By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
A 92-year-old doing a daily ritual of push-ups, knee bends, lifting weights and the stationary bicycle?
Hmm. That's true in the case of Billy DeMars, the oldest surviving Expos' coach or manager. When I called him out of the blue after getting his number out of the internet phonebook, I didn't know what to expect but his great health and hearing and memory impressed me.
"I'm doing very good. I'm lucky as hell,'' DeMars said. "Last time I went for my physical, it was great and the doctor said to keep doing what I was doing.''
DeMars was one of the most popular hitting coaches the Expos employed in their 36 seasons of operation and would have stayed longer than his three-year term, if Pete Rose had not convinced him to go to Cincinnati and be his hitting instructor with the Reds. DeMars and Rose had worked together with the Phillies for two seasons and for part of 1984 in Montreal and Rose would later say DeMars was the best hitting coach he had ever worked with.
DeMars wanted a change following the 1981 season with the Phillies and felt the Expos would be a great opportunity so he called up manager Jim Fanning, whom he had played with in Portland, Ore. in 1957. Fanning suggested DeMars talk to general manager John McHale. After a five-minute chat between the two, a deal was struck and DeMars reported to spring training in 1982.
A big reason DeMars wanted to join the Expos stemmed from his friendship with Expos third baseman Larry Parrish, who likewise had pushed for the Expos to bring DeMars into the fold.
"I was also third-base coach with the Phillies so I got to know Larry because he played third. We'd always get talking about hitting,'' DeMars explained on the phone from his home in Clearwater Beach, Fla. "I always liked Larry because he was a very good third baseman and he was a good hitter with tremendous power. So I got to spring training and they traded him before the season started.''
DeMars couldn't believe McHale had traded Parrish. Of course, Parrish himself was floored and so were his teammates and many fans. Parrish was traded to the Texas Rangers along with Dave Hostetler in exchange for Al Oliver so that Tim Wallach could come in and play third.
"I was thinking of it later after the trade that, 'Why not put Parrish in right field? Why didn't we do that?' He had a great arm. I think it would have been an excellent move. Gosh, he would have been successful in right. That was too bad.''
What happened, though, is that when spring training started, Fanning sidled up to DeMars and said, "Hey, can you help Tim Wallach?''
So through DeMars' magic and patience, Wallach flourished after his rookie season of 1981 when he managed four homers, 13 RBI and a .236 average in 212 at-bats as a part-time player. The Expos felt Wallach could do more and DeMars worked with him.
And without DeMars having to look the stats up, this is what he correctly remembered from the top of his head, "Wallach went out and hit 28 homers and had 97 RBI. He showed up with the pitchers and catchers at spring training and we worked together every day the whole season.''
Astonishingly great memory for a 92-year-old. DeMars even knew without looking it up that Wallach had hit four homers in 1981. And to this day, DeMars and Wallach, the Marlins' bench coach, have remained in touch. Each Christmas, Wallach sends DeMars a card. And anytime the Marlins play a spring-training game or regular-season match in Tampa, DeMars travels the short hop from Clearwater and renews acquaintances with Wallach.
When DeMars was asked who his all-time favourite player was while he was with the Expos, he quickly said Wallach.
"Tim and I are pretty damn close. He was a very good player and he's an excellent person,'' DeMars said.
"Billy was one of the smartest and hardest working coaches I ever played for and a great person as well,'' Wallach said in a text message.
In Philadelphia, Montreal and Cincinnati, DeMars took on a special project. In Philadelphia, it was Larry Bowa. In Montreal, it was Wallach. In Cincinnati, it was Eric Davis.
"Larry Bowa had not been a good hitter whatsoever but we worked every day and he ended up getting 2,191 hits,'' DeMars said. "Same thing with Eric Davis. He got better. He got up to 27 homers and then 37 the season after. I was very patient with the guys. I worked with them on basic fundamentals. I never, ever told them they had a bad day in the batting cage or in a game. I always left the kid with a good thought in his mind.''
DeMars was a coach in some capacity with the Phillies for 13 seasons but clearly in talking with him, he sure enjoyed his time with the Expos. The Brooklyn native, who had a cup of team as an infielder with the Philadelphia A's and St. Louis Browns, spent three subsequent seasons under Rose in Cincinnati and departed following the 1987 season when he said, for some reason, eccentric owner Marge Schott didn't like him.
Ironically, DeMars decided to retire after that season although he eventually became a minor-league roving hitting instructor for the Phillies for a long stretch before retiring again in 2001.
"It was sad to see Montreal lose the baseball team,'' DeMars said. "My three years up there were absolutely great. We had a good team when I was there. We wanted to win a World Series absolutely. If we could have done that, it would have been absolutely terrific for the city.
"Jim Fanning took the losses so hard. He used to get migraine headaches. He was in such terrible pain. He took the managing really, really hard. The only reason I left Montreal was because of Pete Rose. I told Pete I would go with him to Cincinnati. The way it worked out, I would have been better off with the Expos.''
Over the course of a baseball career that spanned close to 60 years, DeMars played triple-A for the Toronto Maple Leafs four years, including two full seasons under manager Burleigh Grimes and two half seasons. In 524 at-bats in 1952, DeMars hit four homers and drove in 45 runs. In 1953, he hit three dingers and drove in 52 runs.
At the tail end of his career, DeMars also spent two weeks with the minor-league team in Vancouver in 1958 but records show he didn't play a game. If anything, he says he may have played a game or two before he was asked by the Baltimore Orioles to suit up for their team in Aberdeen, S.D. So that season, he played in Portland, Ore., Vancouver and Aberdeen.
"Jack Kent Cooke was a tremendous owner in Toronto,'' DeMars said. "It was very, very good in Toronto. The ballpark was first-class and when we travelled, it was first-class. I dearly loved Toronto and the fans loved me. I almost moved to Toronto after the fourth season but I couldn't get a visa.''
DeMars ran across a lot of great players but none better than the great Roberto Clemente, who died prematurely 45 years ago this Dec. 31 in a cargo plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico while delivering goods to the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.
"Clemente was the greatest player I ever watched,'' DeMars said. "He was a great oufielder, he had a great arm, he could run, he could hit, he could hit for power. I was in Puerto Rico and I saw the helicopters in the sky. I ran into Willie Montanez there and he said, 'Did you hear about Roberto Clemente?' The load had shifted and the plane went down in the water.''
When he isn't working out, DeMars handles frequent mail requests for autographs. He gets mail from all over, including Israel, Germany and Japan. He thinks of his late wife, Catherine, who died at 93 almost a year ago. They had been married for 70 and a half years after meeting close to two years earlier in the navy.
"You were telling me I was the oldest living Expos coach or manager. It's wistful thinking but I wonder if I would be lucky enough some day to be the oldest living ball player or the oldest living World War II veteran. I got a letter the other day saying I was one of 12 players still alive from the St. Louis Browns.
"I exercise 45 minutes every day. I watch what I eat. I have a pretty good breakfast and dinner but very little lunch, maybe a soup,'' DeMars said. "I still play golf. I used to golf every day but now I only do it once a week on Thursdays at the Dunedin Golf Club where they used to have the PGA course. I'm a 26 handicap. I still hit the ball pretty good. I've played a lot of sports but golf is the toughest one, the hardest one.''