In the last media interview Jim Fanning did a week ago, he talked to me about how this fellow by the name of Randy Johnson was balking about reporting to the Montreal Expos’ class-A affiliate in the outpost of Jamestown, N.Y. back in the summer of 1985.
“Randy didn’t want to sign a Jamestown contract,’’ Fanning said. “He thought he was much better going to Double-A or Triple-A. He may have been right.’’
I was planning to use this information for a story that would run closer to Johnson’s induction into Cooperstown in late July so I was getting Fanning long before the event as one of many I would be interviewing.
Fanning, 87, had plenty of stories to tell about his life in baseball over the years but most of them were about the Expos for whom he worked for from August of 1968 until 1993 when he was forced out by a new ownership group that had taken over from original principal owner Charles Bronfman.
So close were Fanning and I that I didn’t disclose the nature of his latest illness which led to his death in London, Ont. He had told me during this interview regarding Johnson that he had cardiac problems.
“The doctors are trying to figure out what to do with it and what kind of surgery they should do,’’ Fanning said. “Don’t say anything about it.’’
I must admit I was shook up when I found out about his sudden death. My arms tingled, I shed a few tears and was red faced for a long time after that. I had to douse my hair and ears with water they were so hot. I don’t know how many interviews I did with Fanning since 1988 but he was always accommodating, anecdotal, very eloquent. And he had stories coming out of his ears.
Fanning’s legacy is this: he was the only manager to guide the Expos into post-season play in the franchise’s 36 seasons of operation. It was an exciting time in 1981 when they beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Division Series before bowing to the Dodgers in the fifth and deciding game of the NLCS.
‘’When we didn’t win, man, it was such a loss,’’ Fanning told me back in the 1990s.
“That’s my biggest disappointment in baseball. That was bitter. It wasn’t just a loss for Jim Fanning, the players and the ownership group. It wasn’t just a loss for Montreal and the province of Quebec, it was a loss for the whole country. The country was tuned into us. The country was hung on to us. Canadians were watching our every move. We were the club in Canada.’’
To the day he died, Fanning had never second-guessed himself for using starting pitcher Steve Rogers in relief to face Rick Monday, who laced a homer late in the game to help the Dodgers win the game and put them into the World Series.
Stopper Jeff Reardon was in the bullpen warming up with Rogers and on the bench, Fanning had lefties such as Woodie Fryman and Bill Lee available to pitch to the lefty-swinging Monday but Fanning elected to go with Rogers.
“We tried not to let people know that Reardon had a tender arm,’’ Fanning recalled. “It wasn’t difficult for me to use my best pitcher. Rogers was phenomenal in the mini series against Philadelphia.’’
Fanning was Mr. Expo indeed. He did everything you could think of for the organization.
He was the original GM, became the scouting director later and was responsible for looking at or signing or recommending oodles of prospects such as Rogers, Gary Carter, Terry Francona, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines,Ellis Valentine, Tim Wallach, you name them. The list goes on.
A Chicago native, Fanning was in baseball for close to 65 years, starting as a player and then moving into the administrative ranks. His first big-league job of some substance was as the assistant GM of the Milwaukee Braves in 1964 when his friend John McHale had a big say in how the Braves operated.
Four years later, McHale asked Fanning, “Would you like to go to Montreal with me?’’
And Fanning replied, “In a minute.’’
Fanning would hold the Expos GM post until 1977 and during his tenure he had a hand in both trades involving Rusty Staub. Le Grand Orange was obtained from the Houston Astros and became an early-franchise hero before he was dealt to the Mets in 1971. Then in 1979, Fanning and McHale arranged for him to come back in a trade involving the Tigers.
“The deal to trade Staub to the Mets was something we really had to do a sales job on because he was a star not only in Montreal but Quebec and Canada,’’ Fanning recollected years ago. “John McHale and I were sitting at a game in spring training and all of a sudden, this voice behind us said, ‘I’ll give you Ken Singleton, Tim Foli and Mike Jorgensen for Staub.’’
Fanning and McHale looked around and saw that the voice belonged to Mets GM Bob Scheffing.
“We said to Bob, ‘Are you serious?’ And he said he was dead serious. That’s a true story. I’ve never told anyone in the media about that.’’
Singleton was the best of the lot and was a star for the Expos from 1972-74 but Fanning & Co. made a mistake dealing Mike Torrez and Singleton to Baltimore for Dave McNally and Rich Coggins.
“It was the worst deal we ever made and I was part of it,’’ Fanning admitted.
In the days after his acrimonious departure from the Expos in 1993, Fanning told me of the day him and his wife Marie were given tickets to a game by outfielder Larry Walker, only to be told that the tickets were nixed.
“Walker was livid, irate,’’ Fanning said. “A black marker had crossed out our names on the pass list. When you turned over the list, you could see our names had been there and that Walker had signed his name. When Walker found out our seats were disallowed, he called up and really complained to Bill Stoneman (Expos vice-president of baseball operations). In all the years I was with the Expos, no one’s name was ever crossed off as pass list that I know of.’’
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You could go on and on about Fanning tales. After a few seasons with the Colorado Rockies as a scout after his Expos’ departure, he joined the Blue Jays as an ambassador in 2000 and he held that position to the day he died.
“Jim was a baseball pioneer in this country,’’ Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame director of operations Scott Crawford said in a statement. “Without his tireless efforts, there may not be Major League Baseball in Canada. He was baseball royalty in Canada who visited our museum regularly. We were proud to induct him into the hall in 2000. I speak for myself and the staff at the hall when I say that we loved him. We will miss him deeply but we will not forget him.’’
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Jim thought he might die soon when he chatted with his wife Marie, son Frankand daughter Cynthia on Friday.
“He had this premonition,’’ his wife of close to 30 years said Saturday night from London, where the couple had lived for a number of years.
Fanning, 87, an Expos icon, died of cardiac failure Saturday morning.
“Within the last week, Jim had a mild stroke,’’ Mrs. Fanning said. “He just went downhill after that. I always took care of him. He never had anyone else who looked after him. Friday night, we had a beautiful prayer. He thanked God for his life.
“I’ve had calls all day from people like Rusty Staub, Wallace Johnson, Steve Rogers, Charles Bronfman and many others,’’ Mrs. Fanning said.
And in the days ahead, there will be many, many more calls of condolences.
Jim’s wife said he will be cremated at a private ceremony soon. In May, two different memorial services will be held: one for family and friends and another one for baseball people.
“I want to give Jim the send-off he deserves,’’ Mrs. Fanning said. “We’re still working on dates.’’
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Jim and Marie Fanning were married 29 1/2 years. Their 30th anniversary would have been in November.
It was a love affair from beginning to end.
My condolences to Marie and her two adult children.
It’s a sad day for them, a sad day for baseball fans in Canada.
A Canadian icon is gone.