Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: The Montreal Expos
I always felt that Les’ Expos deserved better.
Lots of teams have fans that complain about the historic hard-luck of their favorite franchise. The Expos hardly had any fans to do the complaining for them. And even if they did, they might have complained in French, so few of us here in the U.S.A. would have understood them anyway.
Although I wasn’t a fan, I always had a soft spot for this team. When I opened my very first pack of baseball cards in 1972, the first player I pulled out of the pack was Expos outfielder Clyde Mashore. Clyde hit .227 that year, and retired the next season at the age of 28, having hit eight home runs in his short career.
Strangely, Mashore and I share a birthday, May 29th.
The next season, my dad took us on a trip to Canada, where we spent one night in Montreal. That afternoon, I turned on the black and white T.V. in the hotel room, and lo and behold, there was an Expos game live from Jarry Park. The broadcast was in French, the reception was poor, and after ten minutes my dad made me turn it off.
Jarry Park was the Expos home stadium from 1969-76. It seated barely 30,000 people, had a swimming pool beyond the outfield wall, and was the place where Willie Mays played his final regular season baseball game with the Mets in 1973. Today, the restructured edifice that was once Jarry Park is now called Stade Uniprix (Uniprix Stadium), and it is the main court of the Canada Masters Tennis Tournament.
It is also where Le Grande Orange once played baseball. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you were to put together an All-Time Expos squad, you would have yourself one pretty impressive roster. Here are just some of the names that come to mind:
1B A. Galarraga / A. Oliver
2B D. Deshields
SS W. Cordero
3B T. Wallach
C. G. Carter
OF A. Dawson
OF L. Walker
OF M. Grissom
OF V. Guerrerro
OF T. Raines
OF M. Alou
PH R. Staub
SP P. Martinez
SP D. Martinez
SP S. Rogers
SP R. Grimsley
RP J. Wetteland
RP J. Reardon
Two of these players, Carter and Dawson, are in the Hall of Fame. Two others, Guerrerro and Martinez (Pedro) will be. And in my opinion, still two more, Walker and Raines, deserve to be. Walker will be eligible next year, I believe.
In my opinion, Larry Walker is one of the most underrated players in baseball history.
I think you would be hard-pressed to find more than a couple of other teams in baseball history to have produced so many excellent outfielders in such a short period of time (about thirty years.)
But since I have limited myself, for the purposes of this series, to choosing just two players from each franchise, let it be Daniel Joseph (Rusty) Staub, and his former teammate, Steve Rogers.
Let’s take the pitcher first.
Even taking into account Pedro Martinez’s short but fantastic tenure with the Expos, Steve Rogers is the best starting pitcher the Expos ever had. Drafted in the first round (4th pick overall) of the 1971 Amateur Draft, Rogers was the ace of the Expos staff from 1975 through 1983. During those nine seasons, his highest ERA was 3.42 in the strike-shortened 1981 season.
A constant victim of poor run support, and almost always matching up against the other team’s staff ace, he managed to post an overall win-loss record above .500 seven times in those nine seasons, while the Expos as a whole finished above .500 in just four of those seasons.
Rogers best season was in 1982, when, at the age of 32, he finished second in the Cy Young voting. His record that year was 19-8, and he led the N.L. with a 2.40 ERA, and in ERA+ at 152. He pitched 14 complete games, hurled four shut-outs, and posted a WHIP of 1.119.
Rogers spent his entire 13 year career in Montreal, finishing with a career record of just 158-152. In various seasons, he led his league in complete games, shut-outs, ERA, ERA+…and losses. He was a five time all-star selection, and he had an excellent career ERA of 3.17.
Steve Rogers just might have been the finest .500 pitcher in baseball history.
Going back a little further in Expos history, back to the days of Jarry Park, a young man with orange hair (thus, Le Grande Orange), smoked line-drives around the frigid little ballpark.
Born in New Orleans on April Fool’s Day, 1944, he was signed by the Houston Colt .45’s (later, the Astros) in 1961. After six productive seasons in Houston, including the 1967 season in which he batted .333 at the age of 23, Staub came to Montreal just in time for their initial campaign in 1969.
Although he played only three seasons in Montreal, it was arguably the finest three-year stretch of his career. His OPS+ in those three seasons were: 166, 139 and 147. It’s extremely difficult to choose just one of those seasons as his best because in each one of them, he enjoyed a personal high in either runs scored, RBI’s, batting average, home runs, games played, doubles and on-base percentage.
But ultimately I believe Rusty Staub’s finest forgotten season while playing with Montreal was 1971. He played in all 162 games that year, led all outfielders with 20 assists, had a career high 186 hits, scored 94 runs and drove in 97, batted .311, and was sixth in the league with an OPS of .874. He also tied his career high with 289 total bases that season.
It occurred to me while researching this blog-post that Rusty Staub might have the best forgotten seasons of any Astro, Expo, or Tiger of all time. But I suppose it would be cheating to come back to him again and again, however tempting.
Growing up a Mets fan, it was strange as a young boy to learn that one of my favorite players, Rusty Staub, had actually played for any other team, let alone two other teams. It was also shocking to me when I learned just before the 1976 season began that Staub had been traded to Detroit for… Mickey Lolich! (?) At age 31, Staub had just set a Mets single-season record in 1975 with 105 RBI’s.
That summer, my dad took my family to Rusty Staub’s restaurant (he was a chef as well as a ball-player) in New York City. I spent the entire meal looking around the dining room to see if Rusty would make a grand entrance, but I was afraid that he might do it in a Tiger’s uniform. I couldn’t figure out if I would be exhilarated or horrified if Staub were to show up. Luckily, he never did.
After having returned to the Mets in 1981, Staub played parts of five more years for them before retiring in 1985 at the age of 41.
Staub is one of just three players in baseball history to hit a home run before his twentieth birthday, and then again after his fortieth. The other two players are Gary Sheffield and Ty Cobb.
But while the Georgia Peach’s reputation has steadily eroded over the years to the point where he can accurately be called a rather infamous figure in baseball history, Le Grande Orange will always be fondly remembered by the fans in several baseball towns across North America, at least by those of us who care to reflect upon his Best Forgotten Seasons.