Triumph & Tragedy: The 1994 Montreal Expos
Watched “Triumph & Tragedy: The 1994 Montreal Expos”. Since a) I am the world’s most pathetic Expos fan and nostalgist b) I’m friendly with one of the executive producers and c) actually had a couple of very short talking head clips in the show, figured I should do a brief writeup. Having just finished watching the special, I’m feeling anger and regret (not at the show, but at what happened to the Expos), so this might be brief.
They’re re-airing the show this Friday, August 20 at 4 pm. It’s worth checking out, whether or not you’re an Expos fan. All kinds of interesting stuff about the challenge of running a small-market franchise, how to build a great team, fans’ perspective, etc. DVR it.
A quick additional note before diving in: I tell old Expos stories all the time, and long-time JK.com readers will have heard a few of these stories already. Consider me a senile old man, and please accept my apologies in advance.
–We open with Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, and Montrealers’ reaction to the Jays winning it all, for the second year in a row, no less. The fans and media types interviewed noted that Montreal and Toronto have a big rivalry, so Montrealers were upset and jealous that Canada’s first baseball team never won anything, while the Jays won twice. Maybe it’s because I’m not old enough to remember the Jays’ inaugural season in 1977 and the conflicted feelings that engendered…but I didn’t feel this way. I watched Joe Carter’s home run from Gerts pub at McGill, in downtown Montreal. It was Buck a Blue night. I was very drunk, as were everyone else. I remember running out onto the street and singing O Canada from the roof of a van. And that’s for a team I otherwise didn’t much care for the rest of the year. Had the Expos ever won it all — yeah, I don’t know.
–Sean Berry sighting! Other fantastic random Expos sightings I thoroughly enjoyed: Greg Harris, Bob Sebra, Chris Speier’s mustache, as well as Randy Milligan and Lenny Webster. (Underrated part of that ’94 team – killer role players and a lights-out bullpen. The stars got the ink, but they don’t go 74-40 without that monster supporting cast.)
–Some good stuff about Felipe Alou. You really couldn’t ask for more from a manager than what Alou did in his prime with the Expos. First and foremost, he gave young players a chance to develop, managed personalities well, and put everyone in position to succeed. Hell if I know how to quantify that stuff, but those are the most important tasks a manager faces. Felipe also excelled at handling a pitching staff (pushing the starters when needed while also managing workload effectively) and properly deploying his bullpen. Whenever Alou made a decision that seemed a little curious at times, I’d look at my Expos-loving idiot buddies and touch my nose. We all knew what that meant: Felipe Knows. Always seemed to work out. By the way, Joe Maddon and Felipe Alou are cut from the same cloth, in many ways.
–The Delino Deshields-Pedro Martinez deal was one of a handful of deals Dan Duquette made as GM of the Expos that confused my unenlightened teenage brain. I knew nothing of service time clocks or that stolen bases were overrated, only that Deshields was good right now, and who was this skinny guy we were getting from the Dodgers. The confusion over this deal wasn’t nearly as dramatic as when the Expos traded Andres Galarraga to the Cardinals in the winter of 1991-92 for Ken Hill. The Cardinals had a mediocre French-Canadian pitcher on the roster at the time named Rheal Cormier. We all assumed the team would go get Cormier, the rumors all said they were getting Cormier, we resigned ourselves to the Expos going politics over performance…and then they got Hill instead, a promising right-hander who’d enjoyed a very good ’91 season. Soon after my buddy Elan and I found out, we were walking by each other in the halls at school. We both stopped, looked at each other, and said, “Ken Hill? KEN HILL?!” To this day I still can’t think of Ken Hill without saying his name that way.
Also, both those deals were gigantic successes.
–The reaction to the Pedro trade was driven by the indignant local media. Grown-up Jonah finds it interesting to see the bylines of the writers who bashed the trade, Montreal Gazette stalwarts like Michael Farber and Jeff Blair. Farber was the sportswriter I looked up to more than any other growing up, the one I aspired to be as a kid (he continues to do great work to this day, now at Sports Illustrated). Blair was kind enough to take me under his wing when I interned at the Gazette years later, and is now an e-migo (Twitter handle: @GloBlair). There’s no way I ever become a sportswriter if not for the Expos, and the daily columns from guys like Farber and Blair.
–You can’t stop Pedro Martinez’s 1994 Jheri curls. You can only hope to contain them.
–Matt Vasgersian is probably a fine fellow, and he does his best to narrate the show with feeling. But this is lousy casting. Dave Van Horne, the 32-year voice of the Expos and current voice of the Marlins (he’s now in his sixth decade broadcasting major league games), should have done it. No one knows more about the Expos than DVH, he has a fantastic voice, he wouldn’t botch the French pronunciations like Vasgersian did, and he’s not afraid to express his emotions when discussing the Expos.
I had the privilege of meeting Dave a few times, including in the press box at a Marlins home game (thanks to an invite from recent FanGraphs Live panelist and all-around awesome dude Boog Sciambi, DVH’s broadcast partner at the time). Dave greeted me warmly, opened his wallet, and pulled out a laminated index card. On it was the entire 25-man roster of the ’94 Expos. This was almost a decade later, in another city, in another era. But he kept it right there, next to the picture of his wife and daughter. Dave pulled the card out during last night’s show, looked at it…and got choked up. So did I. DVH was a great talking head, but he should have done the voiceover for the entire hour.
–Back to Dan Duquette for a second. He’s gotten an incredible amount of grief over the years from Red Sox fans. But we’re talking about a guy who traded for Pedro Martinez – TWICE. Leaving aside the Ken Hill deal, Duquette always doing a great job finding hidden gems like Tim Scott and Troy O’Leary etc. – TWICE! PEDRO! Every GM makes mistakes, and Duquette fared better in Montreal than Boston. But let’s not make this guy out to be the Matt Millen of baseball. He did a lot to build winners in two different cities. Not many people can say that.
–Expos fans had all these weird, unique customs. Their main theme song was co-opted by O’Keefe Brewery. I first heard it when I was something like 7 years old, and it still makes me want an O’Keefe Light (a heinous beer by Canadian standards). Even weirder is the way we adopted “The Happy Wanderer” as our go-to song during big rallies.
Who the hell knows why. Maybe the words “Valderi Valdera” are vague enough to be bilingual, making them easy for 50,000 loons (and they did used to draw 50,000 for big games, long ago) to sing along.
–The show did well in analyzing a lot of the reasons behind the Expos’ success, and especially their failure. There was discussion of the Expos ceding the lucrative southern Ontario TV market to the Jays (a crushing blow – former team president Claude Brochu noted that the Expos would take it something like $25,000 a game in TV rights…vs. 10 times that for teams lime the Dodgers). Owner Charles Bronfman selling the team was a killer. So was the exchange rate, which got progressively worse in Canada and dug a deeper hole for the team. And of course the failed attempt to build Labatt Park, a baseball-only stadium that had a perfect location picked out, support from the federal government, and other factors on its side.
The biggest blow was one that rarely gets discussed, so I was pleased to see Triumph & Tragedy do it: The spring training 1995 fire sale, in which new GM Kevin Malone was ordered to dump Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland and Ken Hill in a span of a few days. Also gave MLB Network a chance to show me saying the words “John Wetteland for Fernando Seguignol”, my face curling in disgust at the mere thought. The team was never the same after that — even though, as Expos broadcaster turned Team 990 morning show host Elliott Price noted — you have to spend money to make money, and the Expos could have kept that core together, made a run at the ’95 pennant, and still traded them at the deadline if it didn’t work.
–The other clip of mine was one describing the city’s feeling right after MLB announced the cancellation of the rest of the ’94 season, and the playoffs. They played incredibly sad music, then cut to me looking like MLB had just run over my dog. Bad times.
–For a sprinkle of good times, here are some random scenes that made me burst out in smiles and even laughter:
The opening game from Jarry Park. People hugging, running through the gates, watching from ladders outside the park, wearing 1969 clothes, smoking 1969 cigarettes. I like to imagine Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce moving to Montreal before the 1969 season, with Don Draper wearing hippie clothes, watching Coco Laboy and Mack Jones from Jarry Park. Because I’m crazy.
Baby-faced Cliff Floyd and Rondell White, best buddies and Expos megaprospects, dancing in the dugout.
Any and all Tim Raines footage.
Any and all Larry Walker footage. The mullet, the reflector sunglasses, him hamming it up when the camera panned to he, Alou and Grissom, the Expos’ amazing ’94 outfield. Everything. Walker was superstitious, to the point that he tried to include the number 3 in all his endeavors, from his uniform number to his wedding date. He was also such a down-to-earth guy that he would occasionally stroll over to the right-field wall and talk to young bleacher crazies like me during pitching changes. You already know that I’m an advocate for Raines making the Hall of Fame. Walker’s numbers compare favorably to some fantastic players, even after stripping out the effects of Coors Field. Anyone who wants to start a Larry Walker for Hall of Fame campaign, I’m with you.
The classic highlight from The Curtis Pride Game.
Johnny Elias talking about the team. Elias was listed as simply “Expos fan.” But those in Montreal know that he’s a local sports institution who’s served just about every role imaginable on the Montreal sports scene. My favorite: He refereed a few of my basketball games…and also my dad’s.
Some of the random stats, including the Expos leading the National League in wins from 1979 to 1982 and being among the attendance leaders around that time.
Seeing Dave Van Horne and Ken Singleton (he was a smooth-voiced color commentator in the booth for the ‘Spos before becoming a smooth-voiced play-by-play man for the Yankees).
Tom Foley, the former Expos utility infielder extraordinaire turned Rays third-base coach, talking about the ’94 Expos while wearing a Rays hat. Full circle!
The ’94 All-Star Game, in which Moises Alou knocked in Tony Gwynn with a double in extra innings to win it for the National League. That All-Star team was stuffed with Expos, and that game was probably the peak moment for that season, given its lack of conclusion. Right before the All-Star Game, I followed the Expos on a West Coast swing that included a bloody sweep of the Padres in San Diego. The ‘Spos absolutely mashed their expansion cousins and continued their push toward the best record in baseball. This was a month before the strike. I can remember standing in Jack Murphy Stadium, absolutely sure this team was going to win the World Series.
Former Expos pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, talking about the brotherhood of that ’94 team, and how any time players, coaches or anyone else from that team sees another, the nostalgia flows like wine.
John McHale Jr., son of the Expos’ first team president, saying he kept checking the Expos’ place standings after the team moved to D.C. Yup. Me too.
–Poignant stuff that struck a chord and/or made me angry:
Any shot of Jeffrey Loria.
Shots of men, women and little children crying their eyes out at the last Expos home game in 2004 (Brad Wilkerson too, skip to the 54-second mark in this clip – followed immediately by a shot of Bud Selig opining about the realities of the game. Nearly threw my TV out the window.
Mike Schmidt’s devastating home run in the 11th inning of the deciding game of the 1980 season. The Expos lost the NL East to the Phillies by a single game that year. Schmidt is probably the greatest third baseman of all-time, so he crushed a lot of teams. But that guy just destroyed the Expos.
Rick Monday’s home run off Steve Rogers to win Game 5 of the 1981 NLCS. Van Horne introduced me to Monday in the press box at Dodger Stadium during a Marlins-Dodgers game. “Pleasure to meet you,” Monday chirped, friendly as can be. “Wish I could say the same,” I replied, staring holes through his skull. DVH explained to Monday that I was an Expos fan whose first memory was of his $^^$@^$#%^@$^ homer. This still did not explain the murderous look I gave him. My whole Rick Monday hatred thing is probably especially confusing to older baseball fans, who remember him fondly for this:
Grissom, Walker, Wetteland and Hill all playing in the 1995 playoffs for other teams. Never even occurred to me until they showed the Braves, Rockies, Yankees and Indians clips. Oy.
–Stuff that bears mentioning, for the record:
Don Fehr looked exactly the same in 1981 (when the Expos were prominently involved in a strike season) and 1994 (when the Expos were prominently involved in a strike season). He was right both times, particularly in ’94. The strike ostensibly happened because the Yankees and Expos (and Brewers, etc.) couldn’t agree on how to share revenue. Thought that was well stated, if an unpopular opinion to show.
The special also showed footage of Quebec Premier Bernard Landry making an unpopular but spot-on statement – that the province had better use for tens of millions of dollars then building a stadium for wealthy owners. It’s painful to lose a baseball team, but what the city needed was a well-heeled and committed ownership group, not the usual extortion in the name of promised financial benefits that never come to fruition. For more on this phenomenon, see also, Big O, $1 billion in taxpayer money.
–Finally, I thought the ending was well-done. They interviewed Dan Friedberg, one of several jilted Expos fans who appeared on camera. After the Expos left, Friedberg said, people would always ask him what team he now roots for. Even with the team dead and gone, his answer never changed.
“What team am I fan of?” he said defiantly. “The Expos.”