski, 33, the youngest general manager in major-league baseball. According to Brochu, after the Expos’ mediocre 1988 season, Bronfman gave the club’s management a mandate to “do what you have to do to give us a [pennant] contender.” That task fell to Dombrowski, who spent nine years working his way up in the Chicago White Sox organization before moving to the Expos. Dombrowski went to work trading for such established veterans as pitcher Gross and the currently injured shortstop Spike Owen, whose excellent defensive play and clutch hitting have won him a large following of admirers in Montreal.

Still, Dombrowski’s greatest accomplishment was the acquisition of Langston for three of the Expos’ top young pitchers. Dombrowski has since strengthened the Expos’ bullpen by trading three minor-leaguers for former Atlanta Braves pitcher Zane Smith, an established starter who was floundering with the last-place Braves. For his part, Nixon praises the Expos organization for making their players feel welcome in Montreal. Nixon, a native of Evergreen, N.C., is one of about a dozen Expos who take French lessons provided by the club to help the players function in predominantly French-speaking Montreal.

The Expos give every indication that they will win the division title and perhaps even win back Montreal’s jaded baseball fans. Said Bryn Smith: “This is the chance, the chance of a lifetime. You do not want to blow it.” For many of the Expos, there is an added incentive. Despite Dombrowski’s assertion that the Expos are a team of “young veterans,” many of the club’s more seasoned players—including Smith and Raines—know that this may be their last chance for a trip to the World Series, and they are determined to take it.

DAN BURKE in Montreal