I’ve been a sports fan for a good portion of my life, although I didn’t really start to take an interest in sports until I was eight or nine. Guy LaFleur was the first player I followed with any interest, and my first championship memories, which still horrify me, were of the Philadelphia Flyers “Broadstreet Bullies” Stanley Cup teams. Although I loved hockey, baseball was the sport that most captured my imagination. It had nothing to do with my abilities. I was always one of the players who made of for his lack of coordination with a general clumsiness. In other words, I was the kid who was told to go play “deep, deep, deep left field,” and I have remained there ever since.
Baseball has always appealed to of my geeky type characteristics. One, being my love of numbers. If you’ve ever been in a church and seen one of those boards with a listing of the numbers of the hymns being that Sunday I inevitably have to add them together and then see if the total is evenly divisible by the number of hymns. So baseball, with its focus on numbers and statistics, particularly numbers like 300 wins, 3,000 hits, etc. was a natural fit.
Second and closely related to the first, was the emphasis that baseball has always placed on its history. The nicknames, like the Georgia Peach, The Bambino, Wee Willie Keeler, who hit’em where they ain’t and above all, the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig, mythologized by Gary Cooper, my favourite actor, in “The Pride of the Yankees.” Plus, this history had a place in it for the unremarkable, who achieved their moments of glory. Anytime a pitcher through a no-hitter, the name of Johnny Vander Meer, a pitcher whose name in many ways could stand for average, but who maintains a place in baseball’s lore because he once through two no-hitters in consecutive starts, would be brought up for discussion, with writer’s and announcers wondering if this would finally be the time it was duplicated. 73 years later it still hasn’t been.
It is this love of numbers and history that has been at the root of many of the arguments that surround steroids in baseball. While I don’t intend to deal with the topic here, nor do I condone the use of performance enhancers, I think it’s disingenuous to look at the recent generation of baseball players as inveterate cheaters, while treating past performers as paragons of clean play.
I bring all this up, because as I was glancing at my Twitter feed today, I noticed a comment from Jon Heymans of Sports Illustrated on the death today of Dick Williams. Despite Heymans tweeting it, I had to go here to ESPN to get the story.
My interest in baseball first came to be in the summer of 1976. Whatever interest and loyalty I had to any other team prior to this, I became transfixed by the Montreal Expos, an odd choice given that the 1976 season was the worst of their history with the exception of their inaugural 1969 season. I remember getting a baseball 1977 preview book as a gift(it was my choice but somebody else paid for it), and reading how it had been foolish of major league baseball to allow the Montreal Expos to sign free agents, while not allowing the expansion Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners to do the same thing.
Whether or not it was a good move on the part of major league baseball to do so, 1977 marked a turning point for the Expos. The two free agents they brought in were Dave Cash and Tony Perez. Two very good players for the Phillies and the Reds respectively who were approaching the ends of their careers, or at least whose best years were behind them. The 1977 season also marked the start of the emergence of the young stars who were to define the Expos for the next decade, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Ellis Valentine, and others.
Also, the Expos go themselves a new manager, Dick Williams, who had only a few years past led the Oakland A’s to two of their three consecutive World Series titles. This was a sea change from the management of Gene Mauch, whose career record ended up being 135 games below .500 and who is best known for managing the 1964 Phillies through one of the greatest collapses in baseball history. Williams installed a winning attitude in the team, and brought with him both managerial fire and patience in bringing the young players along. He was helped in this by the presence of Cash and Perez in the teams lineup.
The progress the team made was slow and steady with their way to the top always being blocked by the Phillies and Pirates in particular. For me, there were fewer sights more despairing in those days than that of Kent Tekulve of the Pirates warming up in the Pirates bullpen, his confusing sidearm/submarine delivery seeming to work extra specially well when he faced the Expos.
In the next few years the Expos fortunes rose, culminating in 1981 with them facing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League championship series, with a berth in the World Series on the line. Like Perez and Cash, Williams was gone by then. He had led the Expos successfully up to that point but after clashes with management he was let go late in the strike split season by Jim Fanning. It would be Fanning at the helm when the Expos went to the playoffs but it was Williams who had done most of the work in fashioning the team that made it there.
This was the high point of my baseball and Expos fandom. The 1981 season was one of several baseball seasons marked by a strike. In this case the decision was made to have the pre-strike leaders in each division play the post-strike leaders in a best of five, before the winners would take on their opposite divisional numbers in another best of five. The Expos, on virtue of being one of the two east division leaders, first faced the Phillies, led by Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw among others. The Phillies had been along with Pittsburgh a particular nemesis to the Expos on their rise to the top and so as a fan it was satisfying to see the Expos take that series and move on to face the Dodgers.
The Dodgers at that time were the kings of the Western Division, having replaced the Bid Red Machine, Cincinnati team of the early to mid 70’s. They were an exemplary franchise in the way they were run, information that might come as a surprise to those who are only familiar with the McCourt era, and loaded with talented such as Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Dusty Baker, Don Sutton, and in 1981, a rookie pitcher by the name of pitcher by the name of Fernando Valuenzela who was the talk of baseball for most of that season. They also had a very good, veteran outfielder by the name of Rick Monday.
I don’t plan on going into all the details of that series, because I don’t really remember them all, and I don’t plan and looking them up. I do remember a little bit about game 5 however. It was played on a Monday after a Sunday rainout(I did look that up), and what seems even more remarkable now a days with every semi-important, and some not so semi-important, game seemingly played in primetime, this game was played on a Monday afternoon.
That’s why I don’t remember the game all that clearly. For most of the game I was sitting in class at school. I do remember my grade 11 physics teacher at Grant Park High School, Mr. Wally Watts, making that class a lab class, and having the game on in the background so that we could listen to it as we worked. The other thing I remember was getting home from school not much before the end of the game. Fanning brought in Steve Rogers, the greatest pitcher in team history, until they acquired Pedro Martinez from the Dodgers, in the ninth and Rick Monday took him over the fence to give the Dodgers the lead. The Expos had one more at bat, but it never seemed liked they would recover even before the bottom of the ninth was actually over. Not only that it was really hard to be too upset, because Monday was such a stand up guy, most notably so, for rescuing an American flag that a couple of fans were about to set on fire
That was it though, the high point in the Expos history was over. Despite Fanning bringing a change in personality to the Expos, they never again got so close to a title, and the mid-to-late 80’s saw the first great sell off of talent by the club. The Expos would once again rise in the early nineties, only to see their best chance at a World Series since 1981, snatched out of their hands by another strike in 1994. That ’94 team may have had more talent than the ’81 team, but the ’81 team still remains the most successful of all the Expos teams.
Of course the ’94 team would soon fall apart due to the second great sell off in Expos history. This would lead to talk of contraction, games played in Peurto Rico and the whole Jeffrey Loria, John Henry farce, and eventually their move to Washington D.C., where their arrival was met by Toni Kornheiser, with an utterly ridiculous statement, which I can’t dig up, but would appreciate if anyone could locate, to the effect that the Expos were moving to Washington only after MLB and Bud Selig had done “everything in their power” to keep the franchise in Montreal. It was a fittingly ridiculous statement for what had been a ridiculous end to the team’s tenure in Montreal.
Looking back, I wonder what would have happened had Williams still been there on that Monday. Perhaps nothing would have changed. Perhaps he too would have used his best pitcher in that situation. All I know is that those years were the best years of my life as a sports fan. Sure, sports mattered a little bit too much to me then, but they were still happy days as a fan, and Dick Williams played a fairly big part, in helping the Expos to become contenders, in making that a happy time.
RIP Dick Williams, and thanks for the memories.
If you want a different perspective on Williams, I suggest you read Joe Posnanski’s take.