Why Expos went south; new book looks at glory years

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Jeff Reardon, Warren Cromartie and Gary Carter celebrate playoff win over Phillies in Montreal, Oct 8, 1981. (CP Photo/Andy Clark)

So the Yankees won another World Series. What about that, eh? Hard to imagine that there was a brief moment in time when the Montreal Expos baseball team earned more revenue than the Yankees – that was in the early 80’s, and long before baseball would crash and burn in Montreal. Alain Usereau has a new book about the Expos glory years. After reading the G4S Q+A with Usereau, weigh in with your favorite memories about the Expos and with your opinion about why the team didn’t make it Montreal.

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Montreal Expos players (left to right) Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Tim Raines and Al Oliver pose for a photo before the All-Star game in in Montreal, July 13, 1982. (CP Photo)

If you are a baseball fan in this city, it’s work to remind yourself that you once lived the dream of Major League baseball in this city. Five years after the Expos left to become the Washington Nationals, there’s a hardly a physical reminder that we once had a flourishing team in the city.

But there was.

Alain Usereau revisits the Expos glory years in a new book called L’Époque glorieuse des Expos, published by Les Éditeurs Réunis.  The book revisits the years 1976-1984, with a particular emphasis on 1979-1981.

Here is the G4S interview with Usereau.

G4S: With the World Series just wrapping, and watching former Expos once again taking part, I need to start by asking you about something not directly related to the content of the book. How badly do you miss not having a Major League team in Montreal?

AU: There are two ways to answer that question. If you ask me if I miss the team we had in the last few seasons of existence- a period when the fans were just an afterthought in the mind of whoever was in charge of the Expos – my answer is a definite no. That being said, I miss the overall ambiance of having a baseball team that had a chance to win year-in, year-out. Last week, a Cincinnati columnist wrote that the cost of winning is too high for the Reds. So what happened to the Expos could easily happen again on a larger scale.

G4S: I’ve lost interest in following baseball on a day-to-day basis – which is saying a lot since there was a period in my life where I was fanatical about checking box scores. How have your feelings about the team’s departure changed over the course of the last five years?

AU: Not much. Like I said, I didn’t mind much about the team in the last few years. In fact, when they left, they had been dead for some years in the mind of most fans.

G4S:  In what way was writing this book a kind of grief therapy?

AU: It was a therapy, but not in the way you would think. I began working on it to forget about a relationship that turned sour! So in that regard, it helped. But as for helping me forget the Expos’ departure, no. I never linked the latter day Expos with the teams that are the subject of my book.

G4S:  You say this book was an attempt to discover why a team that had been so successful at one point could stumble so badly and ultimately disappear. What motivated you to pursue this question?

AU: As a teenager, I was fascinated by the Expos. But when you’re young, you tend to idealize your memories. I wanted to address some perceptions I had at the time. I remember clearly my reaction when I heard about the Larry Parrish trade (1982). It didn’t sound right. My research proved to me that my gut feeling was right.

G4S:  Before we talk about what you discovered in researching this book, lets turn the clock back in your own life. You were a tween and then a teen when the Expos played in the years that the book covers. How closely did you follow the team in that era?

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Shortstop Chris Speier, against the Phillies in the spring of 1981, helped distract author Userau from his chores on the farm. (CP Photo/Bill Grimshaw)

AU: Very closely. Claude Raymond (former player and color man)  and Jacques Doucet (play-by-play)  were very much a part of my summers back then,  as much as anything else. In May 1977, I remember having to write a story for homework, and I decided it would be about the good start the Expos had that year. Baseball was also a way to forget the daily grind of working on a farm, to which I wasn’t really suited for.

G4S:  What family members and friends do you remember sharing the experience of following the Expos with?

AU: With friends mostly, but among them,  I was by far the most passionate about the Expos.

G4S: In what way do you think your life was changed because you had a hometown baseball team to cheer for?

AU: Not much. I began to really follow baseball in 1977. I didn’t know any other way. The Expos were part of the sports landscape in Montreal. And remember: until the early 1990s, baseball was the thing to do in summers to keep busy while waiting for the hockey season.

G4S: The book begins in 1976, when the initial bloom is off the rose when it comes to Montrealers’ love affair with the Expos. Attendance at Jarry Park is weak and the team is not very good. But when the team moves to the Olympic Stadium the following year, everything changes. How come?

AU: Management knew they couldn’t afford the same kind of year they had in 1976. They were lucky it happened that year, as Montreal hosted the Olympics, so the Expos’ debacle went almost unnoticed. Also, they were moving across town and  had to fill a 60,000 seat stadium, not a tiny 30,000 seat ballpark. The challenge was different and it was probably the kick in the butt the team needed to go major league both on and off the field.

G4S: When the team moved into the new stadium, the addition of Tony Perez and Dave Cash seemed to give the team a renewed credibility off the field. How important were those two players on the field?

AU: Like you said, they gave instant credibility to a team that desperately needed some. Cash faded after one year and was overrated throughout his career. But Perez really helped the young sluggers coming into their own, especially Larry Parrish, who had very kind words for him.

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Andre Dawson jumps for a Ryne Sandberg ball, late in is career with the Expos. (CP Photo.Bernard Brault)

G4S   I also followed the team closely in that era. It’s when a crop of talented young players like Ellis Valentine, Gary Carter, Larry Parrish and Andre Dawson joined veterans like Woody Fryman to make that team an exciting contender. Looking back, what is it that gave these players so much more personality than we saw in other eras of the team?

AU: First, they had a manager Dick Williams who let the players be what they were… as long as they produced on the field. For example, Ross Grimsley despised the rigid discipline of the Reds. Bill Lee was more “understood”, as if that was possible, in Montreal than in Boston. Also being in Montreal helped. There are worse cities where one can be entertained!!

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Bill (Spaceman) Lee. More "understood" in Montreal? On the mound against the Cubs, April 16, 1979. (CP PHOTO/Chuck Stoody)

G4S: People forget how popular the team was. Regular season attendance topped 2 million, and at one point, the Expos were earning more revenue than the Yankees. Why do you think the team had become so popular?

AU: Winning!! It all comes down to that in pro sports. Add to that the fact that the Habs and Alouettes were going through hard times, and the Expos had the city to themselves. And like you said, the Expos had players that suited their fans: colorful, exciting and winning!!

G4S:  The success on and off the field led to some pretty bold moves by management. At one point they courted Reggie Jackson when he was leaving Oakland. Why weren’t they able to get him?

AU: Montreal was just not big enough for Reggie!

 

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Pitcher Steve Rogers was one of the best to wear an Expos uniform. Some think that manager Dick Williams lost his job because he used Rogers as a pinch runner, and Rogers got hurt. (CP PHOTO/Files/Montreal LaPresse)

 

 

G4S: 1981 was the year they almost won it, but lost to the Dodgers on Blue Monday, a step short of getting to the World Series.  Manager Dick Williams was replaced late in that season by Jim Fanning in a surprise move. I’ve come to understand that President John McHale and the ownership group didn’t believe that Williams could see them through the playoffs. What do you believe was behind that move?

AU: Lack of Wins!! Williams and McHale were as different as “The Odd Couple”, from TV fame. But as long as Williams was winning, there was no problem. But with the Expos not doing as well as expected and Williams being in the last year of his contract, McHale thought this was the time to move.

G4S: The stories about the use of cocaine by members of the Expos in that era are rampant. In fact, Whitey Herzog – a manager with the St Louis Cardinals – would sometimes bring his team for a series only on the day of the first game. That kind of move is almost unheard of, but he wanted to reduce the number if nights his players stayed in Montreal because the partying was too intense. Ultimately, what do you think the impact of the drug use was on the success of the Expos?

AU: Not much quite honestly. Yes, the Expos and some important players used drugs during these years and their play was affected. But were they more harmed than the other teams? I don’t believe so. The four teams that won the World Series from 1979 to 1982 had their share of controversies too!

 

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Some might argue that catcher Gary Carter was the most popular of all the Expos.

 

 

G4S: Despite coming up short in 1981, the Expos continued to draw big crowds in the early 80’s. Why do you think fans still kept coming out?

AU: The Expos were still good on paper. And the attendance figures of 1982 and 1983 were really a response to the team’s success from 1979 to 1981. It happens everywhere: teams’ attendance is greater the year following their success. As for the Expos, the management kept promising the fans a pennant that never happened. After the fiasco of 1982, Bill Virdon was brought in and was immediately touted as a savior. In 1984, the attendance dwindled by 25 per cent. Their patience went to the limit.

G4S: You make the assertion that one of the most damaging baseball moves was the trade of Larry Parrish. Why is that?

AU: Parrish was the ingredient that made the cake hold! He had been part of the organization for close to 10 years, knew how things were done and was happy here. He knew when to have fun but wouldn’t go for stupid stuff at inopportune times. Bill Madlock warned that the Expos would miss Parrish only a month into the season.

G4S: You spoke with veteran sports writer Tim Burke who points to a double header loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in September of 1983 as a turning point for the fortunes of the team in Montreal. I’d never head that before. Why was that loss so crucial to the future of the team?

AU: It was as if the fans were telling the team: here’s your last chance to prove yourself. We’ve been waiting for so long, now we expect results. I agree that the team never recovered from that.

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Most Expos fans who are old enough can remember where they were watching Rick Monday when his game-winning home run in the ninth inning knocked the Expos out of the playoffs on October 19, 1981. (CP PHOTO/MIke Feldman)

G4S:  Many people like to point to the labor problems of 1994 as the beginning of the end for the Expos in Montreal. Others talk about Charles Bronfman’s sale of the team in 1990. Still others pick out Blue Monday and the inability to win in 1981. Your pick is what happens in 1982-84. Why is that?

AU: Expectations were so high. Remember: they were touted as the team of the 1980s. After 1981, they should have been able to contend strongly for some years. But management, in their blind haste for a championship, acted foolishly. The Parrish trade was one example but also bringing players who had no desire to play here. The fans feel that and at some point just said, if you don’t want to play here, why should we care as well?

G4S: You spoke to nearly 100 people in researching the book. Who surprised you the most?

AU: It’s very hard to point somebody in particular. When John McHale called me, I almost dropped the phone, so you can call it a surprise there!! Ron LeFlore told me very interesting stuff, Ray Burris as well. Darren Dilks and Mike Fuentes were very interesting people to talk to, as was Bob James. Tim Burke and Serge Touchette were also very good among writers.

G4S: You set you to find out how something so good could go so bad. If I asked you to answer that in a couple of sentences, what would you say?

AU: The Expos got away from what they did best: building from within. They went outside the organization to find solutions that were probably already right there.

G4S: What kind of personal transformation did you go through in writing this book?

AU: I have more of an artistic mind, with everything that comes with it, so I really had to be more rigorous in how I prepared the interviews and dug into newspapers.

G4S:  In what way do you hope to change the way people think about baseball and the Expos?

AU: Good question. I really hope that will open the eyes of sports fans here who think that the Habs are everything. There was a time when the Expos were the toast of the country and there’s no reason why another sports team couldn’t be as popular.

Alain

Alain Usereau, author.

Alain Usereau revisits the Expos glory years in a new book called L’Époque glorieuse des Expos, published by Les Éditeurs Réunis.  The book revisits the years 1976-1984, with a particular emphasis on 1979-1981.

You can order the book at http://www.Renaudbray.com   or   http://www.Amazon.ca

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8 responses to “Why Expos went south; new book looks at glory years

  1. You have to take out 4 guys with 4 bullets during a breach to get it.
    Evven the dirtiest of discs cann be repaired with a cleaning product.
    Pick off the third and wait forr Price and Soaap to clear the building.

  2. I wear an Expo’s hat when I go to a minor league game and folks are always sayin’, “Great hat”. I agree. Played for them in the minors with Dawson. Great memories.

  3. Pingback: Major links dump, Volume 1

  4. Five years after the team left, still lots of interest in Nos Amours. can’r wait to read this book and the new Jacques Doucet/Marc Robitaille one.

    In case you missed it, check out the discussion panel (1 hr, 19 mins) I moderated at Concordia featuring Michael Barrett, Dave Van Horne, Serge Touchette, & Elliott Price. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSyCu5b_UYs

  5. I look forward to reading Mr. Usereau’s book. After coming heartbreakingly close to winning the division in 1979 and 1980, the 1981 division winning season may not have been a true reflection of the team’s worth. It’s important to remember that the Expos’ division championship that year was based on a 50-game season following the players’ strike. A major league season is 162 games long and is a true measure of a team’s strength over a 6-month period. Would the Expos have made the post-season under those conditions? We’ll never know.

    Having said that, we will also never know whether or not the Expos would have defeated the Dodgers had Dick Williams not been replaced by Jim Fanning. But having won two World Series with Oakland and an American League Championship with the Red Sox, you can certainly make an argument that he might have been more suited to managing in the post-season than Fanning was.

    Had Fanning not won the split-season in 1981, I certainly don’t think that he would have been at the helm in 1982, which was the year that fans started to wonder about ‘The Team of the ’80’s’. The Wallace Johnson experiment, the Rodney Scott and Bill Lee situations may all have been handled differently by a manager with more experience. In other words, as great as the 1981 season felt, it may have been more costly than anything else in providing a true evaluation of the team’s strengths and weaknesses.

    One more note about Jim Fanning: unfortunately, I feel that too many fans associate him with Steve Rogers giving up the home run to Rick Monday. I feel that is very unfair. Remember the context: Rogers had almost singlehandedly won the two games in which the Expos beat Steve Carlton and also won Game 3 of the Dodgers series (not to mention his great performances in September). If he tells his manager that he can give him an inning or two in Game 5 out of the bullpen, you have to go with him, especially when you consider that Jeff Reardon wasn’t healthy.

    In any case, the book certainly looks like it would be a great read for those of us whose summers revolved around the Expos.

    Thanks for the great post.

  6. Unfortunately, I was born in the wrong era. I have followed the Expos for most of my life but I m only 20. I would have to say that my fondest memories would be just going to the stadium as a kid and being able to watch Vlad play ball. I remember 94 but its a bit fuzzy in my mind. Man I miss baseball, the city talks hockey 12 months a year and to be honest in july and august im just not in the mood to hear about what Carey Price ate for lunch..the city is clearly missing something!

  7. (sing:) “Blue Monday…ooohhh, Blue Monday”
    My parents let me skip classes that afternoon to watch the game at home…despite the fact that my Montreal high school actually had multiple television sets on those old-school, wheeled-trolleys in classrooms and hallways throughout. Everyone was watching.

  8. Grew up a west coast Expos fan as a kid…not an easy way to follow you favourite team..never saw them play…my Expos came to be from Dave and Ken. On the Thursday before their final game (@ Shea) I made the best spur-of -the-moment decision of my life…flew to NYC and sat in the stands to watch their last ever. A beautiful fall day in Flushing….planes flying overhead like I had sen so often on TV…. the lineup was not so familiar to me then…no Rusty, no Mayor of Jonesville, no Kid, no Claude, no Hawk, but still, they were my Expos.

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