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Sports

April 8, 2014

A Team Lost but Hardly Forgotten

Grantland's Jonah Keri chronicles the story of his favorite team—the ill-fated Montreal Expos.

Alex Eidman

It's been a decade now since the Montreal Expos have played baseball, and I don't begrudge fans who have simply forgotten about them. But during their five-decade existence, the Expos left an indelible mark on baseball. Infamous trades, a controversial mascot, and a boondoggle of a stadium didn't prevent the Expos from attracting plenty of diehards.

Jonah Keri
"You get into the stadium and there's an Oompah band and a beer garden. It was very Montreal—there was no other stadium that had this."

Jonah Keri

After spending the first 30 years of his life as an Expos fanatic, Jonah Keri—Montreal native, Grantland baseball columnist and occasional Gelf guest—is well qualified to offer an inside look at the team that first brought Major League Baseball to Canada.


His new book—Up Up and Away: The Kid, The Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grande Orange, Youppi, The Crazy Business of Baseball and the Ill-Fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos—reads as part oral history, part personal remembrance. It is also an exhaustive and hilarious examination of one of baseball's most colorful franchises.

Keri spoke on the phone to Gelf about his surprising interview with Cliff Floyd, the wonders of Olympic Stadium, and the possibility of baseball coming back to Montreal. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Did you know you were always going to write this book, and it was just a matter of when?

Jonah Keri: Not at all. I didn't even think I would write an Expos book until my editor proposed it. He's an American who went to McGill in the late '90s and became a big Expos fan. He and I used to post on the same Expos message board at that time. A bunch of years later, I got an email from someone at Random House saying, "You don't know me but I was bullpencoach on the Expos fan board. Now I'm an editor at Random House. Come write a book for me."
I couldn't believe it. I thought it was a prank. But it wasn't, and that became my first solo book, The Extra 2%. I go to Toronto to do some publicity for the book and he says, "OK, now it's time to do an Expos book." I thought, "That's a cool opportunity, but who the hell is gonna read an Expos book?" And so, half in jest, he said, "OK, we'll give it to [longtime Expos beat writer for the Montreal Gazette] Jeff Blair. And I, half-offended, said "Not Jeff Blair!" And that was how it started. I thought if it turned out to not sell that well but was a touching eulogy to the Expos franchise—that would be fine.

Gelf Magazine: You talked to many players and coaches. Did you have a favorite interview?

Jonah Keri: I arranged to meet Cliff Floyd at a coffee shop in Miami. I am not the most punctual person, but for these interviews I did my best to be on time. After 25 minutes he's still not there and I'm starting to get a little cheesed off. Then, a Bentley pulls up—this is at 9:30 in the morning on a Thursday. I thought, "Here comes this hotshot former ballplayer in his Bentley." And shame on me for thinking that, because for the next two hours, we had one of the best conversations I've ever had in my life. He had so much insight—he was so smart, funny, and self-aware.
This didn't make it in the book, but he was telling me about rehabbing a gruesome wrist injury, and if he could pronate it one millimeter, that was progress for the day. We were both tearing up—it was really special. The only one that might be on par or better than that was Felipe Alou—but I expected great things out of Felipe because he's kind of this Yoda figure. But Floyd was phenomenal.

Gelf Magazine: Did most players have fond memories of their time in Montreal?

Jonah Keri: Many of them said that playing in Montreal was the best time of their career, and, in some cases, the best time of their lives. Firstly, if you're a 21-year-old good-looking athlete living in downtown Montreal, you're gonna have a great time. But beyond that, black players, Latin players, they all talked about how cosmopolitan the city was, how comfortable they felt—they could interact in whatever language they wanted and people just gave them their space. The culture, the food—they really dug it.
When some US media outlets would report on the Expos, they'd usually start by mentioning that there were 3,000 fans at the game, and then they'd find the most inflammatory quote they could about someone not liking the team. One that I recount in the book is [former Expos pitcher] Bryn Smith, commenting that he couldn't get ketchup with his French fries, only gravy. Which simply isn't true—you can find ketchup in any depanneur (Quebec's version of a convenient store) in Montreal. You never heard about so-and-so getting into a brawl or getting arrested. It was a really loving atmosphere. You could literally pull up a chair at a bar and talk to Bill Lee—it was cool.

Gelf Magazine: Would you say Ellis Valentine is one of the all-time what-if players?


Jonah Keri: No doubt. He was a very interesting interview, too—I asked him pretty pointed questions and he did not flinch. He didn't remember some of the stories I told in the book, he was so blacked-out—I got them from other people. He's at peace with it all now—27 years sober and a pillar of his community. So part of my job was to tell the stories, but also to figure out why. Was he just a stupid young kid with a lot of talent who did a lot of coke?
What he said was that it was more than that—three or four women at a time, going to bed at 10 am—he was on the extreme party axis. He certainly took the blame, but he also acknowledged the lack of black mentors and role models available to him in Montreal, which was really interesting and something I never considered. He said when he was in Double—or Triple-A, Larry Doby was his manager—and Doby really took him under his wing. Valentine was really talented, so he came up quickly and was already starting to show his proclivities. And Doby said, "There's a time for this, and a time for that." He didn't have that in Montreal—the only person who seemed to have deep concern for Valentine was [former Expos GM] John McHale, which is very interesting, because McHale was this deeply Christian man. When Valentine got hit in the face and ended up in the hospital, McHale was by his bedside holding his hand. Maybe if McHale was 20 years younger and a different skin color, maybe Ellis Valentine's career goes in a different direction.

Gelf Magazine: It's amazing how many players in the book had their careers cut short because their injuries weren't handled properly. Did the Expos have particularly bad luck with this?

Jonah Keri: Unfortunately, that happened to a lot of guys back in those days. Andre Dawson doesn't make the Hall of Fame if he doesn't have a freakish work ethic. He messed up his knee badly in high school. Then he goes and plays on concrete for a decade, which was terrible for him. But he was doing thigh bands and Nautiluses at ungodly hours in the morning. He was the first guy on the training table—he was a zealot about that stuff.
The problems were exacerbated with the Expos outfielders because all the running on that turf really wore you down. Pitchers were another case. Balor Moore was one of their first draft picks—very talented, scouted by the same guy who took Nolan Ryan. Moore was a hard-throwing, left-handed Texan. In his case, he had an ankle injury that he didn't get to rest. He kept playing winter ball, overcompensated with his delivery, messed his arm up, and ruined his career. Now he doesn't sound like a major figure in Expos history, but there's a reason for that—because he never got to fill even a little bit of his potential.

Gelf Magazine: Lots of people know the Bronfman family's affiliation as the first owners of the Expos, but I think aside from diehards, not many are familiar with Claude Brochu. Can you assess his legacy?

Jonah Keri: Brochu was a liquor salesman. He worked for Bronfman, and Bronfman trusted him—he didn't think he needed someone who had tons of experience in baseball. In 1986, Brochu became president. They go along and it's fine. As the years go on, Bronfman becomes more disenchanted. He gave Gary Carter a big contract and literally expected him to hit .450 with 80 home runs every year. Carter bled for that team, and that's not a cliché: The guy was a warrior and an outstanding player. Bronfman just got fed up with the business of baseball, even though he had plenty of money to pay players.
So in 1991, Brochu goes to solicit bids, and there's no one interested in buying. So he finally gets a bunch of local businesses to come in and buy the team, each one of which could have purchased the team themselves. They finally went to Raymond Cyr, chairman of telecom giant Bell Canada, to ask for money. I'm picturing a fat-cat robber-baron in a three-piece suit. The guy was actually chomping on a cigar and he said, "I'll give you $5 million, but you can never come to me for money ever again." And you couldn't run a club taking one-time financial commitments from people.
So Brochu took a lot of heat for what happened to the Expos, and some of it is deserved. His biggest failure was after the magical 1994 run was cut short, he lets Larry Walker go with no arbitration offer, and Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland, and Ken Hill are traded away for nothing. Brochu told [Expos GM] Kevin Malone at the start of the '95 season that he had three days to trade everybody. That's a lack of vision—Brochu needed to be more of an advocate for the Expos. Even if they keep the lowest salary cap in baseball, if they hang onto the team, that's a $500-million-to-$600-million property right now. Baseball team valuation has just gone through the roof. Obviously, I didn't have to grind it out—but the bottom line is Brochu couldn't see one year ahead, much less 15. If they had gotten good prospects for those players, which they certainly could have and which is what the A's and the Rays do now, they still would have been good, because they had Pedro and Moises Alou and other talent. But instead the order came down, and it was a firesale.
I don't think he knowingly sabotaged the team—he was just put in a terrible situation, his partners were completely inflexible, and he had no money himself. So I don't blame him completely. But what happened after the '94 season was unconscionable.

Gelf Magazine: How hard was it for fans to recover from what happened in 1994?

Jonah Keri: On a personal note, the season was canceled on September 14. My 20th birthday was on September 20th. For six days, I quit baseball—I was done with it. My girlfriend at the time buys me a Felipe Alou rookie card for my birthday. We hadn't been together long and she's not a sports fan. But she has the wherewithal to know what to get me, and she tells me that I can't give up on them—it's the team I love and the sport I love. I'm literally not a baseball writer if not for that moment; I might not even care about baseball the way I do. Lots of people said Cal Ripken's record or the McGwire-Sosa home-run chase brought them back post-strike—I think for Expos fans the feeling was, "You screwed me one too many times, I'm out." And I don't blame them—in an abusive relationship, the healthiest thing to do is run away. I think if you asked most Expos fans who they root for now, they'd say no one.

Gelf Magazine: Can you give people who have never been there an idea of what Olympic Stadium was like for players and for fans?

Jonah Keri: For a time, it was electric. I was really young at the peak of that time in the early '80s. So I asked other people, and they said it was the biggest party in town. It's funny because the Expos always had really bad timing. In 1994, they're great and the strike happens. Bronfman is a really rich owner but can't figure out that getting zero home runs from your second basemen over a span of six years is not gonna work. So they didn't have a Moneyball-style GM until later, when they get guys like Dombrowski and Duquette who I love, and then they have no money.
But in the early '80s, the timing was perfect because the Canadiens were a pedestrian team coming off a dynasty in the 1970s. Montreal was always a hockey town, but now going to a Habs game wasn't the sexiest thing to do anymore. So you had all these buttoned-up Habs fans now coming to Olympic Stadium. And it became this really exciting place to be. You'd take the metro through this tunnel and you're shoulder to shoulder with all these fans chanting. "Let's go, Expos!" You get into the stadium and there's an Oompah band and a beer garden. It was very Montreal—there was no other stadium that had this. It was a crappy building in a terrible location, but it was still special.
And if circumstances are different and the Expos get a stadium in downtown Montreal, man, you'd have people road-tripping from freaking Bangladesh to go to that stadium.

Gelf Magazine: You're a sabermetric-oriented guy, having written for Baseball Prospectus. Did you appreciate players and managers who were SABR-friendly, or did your baseball fandom exist independent of that?

Jonah Keri: Depends on the era. By the time we get to Frank Robinson, I'm in my late 20s, I've started writing for Baseball Prospectus, and I'm acutely aware of what a horrible manager he is. It's not just the bunting; there are stories of him falling asleep before games. He was checked out and it was a purely ceremonial hire. It's frustrating, because in 2002, they're making a run, and the narrative was, the Expos are this sad-sack franchise, and Frank Robinson revived them. Not so! They have Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, and Javier Vazquez in their primes!
Tim Wallach leads the franchise in a lot of categories, he was a very good player, but he also hit into a lot of double plays. If you look at his WAR, you'll see Tim Wallach was a perfectly fine player, and that's about it. I didn't pick up on that, and it never affected my fandom. You have to get to the late '90s before the two parts of my brain connect. In the late '90s when I'm on the Expos message boards, I'm really being critical of moves, the way you would see on a lot of SABR-oriented sites today.

Gelf Magazine: Can you talk about the Expos-Blue Jays relationship? Was it a rivalry?

Jonah Keri: Not really. They had the Person Cup, which were exhibition games, and interleague play ramped it up a bit.
One of my favorite days was watching Jeff Juden battle his childhood idol, Roger Clemens, in the Skydome. Juden strikes out 14 and beats Clemens at the height of his powers. It was the most Canadian day ever, because after the game my buddy and I sprint two miles to the Molson Amphitheatre to catch the last 45 minutes of a Rush concert. We got there just in time for the Neil Peart drum solo.
The thing that really sticks in people's craws is that the Jays voted to contract the Expos in 2002. You can't justify that. The vote was gonna go pro-contraction anyway, because Selig was browbeating every team, but show some damn solidarity. The vote could go 27-1—Bud Selig's not gonna hold it against you. That really bothered me then, and it still bothers me.

Gelf Magazine: The Expos are famous, or maybe infamous, for trading away future All Stars. Was there one player who cuts the deepest for you?

Jonah Keri: Pedro is up there—he was coming off a Cy Young and hadn't even reached the peak of his powers. But it's not like they broke up a great team or anything. To me, I think it was Walker. Walker was a free-agency situation. I asked him recently if he would have come back, and he said yes, and he would have taken a pay cut. Sometimes those are just words, but in this case, I think it was true. And the worst part is, they don't even offer him arbitration—the opportunity to accept a one-year, below-market deal. Then he comes back to Montreal, and people are booing him. I mean, what the hell is wrong with you, are you crazy?! There was a lot of fact-distorting happening, a very Boston-media-type of situation, and I say that in the worst way possible. Any rudimentary look would have told you that Walker wasn't to blame.

Gelf Magazine: There is a movement afoot to bring baseball back to Montreal. What do you think are the chances of that happening?

Jonah Keri: It's funny when the New York Times is writing these pieces and including me as a purported expert instead of some crazy fan. Even last week—I gave a speech in front of the entire '94 team. I was 19 when the Expos were playing. It's all weird and amazing. I think [former Expo and head of the Montreal Baseball Project] Warren Cromartie's intentions are mostly good, but there's definitely some self-interest there. He's run into some hard times, and this is something he can wrap his arms around, and that's cool. I appreciate the grassroots effort, but they are going to have to get support at high levels.
Three years ago, when I signed the book deal, it was an abstract concept. There wasn't really a cohesive Expos movement, and now there is. I thought it was impossible there would ever be baseball back in Montreal, and it's still a very long shot. You need a billionaire and the approval of Major League Baseball, and then you need a relocation or expansion, neither of which is going to happen in the near-future. So all these things are unlikely, but we can't just bury our heads in the sand and say it's totally impossible. You've got a movement, you've got people coming back. If you put 97,000 people in a stadium to see the Blue Jays and Mets play two exhibition games in a snowstorm? That's not bad. We've got a long road ahead before people can get legitimately excited, but we've got something.

Alex Eidman

Alex is a graduate of McGill University and a contributor to http://www.jewcy.com.







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Article by Alex Eidman

Alex is a graduate of McGill University and a contributor to http://www.jewcy.com.

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