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Friday, October 19, 2012

October 19, 1981. A moment in time: Blue Monday


The closer you get, the further I fall
I'll be over the edge now, in no time at all
I'm falling faster and faster and faster
with no time to stall
the closer you get, the further I fall


 Black Monday.
 
When I write that and you read it, what does it make you think of?
For some, it wont mean anything. It is not a common phrase. For others, it could mean various things. Most people remember it as that day in 1987 when the stock market crashed, losing 25% of its value in a single day. I certainly remember that day. I was in University and it was a very big deal. To this day, the Black Monday decline of 1987 was the largest one-day percentage decline in the history of the Dow Jones. However, that isn't what this blog and moment in time is about.


'''

 Blue Monday is a very famous song by Fats Domino. One of the first popular Rock and Roll songs. Again, a very significant event in time,  but also not what this blog is about.

 
The topic of my blog is Blue Monday. I would venture to say that almost everyone reading this blog has no idea what that means to me or those who remember it. If you are American, you probably  don't. If you are Canadian, you might. If you are a baseball fan it is possible you have heard it. If you are (now were) a Montreal Expos fan then you instantly know what I am referring to. It is an event that sticks in your brain and heart to this day.
It was the day a baseball player named Rick Monday who had always been a thorn in the side of the Montreal Expos did something for a team, the Los Angeles Dodgers,  that had always owned the Montreal Expos and crushed the dreams of that team,  its long suffering fans and a nation riveted to their TV sets on a cold dreary October afternoon in 1981.
It was cold, it was damp — and it was the end of the Expos’ most successful season. The end of a dream that turned into a nightmare.
 Today marks 31 years since that very significant day in my life. It seems so distant now,  but also like it was yesterday. It truly is one of those JFK or September 11th moments for me. It was just a baseball game,  but it was so much more than that. I was only 16, but it seemed like I had lived a long and interesting life and that day was a long time coming. Truth is...I had..and it was.
 I have mentioned in passing in a few blogs I have written over the last 3 years, but growing up, sports was a very big part of my life. Baseball, for a few years (okay, more than a few years) was all that mattered to me. In my life, baseball came first,  everything else came second. So much so, that girls used to fall all over me and I really didn't care, because I did not have time for them. I had time for baseball. Even more specifically, Montreal Expos baseball. I was so into it, that at one time I would spend every waking hour I had keeping personal updated stats of every player that was on the Montreal Expos, and at times, the whole league. I knew every single player,  on every team,  their number, their stats and just about every team they had ever played for. And...I was about 7 years old when I started doing all that.


 
I was 4 years old when the Montreal Expos came into being in 1969. Of course, I don't remember any of that, nor going to games that first season (although I am sure I did) but it certainly was an event that would shape my younger years. To Montrealers, it was just another event that signaled that Montreal was now a big time,  world class city. Two years earlier, Montreal held the World Expo in 1967, which was also the 100th birthday of Canada (the name Montreal Expos was derived from that event) and the success of those two events led in large part to Montreal getting the 1976 Summer Olympics. Those were very heady days for a city that was just coming into its own.


 "The history of baseball in Montreal is long and storied. During my father’s formative years, Montreal was a hotbed of young up-and-coming baseball talent, due mainly to the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team. In 1946 Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in professional sports with the Royals. So it made a lot of sense when in 1969 the first professional baseball team to be located outside of the U.S. would be the Montreal Expos. Montreal was riding high at this time: Expo ’67 was a huge success, finally putting the city on par with such great cities as Paris, New York, and Tokyo; Separatism was not “officially” on people’s minds; the exchange rate was about even between the Canadian and U.S. dollars; and the terrible events now known as the October Crisis were still a year off. Montreal and Canada had come of age: A new Canadian flag flew over parliament. Trudeau, Canada’s J.F.K., re-energized the country. And the Expos, a labour of love for Charles Bronfman, brought professional baseball to Montreal. Those first years at Jarry Park are warmly remembered by those who were there. It might not have been the best park, but it was grass and outside and had an atmosphere that rallied fans and players alike."

-Ari Grief

 While I don't remember that first season in 1969, what I do remember is being in the backyard with my father and playing catch. In those days, my father was around quite a bit more than in the years to come. He was a family man, had a nine to five job and when dinner time struck, he was there and we all ate dinner at the dinner table, seemingly at 6pm sharp each night. The ritual was the same every night. My father would pull into the driveway, the garage door was engaged and being that my room was just above the garage, our two dogs, Mickey and Velvet would come running into my room, jump up and down until the noise stopped,  then run towards the door to greet my father. Those dogs loved my father and my parents would always tell stories on how protective Velvet was of me and my sister. Velvet was a very sweet dog, loved everyone and everything, but if you got too close to either of us, first she would nudge you away,  then she would growl, and nobody ever tried to see what she would do after that.  Mickey was the protector of the two, but Velvet was the boss and Mickey knew it.  My mother would shout out to us "dinner" and if we didn't come right away, the second call came quickly and we better have been there. When we played catch, Velvet would just lie in the shade. Mickey would run back and forth between us as we through the ball. If we ever dropped it,  he took it, chewed it to shreds and then brought it back to us.
 As I have said, baseball was always a part of my life, for as long as I have any memory of anything. I can't remember a time when I could not throw or catch a baseball. I was a natural from day one. I was one of those kids who was always a few steps ahead of the other kids when it came to baseball. When I was five I could throw like a 10 year old. When I was ten I could throw like an 18 year old. My father used to tell others that even when I was very young his hands would ache after playing catch with me. I threw that hard. Baseball was meant for me and I was meant for it.
My father would t
hrow these super high pop ups and I was able to catch every one. And I never got tired of trying. After a while, even when he wasn't around, I would throw them for myself. I loved baseball. Every aspect of baseball.
  Some of my fondest memories are playing catch with my dad in the backyard and playing ball on the street with my childhood friends. The other great memories were going to the Montreal Expos games with my father (we had season tickets from day one until we moved from Montreal in 1977) and staying home and either listening to the games on the radio or watching them on TV and scoring the games. For those of you who don't really understand what scoring a game is,  I will get to that later. Basically, whatever my father did, I copied it.

 

A memory that is etched into my mind for eternity is the theme song that was specific to the Expos, and one I would always hear as we drove home from the game, or as the radio broadcast started and ended. It was always played.
I still get that very good feeling every time I hear it, to this day.
 

I lived for the Expos and I cheered like no other ever did. In the early years,  most of the teams ranged from mediocre to downright awful. But to me, every game meant something and I died every time they lost and was ecstatic when they won. I didn't really understand the concept of a meaningless game, which in those days the Expos played many. But the reality was,  in terms of success and winning, the early days of the franchise brought some very lean years and some very poor talent. When you are young you don't realize that, but as a 47 year old man now, I do. The players I worshipped, were in many ways, just hanging on and hoping to last a little longer in the major leagues on a team that was not going to win many games. In their first year,  they lost 20 straight games and that was not something that was uncommon. There were a lot of long losing streaks in the early days.
 That seemed to change around 1974 or 1975. Although the team  was still relatively bad, better and younger players were starting to come up and there was hope that the losing teams would soon become winning ones. Two of those players were Ellis Valentine and Steve Rogers.

 
 To this day, Ellis Valentine was one of the most naturally talented players I have ever seen. He could hit for power and for average. He was fast. He could steal bases and run down sharply hit fly balls in the gap. And...he probably had the greatest outfield arm  that baseball has ever seen. He was a superstar in the making. Today the big buzz phrase is the 5 Tool Player. Before that phrase was being used, he was that sort of raw talent. The Expos had had some very good players to that point, namely Rusty Staub (Le Grande Orange), Ken Singleton and Bob Bailey, but no one that approached the talent level of Ellis Valentine. He would become, indirectly, very important in the events that took place 31 years ago today.

 

 Steve Rogers was a great baseball pitcher. Had he been on any kind of a good team for most of his career, he would be known today for how successful he was. He was always in the top 3 or 4 pitchers in baseball and truly the ace of the Montreal staff for about 10 years. He was known as "the ace of aces". He also was front and center on that day in October of 1981. He came up in 1973, and was Rookie of The Year. By 1974 he was an All Star and earned that honor 4 more times in his 13 year career. His best year was 1982, in which he won 19 games. That was the year after. The year after the Montreal Expos dream of glory died when Rogers and Rick Monday met on that baseball field. But again, more about that later.

 
Many other future Expo greats would come up to the major leagues around that time. Warren Cromartie (Cro), Andre Dawson (The Hawk), Larry Parrish and Gary Carter (The Kid) also were just young players who came up and developed in that two year period. All of them would be around on that day in 1981. By that time, many more important pieces had been added over the years, through trades, drafting and free agency. By the late 1970's,  the Montreal Expos were a winning, successful and contending team for the pennant. However, it seemed they never could quite get over the hump.
Mike Marshall was one of those players that just becomes a superstar on your team but for whatever reason you have to get rid of him. He was and is an incredibly smart guy (he earned his Phd. while he was pitching for the Expos from 1970 to 1973) and he was also branded as very difficult. By 1973, he was the top relief pitcher in baseball for the Expos and by the time the 1974 season had arrived, he had been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a couple of players who were long past their prime. He went on that year to win the Cy Young Award as the top pitcher in the National League, an award rarely won by a relief pitcher. In spite of that, and the continuing success that he had, he played for 9 times in his 15 year Major League career.
It can be mostly stated that in the modern era of baseball, you cannot win a World Series without a stopper. A closer. A pitcher who comes in to the game in the 8th or 9th inning and finishes off the game for you. The Yankees had Goose Gossage, the Pittsburgh Pirates had Kent Tekulve and later the Yankees had Mariano Rivera. Those were all great teams, but without those closers, they probably would not have won it all. With the trading of Mike Marshall,  no matter how good the Expos were to become, there was always the sense that they lacked the closer needed to win the big games and win it all. And..that was a correct assessment which they attempted to rectify in the late 1970's.

 
 In life, you start your journey with many people. Many are important. But not all get to make that final journey with you to the battles and challenges that you aspire to fight. That happens for many reasons. Ellis Valentine was one of the originals that didn't make it to that important game in October of 1981, for two reasons.
 First, as time passed, Ellis Valentine never lived up to the expectations that the potential suggested he would. For sure, he was a very good player,  almost all-star caliber, but not the superstar the Expos had hoped he would be. Because of that, the fans were sour on him after about 5 seasons with the club. 
Being a fan who remembers just about everything that happened to the Expos back then, I remember the incident that likely caused him to regress.


 Valentine was one of a trio of young Expos outfielders (with Andre Dawson and Warren Cromartie) for whom stardom was predicted in the late 1970s. Only Dawson met those expectations. Valentine had two straight 25-HR, 76-RBI seasons (1977-78; .293, .289) as Montreal's everyday right fielder and hit two inside-the-park homers in Olympic Stadium in 1977. In 1978 he led NL outfielders with 24 assists, winning a Gold Glove; in 1979 he had 21 HR and a career-high 82 RBI. But on May 30, 1980 he was hit in the face with a pitch by Roy Thomas of the Cardinals and was out 40 days with a fractured cheekbone..... Valentine could have been on his way to his best season: He finished with a .315 average, 67 RBI, and 13 HR in just 86 games. In 1981 Valentine hit just .208 and was traded to the Mets at the end of May for Jeff Reardon and Dan Norman. He hit .280 in 1982, but his power was gone. He hit only 8 HR in 1982 and 13 for the Angels in 1983. 

 -from the above link

Basically, just as he was hitting his top stride as a major league player, that pitch in the face effectively stopped his stardom in its tracks. He was never the same again. Many claim he became gun shy at the plate and pitchers would pitch him inside just enough to remind him of what happened. In my opinion, that was all true.
Since the Mike Marshall trade, the Expos had long been looking for that quality closer that could put them over the top. In the middle of that 1981 season, they traded Valentine for Jeff Reardon, an up and coming closer who was supposed to take them the rest of the way.
At the end of his career, Ellis Valentine was again hit in the face with a pitch and sadly never reached his true potential. 
While Reardon came as the hope, as time went on his manager, Dick Williams lost confidence in him. In fact the whole team was at odds with Williams and shortly before the end of the 1981 season, he was fired and replaced by Jim Fanning. I met and knew Jim Fanning, as he knew my father and while we had seasons tickets to the games at Jarry Park, he sat right next to us on many occasions. He was a very nice guy, and a decent general manager, but as a manager he was neither qualified nor prepared, and that would also come back to haunt the Expos on Blue Monday. After a couple of years, Jeff Reardon turned into the best reliever in baseball, but for that season, the season the Expos needed him most to be that type of player, he was not. Not ready yet.
The first manager of the Expos in 1969 was Gene Mauch. While he was an experienced manager, he had a reputation as a leader who couldn't get the team to the promised land. Since the Expos were likely to be very bad for a few years anyway that wasn't an issue at first. As time went on, it became an issue and he was fired in 1975. Two more lousy managers came and went until Dick Williams was hired. Williams was feisty, difficult, gruff,  but he was also known as a winner. 
While Gene Mauch's 1964 Phillies have gone down in history as one of the worst collapses in baseball,  Williams was guiding his teams to multiple championships.

  Mauch came tantalizingly close to the World Series on three occasions. In late September 1964, his Phillies had a record of 90–60, a 6 12 game lead in the National League with 12 games left to play, and were starting a 7-game home stand. Mauch decided to start his two pitching aces, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, in 7 of the last 10 games, 6 of those starts on 2 days rest (all of which they lost). The Phillies faded, losing 10 games in a row before winning their last 2 games to finish tied for second place with the Cincinnati Reds, one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in a collapse infamously known as the "Phold." The other 2 near-World-Series cases came with the Angels.

-from Wikipedia 

Note the two days rest thing. That would become hauntingly similar under another Expos manager at exactly the wrong time. 
  
 When Dick Williams took over the 1967 Red Sox, they were a sad lot of losers.

Boston had suffered through eight straight seasons of losing baseball, and attendance had fallen to such an extent that owner Tom Yawkey was threatening to move the team. The Red Sox had talented young players, but the team was known as a lazy "country club." Williams decided to risk everything and impose discipline on his players. He vowed that "we will win more ballgames than we lose" – a bold statement for a club that had finished only a half-game from last place in 1966. In spring training he drilled players in fundamentals for hours.

The Red Sox began 1967 playing better baseball and employing the aggressive style of play that Williams had learned with the Dodgers. Williams benched players for lack of effort and poor performance, and battled tooth and nail with umpires. Through the All-Star break, Boston fulfilled Williams' promise and played better than .500 ball, hanging close to the American League's four contending teams – the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox and California Angels. Outfielder Carl Yastrzemski, in his seventh season with the Red Sox, transformed his hitting style to become a pull-hitter, eventually winning the 1967 AL Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs (tying Harmon Killebrew of the Twins), and RBI.

In late July, the Red Sox rattled off a ten-game winning streak on the road and came home to a riotous welcome from 10,000 fans at Boston's Logan Airport. The Red Sox inserted themselves into a five-team pennant race, and stayed in the hunt despite the loss of star outfielder Tony Conigliaro to a beanball on August 18. On the closing weekend of the season, led by Yastrzemski and 22-game-winning pitcher Jim Lonborg, Boston defeated the Twins in two head-to-head games, while Detroit split its series with the Angels. The "Impossible Dream" Red Sox had won their first AL pennant since 1946. The Red Sox extended the highly talented and heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals to seven games in the 1967 World Series, losing to the great Bob Gibson three times.


-from Wikipedia

Following his Boston experience, Williams moved to the Oakland A's. And what did he do with that team?

Inheriting a second-place team from predecessor John McNamara, Williams promptly directed the A's to 101 victories and their first AL West title in 1971 behind another brilliant young player, pitcher Vida Blue. Despite being humbled in the ALCS by the defending World Champion Orioles, Finley brought Williams back for 1972, when the "Oakland Dynasty" began. Off the field, the A's players brawled with each other and defied baseball's tonsorial code. Because long hair, mustaches and beards were now the rage in the "civilian" world, Finley decided on a mid-season promotion encouraging his men to wear their hair long and grow facial hair. Fingers adopted his trademark handlebar mustache (which he still has to this day); Williams himself grew a mustache.

Of course, talent, not hairstyle, truly defined the Oakland Dynasty of the early 1970s. The 1972 A's won their division by 5½ games over the White Sox and led the league in home runs, shutouts and saves. They defeated the Tigers in a bitterly fought ALCS, and found themselves facing the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. With the A's leading power hitter, Jackson, out with an injury, Cincinnati's Big Red Machine was favored to win, but the home run heroics of Oakland catcher Gene Tenace and the managerial maneuvering of Williams resulted in a seven-game World Series victory for the A's, their first championship since 1930, when they played in Philadelphia.
In 1973, with Williams back for an unprecedented (for the Finley era) third straight campaign, the A's again coasted to a division title, then defeated Baltimore in the ALCS and the NL champion New York Mets in the World Series – each hard-fought series going the limit. With their World Series win, Oakland became baseball's first repeat champion since the 1961–62 New York Yankees. But Williams had a surprise for Finley. Tired of his owner's meddling, and upset by Finley's public humiliation of second baseman Mike Andrews for his fielding miscues during the World Series, Williams resigned.


-from Wikipedia

Clearly, while Williams was very abrasive and the players always disliked him, he knew how to win and get them to play to their maximum potential. Just the type of manager that the 1977 Montreal Expos, who despite their young talent had lost 107 of their 162 games in 1976.
The turnaround was immediate. They were much improved and pennant contenders 3 years later in 1979 and 1980, both times falling just short.
However, problems arose.

   But Williams' hard edge alienated his players and ultimately wore out his welcome. He labeled pitcher Steve Rogers a fraud with "king of the mountain syndrome" – meaning that Rogers had been a good pitcher on a bad team for so long that he was unable to "step up" when the team became good. Williams also lost confidence in closer Jeff Reardon, whom the Montreal front office had acquired in a much publicized trade with the Mets. When the 1981 Expos performed below expectations, Williams was fired during the pennant drive. With the arrival of his easy-going successor Jim Fanning, who restored Reardon to the closer's role, the inspired Expos made the playoffs for the only time in their 36-year history in Montreal. However, they fell in heartbreaking fashion to Rick Monday and the eventual World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers in a five-game NLCS. 

-from Wikipedia

And so after those two failed runs in 1979 and 1980, we arrived on that day in October of 1981. It had been a turbulent season. There was a players strike that shortened the season, Jeff Reardon had not performed as hoped, the team appeared to be falling short again, the savoir manager was fired during the stretch run, and in spite of all that, the team made it to the playoffs and beat the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies. All they had to do was beat the Los Angeles Dodgers and they were on to the World Series.
Of course, that was not going to be easy. The Dodgers had always owned the Expos, for as long as I could remember. 
In addition, they had been a championship team for many years.  Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Don Sutton, Bill Russell, Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes, Steve Yeager, Pedro Guerrero. The Dodgers always had the best players. And now, they had Fernando Valenzuela, who seemed unbeatable, and Rick Monday, who always seemed to kill the Expos whenever he played against them.
The Dodgers had just come off two World Series losses to the New York Yankees in 1977 and 1978, and would go on to win the World Series in 1981.
Montreal faced off against the Dodgers in a best-of-five series with the winner going to the World Series. They had all the big names, all the players that had murdered us over the years. Garvey, Cey, Lopes, Monday, Baker and many more. But we had the young, fresh, talented, and now mature team that could beat them. The stage was set. This was 13 years in the making. A city,  a country, and a generation of Canadian baseball fans were glued to every moment of it.
 The Expos won the matchup's first two games, leaving them three chances on their home field at Olympic Stadium to wrap up the series. It seemed inconceivable that the team could lose now.
 But instead of folding, the Dodgers rallied to even the series at two games apiece. Because of the timing of the series, the Expos ace, Steve Rogers was not available to start Game 5. Ray Burris, who was having a very good season and was a competent pitcher,  was the man the team rested their hopes on. While Rogers was not available (seemingly) the Dodgers ace,  Fernando Valenzuela was. And at this point in his career, he was almost unhittable and scoring any runs against him was next to impossible. The Expos were now up against it.
I remember that day very clearly. In the past, while I was forced to go to school when the Expos played day games, I always had a transistor radio and listened to the game in my ear while the teachers hounded me about that. I didn't care.  I had to hear the game. In this case, that wasn't going to be good enough. I didn't have to skip school, because the game started after lunch. And secondly, everyone was staying home to watch the game. I was to be no different. I watched every single moment of it, right down to the heartbreaking end. Every second. Every play. Didn't even go to the bathroom. While I always scored the game, which meant recording every detail of the game on a score sheet, something I had done for just about every Expos game for as long as I was able to,  I did not score this game.  I sat,  in my bedroom, on the bed, and watched the game.
   The decisive game was tied 1-1 in the ninth inning when Expos manager Jim Fanning went to the bullpen. Ray Burris had gone eight strong innings, but was pinch hit for in the bottom of the eighth inning. Fanning asked Rogers, his ace starter, to pitch in relief on short rest. It was a decision Expos fans would regret.
In the bullpen at the time,  warming up, right beside Rogers,  was Jeff Reardon, whose job it was to come in to pitch in exactly this type of situation. Rogers had rarely if ever pitched in relief in his now 8 or 9 year career. It was a daring and gutsy, and ultimately stupid move that backfired. An experienced manager would have either gone with Reardon or another experienced reliever. It was no time to use a pitcher on short rest who was not familiar with pitching in that role. It was the same thing Gene Mauch did in 1964. While Gene Mauch was caustic and hard to take, Jim Fanning was a nice guy that everybody loved. But neither were very good managers. Everyone hated Dick Williams, but he was a winner and he always made the right move when it mattered.
As mentioned earlier, Rick Monday had always been a thorn in the Expos side. He also was one of those players who owned Steve Rogers. Every pitcher or hitter has one of those. Aside from that, Rick Monday was also always a very good player.
 In 1963, Tommy Lasorda, then a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, offered Rick Monday, and Rick's mother Nelda, $20,000 to sign with the Dodgers out of high school. But Arizona State University coach Bobby Winkles, who was also from Monday's native Arkansas, convinced them that he would look after Monday. So he didn't sign and two years later in 1965, he was the first player chosen  in the first Baseball Amateur draft. Similarly, Steve Rogers also rejected his first draft experience and was drafted 3 years later by the Montreal Expos in 1970.

A star for the Sun Devils under head coach Winkles, on a team that included freshman Reggie Jackson, Monday led the Sun Devils to the 1965 College World Series championship  and earned All-America and College Player of the Year honors.
Monday went on to be an all star with Oakland, then Chicago and then finally the Los Angeles Dodgers, then managed by Tommy Lasorda. By 1981, he was mostly a back up, but on that day in October, he was in the starting line up and was involved in both runs that the Dodgers scored that day.
One win from the World Series, the Expos were tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the ninth inning. Ace pitcher Steve Rogers was on the mound. Olympic Stadium was buzzing.
And then, Rick Monday stepped to the plate.


With two outs,  Rick Monday launched a Rogers pitch over the wall for a game-winning homer. 
When he hit it, it didn't seem to be a home run type hit. It looked like a long fly ball. But the ball carried very well to right field in Olympic Stadium, and it just kept going and going.
Never in my life have I heard that very large roar of a crowd turn into a pin drop like a funeral was taking place in those 5 seconds that it took from the crack of the bat to the ball flying just barely over the fence.
 But still, there was the bottom of the ninth. After two outs,  two Expos drew walks and there was hope. The next batter was Jerry White, a long time Expo.
Jerry White. The poor mans superstar. The fourth guy. The guy who could never displace the big three, Valentine, Cromartie and Dawson. He was now our last hope. Our last shot to win it. And..he grounded out. With that, the wind was out of our sails, never to return.
The Dodgers would end up winning the World Series. The Expos never made the post-season again.

Rick  Monday,  on a Monday, wearing Dodger blue. a moment made to happen exactly as it ended up happening.
Every player on that  Montreal Expos team will always remember Blue Monday. So will all of those long suffering fans,  of which I am  one.

To Expos' baseball fans, Oct. 19, 1981 will always be known as "Blue Monday" 






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