Andre Dawson was elected to the Hall this week.
Gary Carter wears an Expos cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.
January 8, 2010
Montreal Expos, Forgotten by Many, Are Reuniting in Cooperstown
By TYLER KEPNER
There is an episode of “Newhart,” the 1980s sitcom set at a lodge in Vermont, in which George the handyman considers which baseball team to root for. The Montreal Expos were somewhat local, but they would not do.
“I can’t figure out their hats,” he said. “I mean, is it an ‘M’ or are they trying to spell out Expos?”
Such was the plight of the Expos, baseball’s mystery team from 1969 through 2004. They had erratic fan support, a bubbly M on their caps and a furry orange mascot with an exclamation point on his jersey (Youppi!). They also had an ever-flowing pipeline of talent that continues to make an impact.
This week’s election of Andre Dawson to the Hall of Fame is further evidence of the continuing influence of Canada’s first major league team. Gary Carter wears an Expos cap on his Cooperstown plaque and Tim Raines appears on the Hall of Fame ballot, on which Larry Walker will make his debut in December.
“Their legacy was how well they went through the draft and were able to bring players up through their minor league system,” Dawson said Thursday after slipping on a Hall of Fame jersey in a news conference at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. “They had a lot of talented players.”
The Cy Young winners Randy Johnson, who was developed by Montreal, and Pedro Martinez, who thrived there after a trade, seem destined for induction into the Hall. Modern All-Stars like Jason Bay, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Javier Vazquez were drafted by the Expos.
Carter, now the baseball coach at Palm Beach Atlantic University, is something of an orphan at the Hall of Fame, a member without a sponsor. The Expos are now the Washington Nationals, but the Expos’ history is not acknowledged at Nationals Park.
“That’s really the sad part,” Carter said. “At least recognize and embrace the fact that they were in Montreal for 36 years.”
His former teammates can relate. Steve Rogers spent his 13-year career with Montreal, won an All-Star Game there and threw a shutout to clinch the team’s only playoff series victory, in the 1981 divisional round. But there is nowhere to go for Old-Timers’ Day.
“I felt so bad for the players that were there at the end, when they’d announce a crowd of 2,500 and you might have been lucky to have 250,” said Rogers, who now works for the players union. “So when they did move, with all the promise in Washington, I was thrilled for them. Yet at the same time, for anyone who played in the halcyon days of the Expos’ franchise, all of a sudden it was, ‘Hey, where’s my team?’ ”
The Expos were on pace for 105 victories in 1994 before a strike ended the season in August. That left the 1981 team as the only one to reach the postseason. The Expos lost to the Dodgers in the decisive fifth game of the National League Championship Series.
Jerry Manuel, the Mets’ manager, was on second base as the tying run when the series ended. He later spent six years as an Expos coach.
“When I came over there and saw all those players, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a different level here,’ ” Manuel said. “I was an extra player, and I would sit there and watch those guys on a daily basis, and it was unbelievable.”
The talent extended to the front office at Olympic Stadium, which bred several top-level executives, including Alex Anthopoulos of Toronto, Larry Beinfest of Florida, Dave Dombrowski of Detroit, Neal Huntington of Pittsburgh, Omar Minaya of the Mets and Frank Wren of Atlanta.
Dan Duquette constructed the bulk of the 1994 Expos. He said Charles Bronfman, the team’s original owner, emphasized scouting as the best way for his team to compete.
“The guiding principle was to champion the player-development operation,” Duquette said. “People that were in scouting and player development knew that their work was going to count in the major leagues, because that was the source of players for the team.”
There were misses, of course. Bronfman’s command to swap prospects for veterans in 1989, his final year as owner, led the Expos to trade Johnson for four months of Mark Langston. In 1992, the Expos passed on Derek Jeter, taking the college pitcher B. J. Wallace, who never made the majors. But more often, there were well-rounded stars like Dawson and Raines, Ellis Valentine and Tim Wallach, Walker and Vladimir Guerrero, standout athletes promoted from within.
“Every year, it seemed like we would bring someone up who stuck around for six or eight years,” Rogers said. “The philosophy they implemented through the minor league system was speed. They absolutely believed in having base-stealing speed and extra-base speed and the pressure that put on the opponent.”
The Expos sought players who ran, but put them on the most unforgiving turf in baseball. (Dawson and Carter have each had 12 knee operations.) The retractable roof at Olympic Stadium ultimately did not work. There were distracting shadows in the outfield, a track encircling parts of foul territory and space heaters in the dugouts.
Dawson said the fans were polite and appreciative, and the Expos ranked no lower than fourth in the league in attendance from 1979 through 1983.
“A lot of the fans weren’t quite knowledgeable about the game; they would make comments like, ‘What time is the match today?’ ” Dawson said. “But for the most part, they were learning the game and they enjoyed it. I really had a wonderful time there.”
The missing piece, Dawson said, was the inability to lure a top free agent. Reggie Jackson considered a five-year, $5 million offer in 1976, but decided he could not play in Canada. Players like Rusty Staub and Carter learned to speak French, but others disliked the hassle. The Hall of Fame has not yet consulted with Dawson, who played 11 seasons for the Expos and 6 for the Cubs, about which cap he will wear for posterity. The museum makes the final decision, and Carter said he hoped Dawson would go in as a Cub so an existing organization could celebrate his career. If that happens, Carter is prepared to carry the banner alone.
“I enjoyed my time up in Montreal,” he said. “I’m very proud that emblem is on my Hall of Fame plaque.”