Sunday, March 23, 2008
Updated: April 4, 6:29 PM ET
1980 Expos: The team of the '80s
By Jonah Keri
Special to Page 2
When the Montreal Expos' feverish run at the NL East title fell two games short in 1979, it ended a summerlong joyride.
This was the first great season for a 10-year-old expansion team, one that captivated the entire city before ending in disappointment. The team didn't spend much time dwelling on its missed opportunity, though. Armed with the best young core of talent in baseball, a winning manager in Dick Williams and a still-new ballpark that was starting to pack in big crowds, the Expos seemed destined for greatness -- so much so that the baseball world dubbed them the Team of the '80s.
Like many great teams, the Expos were largely a product of their farm system. Years of futility left the team with perennial high draft choices. High draft picks are no guarantor of success -- just ask the post-Barry Bonds Pirates. But the Expos of the late 1970s built a well-deserved reputation as one of the best in the game at drafting and developing premium young talent. As the '80s got under way, the team's five best hitters and five top starting pitchers had all come up through the Expos organization. Six of their eight lineup regulars were 26 or younger; four of those five starting pitchers were 23 or younger.
Hall of Famer Gary Carter was the face of the franchise. The Kid turned 26 in 1980, making his third All-Star team that year and finishing second in MVP voting. This was one of the best all-around catchers of all time, just entering his prime. Carter remembers coming up through the Montreal system with power-hitting third baseman Larry Parrish and a slew of other future Expos. By the time the team moved into Olympic Stadium in 1977 and hired Williams to run the team, the Expos were on their way to better things.
|Andre Dawson finished second in the NL MVP voting twice during his Expos days.|
"Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, Tim Raines, Warren Cromartie, Tim Wallach, Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson, David Palmer -- so many great players came through the farm system," Carter said in a recent interview. "By the time the '79 season was over, maturity had set in. We believed we had a great chance to win."
The Expos appeared ready to make good on that potential in 1980. Dawson, a ball-hawking center fielder and a terror on the base paths before his knees eventually betrayed him, enjoyed a breakout season, with a .308 average, 87 RBIs, 34 steals and his first Gold Glove. Valentine missed nearly half the season (including more than a month after getting hit in the face with a pitch), foreshadowing his eventual washout from the game, but he still hit .315/.367/.525. Veteran Steve Rogers and 23-year-old Sanderson anchored the staff, and Gullickson had a big rookie season at age 21. Forty-year-old Woodie Fryman defied Father Time, posting a 2.25 ERA and yielding just one homer in 80 innings as the team's closer. The team seemed to have the perfect blend of youth, experience, hitting, defense, speed and pitching. With the Pirates regressing after their 1979 World Series run, opportunity knocked.
The team spent 67 days in first place in the NL East. On Sept. 16, with less than three weeks to go in the season, the Expos led by 2.5 games. The second-place Phillies took two out of three at Veterans Stadium, leaving the Expos with a half-game lead and six games to play. The teams were tied heading into the final series of the season: Expos-Phillies, three games at the Big O, two out of three wins it. The atmosphere was insane, as more than 57,000 fans packed the park for the first game. Mike Schmidt, forever the Expos' biggest nemesis, smacked a homer off Sanderson that provided the margin of victory in a 2-1 game. The Expos looked primed to even the series the next night, only to blow a one-run lead in the ninth. In the 11th, Schmidt broke Montreal fans' hearts for good, smoking a two-run shot to give the Phillies the division title.
"That made it two years in a row going down to the last Saturday of the season, only to lose out to teams that went on to win the World Series," said Dave Van Horne, the play-by-play man for the Florida Marlins who previously spent 32 years as the voice of the Expos.
Even after those losses, everyone expected the Expos to start winning pennants soon. "These were pretty giddy days," Van Horne added. "You had 2 million plus fans coming out, at a time when those were big numbers for a major league club. These were the halcyon days of the Expos."
The summer labor stoppage of 1981 threatened to wash out the season. When play resumed, the Expos stood in third place in the division, four games out. But rather than simply crown a division winner, as normal, MLB decided to split the season in two. The move gave the Expos a reprieve. The team's 30-23 post-strike record clinched the second-half NL East crown, sending the Expos into an unprecedented division series matchup with the Phillies. Montreal got its revenge, knocking out Philly in five games and setting the stage for an NLCS battle with the Dodgers. By now, the Expos had added Raines, a dynamic rookie who hit .304 with a .391 on-base percentage and 71 steals in just 88 games, falling just short to Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela for Rookie of the Year honors. As it turned out, neither Valenzuela nor Raines, Dawson, Carter or any of the other stars on the two teams would decide the series.
Tied 1-1 heading into the ninth inning of deciding Game 5, manager Jim Fanning (Williams had been fired in early September) tapped Rogers to come out of the bullpen instead of new relief ace Jeff Reardon. Rogers set down the first two hitters. But facing Rick Monday, a 35-year-old pinch-hitting specialist pressed into starting duty late in the series, Rogers left a pitch out over the plate -- and Monday crushed it over the center-field wall. The Dodgers held on to win, and the Expos' hearts were broken again. The incident would go on to become the most infamous event in team history, known simply as Blue Monday.
"To see these young teams come down to the wire only to fall short three years in a row really stung a lot," Van Horne said. "I remember a very sobering moment, talking to club president John McHale the week after it happened. I had never seen him look so drained and so down. He said to me: 'You just don't realize how difficult it is to get to the World Series, let alone win a World Series. Those opportunities only come along once in a great while.'"
1980 EXPOS AT A GLANCE
Record: 90-72, 2nd in NL East
Runs scored: 694, 4th in NL
Runs allowed: 629, 3rd in NL
Gary Carter, 26 (.264/.331/.486); Andre Dawson, 25 (.308/.358/.492); Ellis Valentine, 25 (.315/.367/.524); Warren Cromartie, 26 (.288/.345/.430)
Steve Rogers, 30 (16-11, 2.98 ERA); Scott Sanderson, 23 (16-11, 3.11); Bill Gullickson, 21 (10-5, 3.00); David Palmer, 22 (8-6, 2.98); Charlie Lea, 23 (7-5, 3.72)
Carter and Dawson led a young lineup, with Tim Raines and Tim Wallach ready to reach the majors in 1981. The farm system kept churning out arms; all four starters behind Rogers were 23 or younger.
What went wrong
1. Valentine and Cromartie. 1980 was Valentine's last productive year; Cromartie never did develop power.
2. Injuries and stagnation. Palmer missed all of 1981 and 1983 (and most of '82) after elbow surgeries. Gullickson and Sanderson were quality starters, but didn't get better.
3. Middle infield. Rodney Scott (and then Doug Flynn) and Chris Speier were black holes.
4. Bad trades. Sanderson traded after 1983 for Gary Lucas. Larry Parrish for Al Oliver was a short-term push but long-term dud.
That winter, baseball's cognoscenti still saw the Expos as a can't-miss team. With three cliffhanger losses under the team's belt, outsiders figured it was just a matter of time before Montreal broke through.
But McHale's laments were felt elsewhere in the organization. Seeking to shake up the roster, the Expos traded Parrish and prospect Jeff Hostetler to Texas for veteran first baseman Al Oliver. Many observers saw Parrish as the heart and soul of the team and wondered how the deal might affect team chemistry. But whatever intangibles might have been lost were more than regained on the field: Oliver led the league in batting average and RBIs, and Parrish's replacement at third, Wallach, cranked 28 homers in his first full season.
Strictly by the numbers, the Expos were a very good team in 1982. Their 697 runs scored against 616 runs allowed gave the team an expected won-lost record of 90-72, a mark that would've equaled their 1980 record and placed them within striking distance of the Cardinals for the division crown. Oliver, Rogers, Reardon and Carter enjoyed monster seasons. The All-Star Game also was held in Montreal, with four of the nine starting spots going to Expos. Hard as it is to believe a quarter-century later, the Expos enjoyed a reputation of excellence similar to what the Red Sox have now.
But for their talent and all the accolades, the Expos never broke through. The '82 team finished a disappointing third in the East, winning 86 games. Montreal failed to click the next season under new manager Bill Virdon, dropping to 82-80. By then, the middle infield was aging and unproductive, Rogers was approaching his mid-30s, and the youth movement that once galvanized the team was fading away. In 1984, the Expos dipped below .500, with the likes of Angel Salazar (.155/.178/.201 in his brief stint as the starting shortstop), Doug Flynn (.243/.267/.281 as the starting second baseman) and, yes, 43-year-old Pete Rose, polluting the roster. That offseason, the Expos shocked the baseball world by dealing Carter to the Mets. Although Hubie Brooks, Floyd Youmans, Mike Fitzgerald and Herm Winningham provided a decent return (the Expos actually won six more games in '85), the Carter trade still signaled the end of the road for the Team of the '80s.
|Blue Monday: The Dodgers' Rick Monday hits his game-winning home run in the 1981 NLCS.|
"By the time '84 came around, we were in fifth place," Carter reflected. "[Expos owner Charles] Bronfman took the same kind of approach with me that the Pirates did with Ralph Kiner -- if the Expos can finish in fifth place with Gary Carter, they can do the same without him. I was disappointed. I thought I'd be an organization guy, with the same team for my entire career."
So what prevented the Expos from winning a World Series, let alone building a dynasty? The talent was there, both in the lineup and on the pitching staff. Youth was on their side thanks to the productive farm system, and the team had enough veterans to balance the clubhouse. But there were weaknesses. Rodney Scott started at second base for three seasons and never slugged above .300. Shortstop Chris Speier got old in a hurry. Gullickson, who fanned 18 batters in a game as a rookie, peaked early, never posting a better-than-average ERA in Montreal after age 23. Sanderson couldn't stay healthy. Cromartie never developed the power people expected. Drug abuse brought an untimely end to Valentine's once promising career.
The Expos had golden opportunities three years in a row, falling short at the last moment each time. If they don't lose two straight to Pittsburgh in mid-September of '79 -- one by a single run and the other in extra innings -- maybe "We Are Family" never happens and Cromartie's leading the city of Montreal in song. If Expos pitchers get a half-inch more sink on two pitches to Schmidt in the final weekend of the 1980 season, maybe Fryman throws his glove over his head instead of Tug McGraw. If Fanning taps his relief ace instead of his top starting pitcher in the ninth inning of the deciding game of the '81 LCS, maybe Nos Amours shoot down the mighty Yankees.
In the end, it might have been a case of bad luck and bad timing more than anything -- just as it was in 1994, when another labor stoppage wiped out the World Series right as the Expos were cresting as the best team in baseball. A decade later, the Expos were dead, shipped off to Washington to take on a new identity.
Many factors conspired to drive the team out of Montreal. But the team's failure to seize the moment when opportunity knocked might have been the most damaging of all.
"That was sort of the demise of the franchise," Carter said. "We didn't win those championships during the prime years, when we had a real chance."
Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can contact him here.
|In 1982, the Expos were the toast of baseball: Hosting the All-Star Game with five All-Stars (from left, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Tim Raines and Al Oliver).|