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Appreciating The Expos
By Jeff Blair
TORONTO--Charles Bronfman paid $10 million to buy an expansion franchise for Montreal in 1968. Thirty-six years later, it took $577,697.95 worth of arbitration to snuff it out.
The last remaining thread connecting the Montreal Expos to the city was cut on November when a three-person arbitration panel based in New York City ruled against a group of businessmen claiming baseball and Jeffrey Loria conspired to remove the team from the city. And among 40 pages of legalese, the phrase "a marriage built on hope, not realism," were used to describe the final ownership crisis that saw the club pass into the hands of Major League Baseball and become a ward of the game.
Fitting words, because it was 'hope' more than anything else that sustained baseball in Montreal after Bronfman announced at the 1989 winter meetings in Nashville that he was selling the club.
That alone is nothing out of the ordinary. Hope is something shared by every baseball fan on Opening Day, and there are fans of some franchises--the Cubs and, until last year, the Red Sox--who in recent seasons have hung on to little else.
But the Expos didn't play in Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. They played at Olympic Stadium, a white elephant built for the 1976 Olympics without any input at all from its only long-term tenant, the Expos. The retractable roof wasn't put on. When it was, it wouldn't retract. So it was left down. And instead of a 'Green Cathedral' where fans could gather to mourn slights of history (Rick Monday's game-winning home run in Game 5 of the 1981 National League Championship Series, the 1994 players' strike at which time the club had the best record in baseball), Expos fans instead watched a team play in a concrete mausoleum that represented the very worst of baseball experiences.
No wonder Monday's homer, the defining moment for the franchise, never acquired the same cache of Bill Buckner's fielding error or, years later, Steve Bartman's ill-advised interference. What started out as a morality play became a slapstick comedy, then morphed into a soap opera and finally a tragedy. Truthfully, a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't dream up half the stuff that happened to the Expos--although actor Jack Scalia was drafted by the club and had his career ruined by an arm injury. (Of note, it was the Expos who were actually the first team to draft Mark McGwire, as a pitcher out of Damien High School in Claremont, Calif., as an eighth-round pick in 1981. "I was almost ready to sign with them," McGwire would later tell the San Francisco Chronicle, "when USC offered me a scholarship. That was too good to turn down. Who knows what would have happened? I might be pitching for the Expos, or I might be washing cars.")
All the while through the 1990's, Expos fans gathered in a park they hated in decreasing numbers, knowing that their ownership was hastily cobbled together out of a sense of community spirit. It was the perfect way to save a franchise and the absolute worst way to run a franchise, because the businessmen involved never wanted to get in beyond their initial investment.
Enter New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria, who came in to replace Claude Brochu as general partner after Brochu's best-laid plans for a new ballpark were scuttled by a provincial government that never cottoned to the notion of a baseball team. Exit Loria and enter Major League Baseball, which ran the club as a ward of the game for its last three years, during which the team’s primary purpose was to ratchet up the cost of relocation to Washington, D.C., and serve as a personal training program for general manager Omar Minaya--who came out of the whole thing better than anyone as general manager of the Mets.
This was the bitter realism of baseball in Montreal. But it wasn't always that way. The Expos were, after all, 'The Team of the 80s,' a swashbuckling group with names like Gary Carter and Andre Dawson and Tim Raines that packed them in at Olympic Stadium. It was a sexy team for a sexy city that famously cut its baseball teeth watching Jackie Robinson break the color barrier as a member of the Montreal Royals (although it was way back in 1897 that the Rochester Jingoes of the Eastern League relocated to the city to give Montreal its first pro franchise), and fell in love with an expansion team composes of the likes of Rusty Staub, Mack Jones, Bill Stoneman, John Boccabella and Coco Laboy.
The Team of the ‘80s never won the World Series, but they helped define an era good and bad--former Expos executive Jim Fanning believes drug use was one of the contributing factors to the team’s demise--as well as paving the way for the establishment of the two-time World Series champions Blue Jays. And eventually, it led Bronfman to an epiphany of sorts: the determination that it was time to funnel money into his minor league system.
So first David Dombrowski and scouting guru Gary Hughes and then Dan Duquette drafted and signed players, a roll-call of which sounds like a player development director's dream--names such as Randy Johnson, Marquis Grissom, Delino DeShields, Larry Walker, Cliff Floyd and Rondell White. (Regular readers of Baseball America would come to know the players as family.) Dombrowski would trade Johnson for Mark Langston because he knew Bronfman wanted one last kick at a title. The move flopped, but it was Duquette, in particular, who traded for unfinished products such as John Wetteland, Ken Hill and a string-bean righthander named Pedro Martinez and turned them all over to Felipe Alou, a sage who was the first-ever native of the Dominican Republic to manage a major league team.
Duquette was a 'Moneyball' guy before the phrase existed, employing the zany Mike Gimbel as an advisor before the Athletics put a patent on the idea. Duquette liked on-base percentage and power pitching, which is how he explained away what must be the best trade in club history, sending DeShields to the Dodgers for Martinez. It also explained his affection for players such as Frank Bolick. Duquette also liked the idea of being GM of the Red Sox, so he left and gave way to the well-intentioned Kevin Malone, who was followed by Jim Beattie, Larry Beinfest and then, finally, Minaya.
All those natural resources--and so little to show for it. True, the club would profit for recycled commodities such as Dennis Martinez and Otis Nixon and--for one blessed year--the redoubtable Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, but in the end it was the player development system that people most often associate with the Expos.
Stoneman, who like Dombrowski and Beinfest went on to win World Series rings as GM's of other organizations, said it well this summer on the 10th anniversary of the 1994 team: "We were a team that a lot of lifelong baseball people found easy to like. I don't know how many times that year I'd have scouts who'd been in the game forever come up to me about what a good, young team it was. That's what really stuck with me."
Malone, who when players returned from the 1994 strike was charged with the task of trading away Hill, Wetteland and Grissom within a 48-hour period in order to bring the Expos payroll in line, had a ring designed for that 1994 team that had the phrase “Land of Opportunity” inscribed on it. But the ring was never struck, Malone says, because Brochu was not interested--because he wanted, in Malone's words, "to turn the page."
This was a resilient organization from the start. Loria, the winner in the aforementioned arbitration hearing against a group of Quebec and Canadian businessmen, wasn't the first owner to find out that he couldn't count on his local partners to ante up the necessary funds to keep a team running. Bronfman also had to increase his original investment because some faint-hearted partners pulled out.
Funny how things come around in baseball, isn't it? Tears were shed on Sept. 29, when the Expos played their last-ever home game at Olympic Stadium. Three months earlier, Expos fans of a certain age doubtless also shed tears when they heard news of the death of Mack Jones--who preceded even Staub as the first most popular Expos player, and had the left-field bleachers dubbed “Jonesville” in his honor at old Jarry Park.
The Mayor of Jonesville never lived to see the last-ever home game played by a Montreal team. But among those fans who did, few could be surprised if they were honest with themselves. For the truth is, it had been years since baseball in Montreal was about anything other than hope--hope that became fainter and fainter with each passing day, until it was extinguished for good with the stroke of a lawyer’s pen.
Jeff Blair, who covered the Expos for nine years for The (Montreal) Gazette, covers baseball for the Globe and Mail.