1981 Expos gather in Montreal to remember
*RHP Steve Rogers suggested pitching in Game 5 in relief the day before after an Olympic Stadium rain out. Warren Cromartie and a number of former Expos gather in Montreal this weekend to recall old times ….
By Danny Gallagher
The date was Oct. 18, 1981.
Montreal Expos manager Jim Fanning and pitching coach Galen Cisco were caught off-guard when ace pitcher Steve Rogers sidled up to them and offered them a nugget after the fifth game of the NLCS playoff game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Olympic Stadium in Montreal was rained out, snowed out, whatever you want to call it.
“Look, if you need me in relief tomorrow, I’m available,’’ Rogers confided to Fanning and Cisco. “Tomorrow is my day to pitch on the side for my next start.’’
So in return, a somewhat shocked Fanning offered a nugget in return.
“If we bring you on in relief, we will do so only at the beginning of an inning and not while an inning is in progress,’’ Fanning told Rogers.
“Until Rogers came and talked to us, it was not on our minds to use him in relief,’’ Fanning said in a recent interview. “For a pitcher to make an offer like that is extraordinary.’’
So the next day on a frigid-cold Monday with the malfunctioning, galldarn roof at Olympic Stadium forced to be kept opened instead of closed, the ninth inning approached and the score was tied 1-1. Fanning noticed earlier in the game that he felt starter Ray Burris was getting some balls up in the strike zone so he motioned for two bearded pitchers to warm up in the bullpen. They were Rogers and Jeff Reardon, the team’s closer.
“I was advised by the coaching staff that Reardon couldn’t perform 100%. All I knew is that he had a tender shoulder,’’ Fanning said.
Most people thought it would be Reardon coming in so it was a shock when it was stipulated that Rogers was the man wanted on the mound.
So Rogers got the first two men out and then faced Monday. Instead of going to a left-handed reliever such as Bill Lee or Woodie Fryman to pitch to the lefty-swinging Monday, Fanning stuck with Rogers.
“Rogers never had any trouble getting left-handed hitters out,’’ Fanning said 31 years later, something he has said umpteen times over the years. “He was my best pitcher.’’
So what does Monday do on a cold, blue Monday? He hits a home run to right-centre field to give the Dodgers a 2-1 cushion in the top of the ninth and the Expos couldn’t come back. The Dodgers went on to win the World Series over the New York Yankees and the Expos’ hearts were broken and the psyche of a nation was shattered in the process.
Not only did Montreal and Quebec fans suffer but the whole country mourned.
“I never did figure that out,’’ Cisco said recently about the quasi-mystery concerning Reardon and why he didn’t pitch that game. “I know Jeff answered the bell every time. That last one time it so happened that he couldn’t go. Only he knows. It was Jim’s decision. He made all the final decisions.’’
Not that Burris, Lee and Fryman agreed.
On that day, I was in Sudbury, Ont. where I was a freelance reporter for several newspapers and CBC Radio. I was at the Mine Mill Hall bar, holding my clasped hands real tight, hoping the Expos would win because it meant a trip to Montreal to see two games of the World Series against the Yankees.
Labatt’s Sudbury-district manager Mickey McFadden had told me and several other players with our Sudbury Shamrocks’ team in the Nickel Region Senior League that we would be treated to the trip, if the Expos won the NLCS. That was seven years before I would become an Expos’ beat writer. So it was a huge disappointment when Monday hit the home run.
If you are wondering what has brought this all up in June of 2012. Well, the 1981 Expos are gathering for a reunion in Montreal June 15-16 for a series of events, including golf activities on the 15th and a gala dinner/silent auction at the Sheraton Centre on the 16th. If you haven’t heard about it, you might want to take it all in.
The two-day event has been largely organized by Warren Cromartie, the long-time Expo and 1981 alumnus, who is heading the Montreal Baseball Project, which is attempting to return some form of pro ball back to the city, whether it be a major-league team or a minor-league team. Proceeds from this weekend celebration will benefit The Gary Carter Foundation and Montreal’s Cedar Cancer Institute.
The two days of festivities will pay homage to Gary Carter, the former Expos catcher, who died way too early this year of brain cancer at 57. Fanning said he is not sure he will make it because he has some Father’s Day commitments in mind that weekend. Rogers may not make it either.
Cromartie will be there and so far, Tim Raines, Wallace Johnson, Ellis Valentine Larry Parrish, Bryn Smith, Stan Bahnsen, Bill Gullickson, Andre Dawson, Rodney Scott, Rowland Office and Bill Lee have given indications that they will be coming.
The year 1981 was a magical season, the only time the Expos made it to the post-season. And Fanning was the manager. He relieved Dick Williams not far from the end of the season which was shortened by a players’ strike.
Fanning was in his Olympic Stadium office Sept. 6 when Expos GM John McHale called from Philadelphia.
“John called and told me that he didn’t like the way things were going, he was thinking of making a change with the manager and that he wanted me to manage,’’ Fanning recalled. “He told me that if he felt the same way tomorrow he would give me a call and that I would take over. When he asked, I was absolutely, oh man, I made the decision in a flash that I would take the job.
“So he called me the next day and said he wanted me to take over and he told me to make arrangements to go to Philadelphia the next day Sept. 8 at noon when he would make an announcement. I was very surprised and very excited. Gene Kirby, the travelling secretary, set up a flight for me in Montreal to go to Philadelphia.
“The nice thing about that was that a good part of the club was developed by the Expos and I had a hand in it when I took over the club,’’ Fanning said. “I would have 65% of the club in the palm of my hand because I had a hand in signing a lot of them from Carter to Dawson to Gullickson, David Palmer, Scott Sanderson and others. It was a very comforting thought.
“So when I got to Philadelphia, I had a meeting with the players in the clubhouse and told them I didn’t ask for the job, that the job came to me.’’
Did any player step up and ask him anything?
“Nobody asked me a question,’’ Fanning said.
The Expos lost their first three games and then they won in Chicago, Fanning’s hometown where he played briefly for the Cubs back in 1957.
“It was very significant. A lot of the writers who were there in 1957 were still there in 1981,’’ Fanning said, laughing. “Man, they were giving me handshakes because they felt as good as I did.’’
Eventually, the Expos would clinch a mini-playoff berth with a win in New York, giving them the right to face the defending World Series-champion Phillies in a best-of-three series for the NL East title.
“It was the first time in all of the years that the Expos were in operation that we had finally won something, a playoff berth,’’ Fanning said. “It was a messed-up year, a strike year.’’
So head to head against lefty Steve Carlton of the Phillies, Rogers outduelled him twice as the Expos won the series to face the Dodgers. There are many who are always taking shots at Rogers for giving up the home run to Monday but he was still the team’s best pitcher and the Expos would not have gone as far as they did without Rogers’ clutch pitching.
“Rogers was the best in the last month of the season, man, he pitched shutouts, he was absolutely fantastic,’’ Fanning said. “One of the reasons he was used in relief against the Dodgers was because he was our best pitcher even though it was an unfamiliar role. There was this interesting stat, that for every three starts he made in his career, one was a complete game or something close to that. You never thought of a long man out of the bullpen when Rogers was pitching.’’
As far as this corner is concerned, Rogers was the best pitcher in Expos’ history. I am on record in my last book Remembering the Montreal Expos co-authored with Bill Young that pitcher Dennis Martinez is my all-time favourite Expos’ player but Rogers was better than El Presidente throughout his Montreal career.
When that book came out, a chapter on him was entitled Salute to Sigh Rogers. To me, it wasn’t a slight to call him Sigh, it was that he would sigh a lot before and after many of his pitches, although some writers covering the Expos would say that it in a negative way. When he won, he was called Cy, when he lost, he was called Sigh.
Rogers took exception to Sigh in the headline in the book and asked that it be removed. So Young and I agreed to change the headline to Salute to Steve Rogers in the second printing.
And you probably wondered whether the hard-ass Williams and the mild-mannered Fanning got along after Fanning took over.
There was no animosity between Williams and Fanning over the move. In fact, they remained good friends. When the late Williams was elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown a few years ago, he invited Fanning, who travelled to the ceremony as Williams’ guest. Imagine. How nice that was. Williams brought along Fanning as a guest. Beautiful.
So you are also wondering about more information regarding the two-day festivities in Montreal and the suburbs. Cromartie and his organizers say the fan fairs scheduled for Ballantyne Park in Dorval and Parc Hubert in St. Leonard have been generating a lot of interest.
While the events will be open to all, the Montreal Baseball Project has set-up a registration for 275 fans ($10 plus service charge) at each venue allowing them to meet and get autographs of the participating 1981 Expos. The fee will give the fan a bracelet and a photo of the team they can have signed by the players. To keep the line moving, fans are entitled to one autograph per player only.
What is nice to hear is that the golf tournament slated for Ile Perot Golf and Country Club on Montreal’s West Island has been sold out but there are still tickets remaining for the golf-tournament dinner on the night of June 15 at $100 a pop. Of course, tickets to the dinner and silent auction are still up for grabs. They cost $125 per person. For more information, call 514-505-1946 or visit mbp2012.com.
Even if Fanning and Rogers are unable to attend, the two-day event should be your chance to remember a golden era, a golden team in Expos history. We just hope that when we get there we won’t run into those university students protesting about tuition fees.