Groundskeeper Vezina reminisces on Expos

* Former Olympic Stadium groundskeeper Pierre Vezina, who worked for the Expos from 1982 until the final night on Sept. 29, 2004, has returned to prepare the field for this weekend's Jays-Mets games. .... 2014 Canadians in College Letters of Intent 2014 Canadian draft list 2013 Canadians in the Minors  2015 Canadian draft list

By Bob Elliott

MONTREAL -- Pierre Vezina is standing behind the mound, as he had so many afternoons before.

Around him, groundskeepers are making the infield pretty for a baseball Friday night at Olympic Stadium.

Vezina worked for the Montreal Expos from 1982 until Sept. 29, 2004.

“I was right there after the final pitch,” Vezina said, pointing behind the plate.

“People in the seats were crying, hugging each other,” he added, recalling post-game ceremonies. “Claude Raymond, Tim Raines and others spoke. Brad Wilkerson was crying.

“Me? I was emotional. My heart was tearing apart.”

After Maicer Izturis, Val Pascucci and Terrmel Sledge went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth, the home schedule was over.

And then they were gone. The Expos headed on the road to finish against the New York Mets -- where it all began in 1969 -- and the next year the franchise moved to Washington, D.C.

“I didn’t think that final night I’d be standing here 10 years later getting ready for a game,” Vezina said. “It’s not the Expos, but it’s major league baseball.”

Closing night at the old concrete clam was rough for Vezina, but so was 20 years ago when the 1994 season was cancelled with the Expos leading the National League East and the Atlanta Braves by six games.

“That team had everything, pitching, defence. power,” said Vezina. “If that team had won a World Series, a new stadium would have been built downtown and the team would still be here. That was the best team we ever had here.”

With position players like Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Wil Cordero and Marquis Grissom, along with pitchers Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill, Mel Rojas and John Wetteland, manager Felipe Alou’s Expos were 74-40 (a .649 winning percentage).

The best Expo team ever?

That covers some ground. The Expos had four 90-win seasons (1979, 1980, 1987 and 1993) in addition to winning the second half of the strike-shortened 1981 season and coming within a win of a World Series berth against the New York Yankees.

Instead, Vezina said after the 'Best Team That Never Won' never had the chance to show what it could do in October, “it steadily went down hill after that.”

Vezina says from what he has read and heard, the 30-to-40 year-olds are bringing their children to the game.

“The parents know who the Expos are, the children aren’t old enough to remember,” said Vezina. “Baseball is coming back. There is a new wave. It used to be soccer.”

Maxime Lamarche of Baseball Quebec says registration shows an increase of 30% over the last six years.

Prior to Friday’s game, a ceremony will be held to honour the late Expo and Mets catcher Gary Carter.

“The father will tell his son, ‘I saw him ... he was a heck of a catcher, a Hall of Famer,’” said Vezina. “The children will learn.”

He’s right. It’s not like when a father takes his son to a movie and has a conversation.

The groundskeeper misses the players, misses the games and good friends, like Moises Alou.

He was there every night ... part of a six-man staff, down by 15 after the roof went on ... and he was there the night to pull the tarp off the left field bullpen so Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Fred Claire, manager Tommy Lasorda, pitching coach Ron Perranoski and scout Claude Pelletier watch a young Quebec right-hander throw for watchful eyes.

“I was trying to listen and then I heard Lasorda say, “OK, we’ll sign him,” said Vezina.

It was Eric Gagne of Mascouche, Que. who won a Cy Young award with the Dodgers.

Now Vezina, 53, works for the city of Montreal -- tending fields like Ahuntsic Park ... which has been renamed Gary Carter Stadium, home of the Orioles de Montréal of the Quebec Junior League.


NOT BEER, BUT CABLE TV/PHONE WARS: Those who imbibe were the reason that Canada had two major league teams from 1977 until 2004.

The Montreal Expos were owned by Charles Bronfman, who along with his brother, Edgar, took over Seagram distilleries empire after the death of their father, Sam Bronfman.

Charles Bonfman owned the Montreal Expos when they began play in 1969.

Don McDougall, a former president of Labatt, thought a ball team would be a good idea to help beer sales in Ontario, as Labatt battled Molson’s and Carling for market share.

And so after almost buying the San Francisco Giants, the trio of Paul Godfrey, Herb Solway and McDougall landed an expansion franchise and the Toronto Blue Jays took the field in 1977.

Now, it’s no longer beer or whiskey companies waging battles for the biggest prizes on the Canadian sports landscape.

It is the phone companies.

Bell Media, which owns TSN, now fights Rogers Communications, which owns Sportsnet.

Warren Cromartie, president of the Montreal Baseball Project, is well meaning, and his group has their collective hearts in the right place, but are their bank accounts deep enough?

Likely not.

Rogers won the battle on the latest newest National Hockey League contract.

Is Bell waiting in the wings? Quebecor?


Whatever, any potential investor would have to be encouraged by this two-game weekend series as the New York Mets visit the Toronto Blue Jays. In excess of 85,000 tickets have been sold for the two games, put on by evenko, the entertainment arm of the Montreal Canadiens that came up with the idea two years ago.

“We sold 40,000 tickets before we added the tribute to the 1994 Expos. This shows people of Quebec are interested in baseball, that the Blue Jays are Canada’s team,” said Simon Arsenault of evenko. “Getting to 50,000 is like the cherry on top of the sundae.”


THE TURF: The first question anyone who ever played at Olympic Stadium asked when he heard of the trip to Montreal was “do they have the same old turf?”

The constant pounding was like running on a parking lot and ate away at the knees of Hall of Famer Andre Dawson.

What if an every day player is injured?

The answer on the turf is no.

The Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets will play on turf installed last year for the Montreal impact.

It’s turf made and laid by the Quebec company NeXXfield.

Richard DiPietro says roughly 4,000, 4-by-8 panels are laid on the concrete surface.

DiPietro said some turf field may contain 15 lbs. of rubber and sand per square feet. NeXXfield has only one pound of rubber and nylon per square foot.


NEAR MISS-POES: Think losing on a tie-breaking home run in the top of the ninth in the deciding game of the League Championship Series is tough?

Rick Monday eliminated the Montreal Expos with his homer off Steve Rogers in 1981.

Some other rough endings for the Expos.

1979: 95-65, 2 games back of the Phillies.

The Expos lost 2-0 to Steve Carlton in Philadelphia on the final Sunday of the season. Had they won they would have played a made-up date in Atlanta and a win would have put them into a tie for first, creating a sudden-death playoff.

1980: 90-72, 1 game behind the Phillies.

The Expos came home to host Philadelphia in a flat-footed tie for the final weekend. They lost 2-1 Friday night as Mike Schmidt homered off Scott Sanderson, but on Saturday the Expos were a strike away from a 4-3 win when Bob Boone blooped a Woody Fryman pitch into centre tying the game. With one out in the 11th, Schmidt hit a two-run homer off Stan Bahnsen. The most common question asked by Phillies -- even this spring -- why pitch to Schmidt. Don McCormack was on deck waiting for his first major-league at-bat.

1981: Lost deciding Game of the NLCS.

Steve Rogers shut out the Phillies and Carlton in the deciding game in Philadelphia, and when Jeff Reardon’s back left him unable to go, Jim Fanning tabbed Rogers. It never should have been 1-1 in the ninth. With runners at the corners and none out in the first, manager Tommy Lasorda had the bullpen working in back of Fernando Valenzuela. The Expos only scored once and Valenzuela worked 8 2/3 innings.

As legendary writer J.P. Sarault used to say, “cheering for the Expos is like being in a locked room and the room is slowly filling with smoke. All the windows are locked and you are choking. You finally get a window open, breath in fresh air and WHAM! The Expos slam the window down on your fingers.”