By Danny Gallagher
The three of them all hit home runs, not singles, doubles or triples but yard shots to doom the Expos in all three years.
The 1979-80 editions of the Expos were two of the most talented teams in franchise history but they fell short at the end of the season.
In 1979, the Expos came close, only to lose out to Pops Stargell and the We Are Family Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1980, the Expos came close again, only to lose out to another Pennsylvania team, the Phillies.
“We were starting to develop and we had a special belief that we had a strong chance to win,’’ the late star catcher Gary Carter said one time about the 1979 season.
The 1979 Expos were full of vinegar and they even re-acquired early-franchise hero Rusty Staub from the Detroit Tigers July 19. He ended up batting .267 in 38 games, a disappointment. However, he could not get much playing time because Tony Perez was lock-solid at first and the outfield was manned by Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine and Warren Cromartie.
On July 27, Staub played his first home game following the trade and it was some memorable moment. A crowd of 59,260 jammed the Big O to welcome him home. It wasn’t just one game, it was a doubleheader against the Pirates and Staub didn’t play the opener.
In the nightcap, he came in as a pinch-hitter at 8:36 and there was one deafening roar after one deafening roar, prompting him to doff his cap more than once in appreciation. The game was delayed. The moment: Staub standing outside the batter’s box soaking in the love was really something special. When Grant Jackson finally got to pitch to Staub, Le Grand Orange flied out.
“That’s the only time the crowds affected me as much during an at-bat in my career,’’ Staub said later.
That outfield trio of Cromartie, Dawson and Valentine compared mightly with the 1994 combo of Moises Alou, Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom, except that Cromartie said, “How do you compare? They had it all, too. They probably covered more ground. We were all fundamentally sound. Mel Didier groomed all of us.’’
It was the time the Expos began really gelling as a franchise after years of being doormats following the expansion year of 1969. The farm system and scouting department had finally started producing some exceptional home-grown talent.
“All these players were developed properly in the minor leagues,’’ said Jim Fanning, who became Expos’ farm director in 1978 after years as the team’s GM. “They advanced to the big-league club and stayed. In some cases earlier on, players advanced and fell back. We had really good minor-league managers in Doc Edwards and Felipe Alou, who was a great teacher in our development program.’’
And how about the starting pitching staff of Steve Rogers, Bill Lee, Dan Schatzeder, Ross Grimsley, David Palmer and Scott Sanderson? Bill Atkinson of Chatham, Ont. contributed, going 2-0 with a 1.98 ERA in 13 2/3 innings.
“I had a relationship with every one of them,’’ Fanning said.
Anyway near the end of the season, the Pirates and Expos met in Montreal for a three-game series. Stargell came to the plate Sept. 21 to face right-hander Dale Murray, who had been acquired in August from the Mets. Stargell homered, giving the Bucs a two-game lead in the NL East, a cushion they would never relinquish. The Expos finished at 95-65, the Pirates at 98-67.
“We back-doored the pennant in 1979,’’ Cromartie said a few days ago. “The biggest memories for me were of how young we were and the great manager we had in Dick Williams, who had been in Boston and Oakland. I never thought in my wildest dreams that he’d be my manager.
“Dick was perfect for us. He meant the world to me. He gave me the chance to play every day. It was pretty huge. He gave Rodney Scott a chance to play. He loved Rodney. Dick deserves a lot of credit. We were making a name for ourselves. We were happy to be playing at the Big O.’’
At spring training in 1980, Staub had contract problems with the Expos and he also had a fight on his hands with Cromartie for the first-base job after Perez left as a free agent. In late March, Staub was traded and Cromartie officially left the outfield to take over first.
“I loved first base,’’ Cromartie said. “It was my favourite position. I started at first in Little League. Left field was a very difficult position. It was a learning position. I didn’t throw that good. They were running on me.
“The press was trying to say Rusty was traded because of me and that there was a rivalry between us. Rusty and I always laughed at that. Rusty is a very, very good friend of mine. In fact, he will be coming to Montreal for the gala next April. In 1980, I played all 162 games along with Steve Garvey, Pete Rose and Enos Cabell.’’
The 1980 season saw new names enter the fold, including pitchers Bill Gullickson and Charlie Lea and speedster Ron LeFlore, who stole 97 bags. Some in the media dubbed this squad The Team of the 80s. They were so richly talented that they went down to the wire, meeting the Phillies in Montreal.
“The 1980 final season weekend was my beginning,’’ Schmidt told me 10 years ago. “I’ll never forget hitting home runs to win the first two games of the series against Montreal in which we had to win two out of three.
“The clincher came in the 11th inning of the final game of the season with Don McCormick on deck, a call-up kid, who had never batted in the major leagues.’’
Pete Rose singled to lead off the 11th and one out later, in stepped Schmidt to face Stan Bahnsen. Williams decided to allow reliever Bahnsen to pitch to Schmidt because Bahnsen had pretty good success against Schmidt during the regular season.
“Stan Bahnsen owned me that year but he took me too lightly,’’ Schmidt told me about that at-bat. “After throwing two sliders for balls, he left a fastball out over the plate and the rest is history. I’ll never forget that moment.’’
Said Fanning, “Schmidt hit a giant home run. You expect that from outstanding hitters.’’
What does Cromartie remember about that home run?
“What do you mean?’’ he replied. “From 1979-83, we didn’t get lucky, whether it was a pinch-hit, a home run here, a home run there, the wrong pitcher … it wasn’t meant to be.’’
The Expos did make the post-season for the only time in 1981 but Monday’s homer doomed them. Yet, the teams in 1979-80 may have been even better than the team in 1981.
“The 1979-1980 teams were better than 1981,’’ said Alan Usereau, who authored the fascinating book The Expos in Their Prime: The Short-Lived Glory of Montreal’s Team 1977-84. “There was more depth on the teams in 79-80. The pitching staff in 79-80 was underrated because the focus was on these young players: Dawson, Carter, Valentine, Cromartie, Parrish.
”The pitching staff in 1994 might have been the best in the team’s history. There was no weak arm. Butch Henry was one of the best lefties in the game for two years. I admit I have a bias toward the teams of my teenage years (79-80).
“But looking at 1994 with a cool head, I must admit they had quite a team but probably not as deep organization-wise as those of the late 1970s. They had a bunch of injuries in 1980 and they still managed to compete. I really doubt they would have been able to overcome that, had it happened in 1994.’’
Danny Gallagher is co-author with Bill Young of the book Ecstasy to Agony: the 1994 Montreal Expos, which is available in bookstores across Canada and at chapters.ca. It also can be obtained in ebook format through Kobe and Kindle.