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The Expos Emerge
By Maxwell Kates

Painful Beginnings

The Montreal Expos completed their first decade in the National League with a milestone victory. Before a sparse crowd of 6,182 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, left-handed pitcher Ross Grimsley defeated the Cardinals by a margin of five to one. It was Grimsley's twentieth win of the season, making him the only pitcher in Expos' history to reach that select plateau. Despite Grimsley's career year, the 1978 campaign was marred by disappointment. When a newspaper writer wished Dick Williams a good winter, the Expos manager replied, "I sure hope so, because I had a horse[bleep] summer."

In their first ten years as a major league entity, the Expos had yet to escape the second division in the National League East. Having never won more than 79 games in a season, the team's composite record from 1969 to 1978 was 705 wins and 907 losses, an anemic .437 winning percentage. The 1977 season, the Expos' first at the new Olympic Stadium, featured strong hitting from Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Warren Cromartie, and Ellis Valentine, as well as veteran leadership from Big Red Machine castoff, Tony Perez. Unfortunately, a weak rotation and an unreliable bullpen limited the Expos to 75 victories, leaving their performance twenty-six games behind the division-leading Phillies. In 1978, the Expos acquired pitchers Grimsley, Rudy May, and Darold Knowles, but these acquisitions added just one victory to the team's 1977 won-loss record. Starter Wayne Twitchell was bewildered by the result. "We had so much talent. I can't understand why we didn't win more than 76 games."

The Expos were a disgruntled lot, both on and off the field. In an era of escalating salaries, GM Charlie Fox was a hard line negotiator on contractual matters. He was nostalgic for his years with the Giants' organization, a time when the reserve clause dictated that players had little choice but to accept management's offer. But the Expos had heard enough "Willie Mays stories." Darold Knowles had already vowed not to return to the team as a free agent in 1979. By the conclusion of the decade, Del Unser, Rudy May, and even Tony Perez followed him out of Montreal. A fracas with union representative Steve Rogers made Fox a convenient scapegoat for the Expos' shortcomings in 1978, but even with him out of the picture, the Expos had other problems.

In a player survey, Montreal ranked third only behind Minnesota and Toronto as the least popular destination for free agents. A list of player grievances included delays going through customs on every road trip, the skyrocketing cost of living, unfamiliarity with the French language, an uncertain political situation, and high taxes. None of these factors were within the players' control. Warren Cromartie complained that American, Canadian, and Quebec taxes ate up 52 percent of his paycheck. Moreover, the Cro felt unappreciated in a city where baseball played second fiddle to the Montreal Canadiens. Meanwhile, Olympic Stadium had already become an unpopular playing facility. Its proximity to the St. Lawrence River resulted in unusually chilly temperatures in April and May, the playing surface was hard, and there was an impersonal feeling about the place. Richie Hebner compared playing in the Big O to playing in "the world's largest toilet bowl."

Perhaps most disconcerting to club owner Charles Bronfman was that the Expos lost approximately $2 million in 1978. Only four National League teams—the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Philadelphia Phillies—claimed to have made a profit that year. Despite author Peter C. Newman's assertion that Bronfman was the wealthiest owner in the major leagues, the Seagram's scion had little patience for a balance sheet marred by red ink. With $7 million already budgeted for salaries, rising airline and hotel costs, and a declining Canadian dollar, the Expos projected that they needed to attract 1.7 million fans in 1979—a quarter million higher than their attendance record—simply to break even. The novelty of Olympic Stadium had already worn off among fans and players, so it was essential that the Expos field a playoff contender in 1979 if they were to substantially increase attendance. Failure to do so might result in Bronfman putting the team up for sale.

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MAXWELL KATES tried his hand at radio broadcasting and standup comedy before deciding to become an accountant. An Ottawa native now living in Toronto, he has lectured on baseball at York University and Seneca College, and his work has appeared in The National Pastime and on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is a SABR member and director of marketing for that organization's Hanlan's Point Chapter.

© 2006 Mark C. Gribben


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