The storied history of Canada’s first Major League Baseball team has never truly had its day in the sun. Authors Danny Gallagher, Jonah Keri, and Claude Brochu have written memoirs about the Montreal Expos and their 36-year stay, but to this day, it’s hard to find much about what was in the most romantic city pro baseball has ever had to offer. And so with that, we bring you a pecking order of the legacy for each man ever to piece together a lineup card for the ‘Spos.
11. Bill Virdon wears the goat-horns on this list for his time managing the ‘Spos in the 1983 and most of ’84 season. His win-loss record of 146-147 wasn’t his biggest downfall. Nor was his ability to teach players how to field properly. Young Expo prospects Terry Francona and Tim Wallach both raved about what they learned from their old-school manager.
It was more of the skipper’s failure to get the most out of a star-studded roster which included Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines all still in their prime. Not to mention the winningest pitcher in team history, Steve Rogers, and the addition of baseball’s all-time hit king Pete Rose (He’d collect his 4000th hit early in the ’84 season). Virdon never did manage to kick-start this crew and somehow alienated fan favorite Warren Cromartie in the process.
Virdon was brought in to drive a Cadillac that was built to perform now. Donald Sutherland summed it up brilliantly when narrating ‘Les Expos Nos Amours: The Olympic Stadium Years’ stated, “When fans expected daring, what they got was conservative.”
10. Karl Kuehl sputtered to the worst record of any Expo manager ever during his abbreviated season of 1976. Montreal’s 43-85 start to the year, a season in which the Expos would be overshadowed by the Summer Olympics in the same town, was enough for team President John McHale to cut this manager’s stay short. McHale later expressed regret for this hire in the first place.
However, not all was lost for Kuehl. His tutelage of a young fielder/catcher named Gary Carter in the Expos farm system of the early 70’s paid massive dividends for the not only the team but Kuehl himself. Kuehl even got a name mention during Carter’s thank you speech in his 2003 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
9. Charlie Fox took over for Kuehl, there to mop up at the end of the ’76 season. Fox closed the Jarry Park era out with a poor 12-22 record. His winning percentage of .353 wasn’t much better than his predecessor, but he did manage to keep his crew fighting for pride at a point in the season when everyone knew there was nothing left to play for. More of a scout throughout his post-playing baseball career, Fox also did oversee a September call-up of a young Andre Dawson who would be integrated into the Expo lineup for good over the following ten seasons.
8. Tom Runnells was thrown the keys to the ’91 Expos just weeks after his 36th birthday, rendering him the youngest manager in team history. That season started off as a tire fire after the team lost 29 of its first 49 games, that opened the door for Runnells to take over from the fired Buck Rodgers.
To be fair, a midseason sale from the franchise’s founding owner, Charles Bronfman, to a group led by club President Claude Brochu added uncertainty off the field. To make matters worse, support beams of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium collapsed that September causing a 56-tonne concrete slab to drop onto an exterior walkway. Mercifully, no-one was injured, but it did push the Expos final 13 home games on the road, making life even tougher on Runnells who appeared over-matched for all the distractions.
Runnells started the following season angering the fan base by moving three-time Gold Glove-winning third baseman Tim Wallach over to first base to make room for prospect Bret Barberie. The shake-up backfired when both players responded with sluggish performances at the plate. Newly named General Manager Dan Duquette would fire the manager.
Not all was lost in this managerial run though. On July 28th, 1991 it would be Runnells in the manager’s seat of the dugout at Dodger Stadium when his starting pitcher, Dennis Martinez, would pitch the 13thperfect game in MLB history. It would be the only perfecto in the 36-year existence of the Expos and the lone bright spot during the Tom Runnells managerial era.
7. Jeff Torborg had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the legendary Felipe Alou (more on Felipe later) two months into the 2001 season. Attendance had bottomed out, and the team’s front office decided “there is nowhere to go but up” according to the team executive Vice-President David Samson. The squad did a little better on the field under Torborg, posting a .431 winning percentage. That was marginally better than the 21-32 mark that Alou posted to start the year, but attendance never did recover.
As a broadcaster before coming to Montreal, Torborg had expressed doubts about the Expos ability to compete on the field under the budget constraints they faced. Apparently managing there didn’t inspire much change to his lack of confidence when he followed owner Jeffrey Loria out of town to the Florida Marlins.
He didn’t have much to work with, but still, an uninspiring stretch of Expos baseball puts Jeff Torborg at number seven on this list.
6. Jim Fanning was the team’s first General Manager and developed an excellent eye for talent. Gentleman Jim is perhaps most famous for helping unfold chairs for fans to sit on mere hours before the Expos first ever home game at Jarry Park in April of 1969. He was also the only man ever to manage the ‘Spos to a playoff appearance winning a wild-card round (before wild-card rounds even existed) over the Phillies in the strike-shortened split season of 1981.
Although Jim deserves much credit for all of these achievements, he was also terribly ill-suited to be a manager.
He took over a team that couldn’t get over the hump in ’79 and ’80 and barely got them through in that season of ’81. But his most damning moment (and probably the franchise’s too) was Blue Monday. It was Fanning who chose to bring ace Steve Rogers out of the bullpen on two days rest to try and get the decisive 5th game of the NLCS to the bottom of the 9thstill tied.
As lefty Bill “Spaceman” Lee fumed in the Montreal bullpen, Rogers came out and hung one high over the plate which Rick Monday slugged over the Olympic Stadium wall. That would turn out to be the game-winning home run for the eventual world champion Dodgers who would go on to beat the Yankees in the fall classic to win it all.
That was all she wrote for the Expos only playoff showing. The fans of Montreal never forgave Rick Monday or Jim Fanning.
5. Gene Mauch gave the Expos instant credibility when he accepted John McHale’s offer to become their founding manager for the 1969 season. Mauch had done well in small-ball managing the Philadelphia Phillies but had gained a reputation for never getting over the hump in failing to ever win a pennant in his nine seasons with the Phils.
Montreal’s new team didn’t need a finisher yet, and so Mauch was the perfect fit for the expansion Expos, Canada’s first Major League Baseball franchise. He even proudly defended those mocking the ‘Spos tri-colored caps.
Highlights from the Gene Mauch era with the Expos included a victory over the eventual world champion Mets in the first match in franchise history. And later another win over the Cardinals in the team’s first-ever home game which was also the first ever big-league game played outside of the United States. Mauch further endeared himself to the Montreal faithful by grabbing the mic to address the Jarry Park crowd to thank them for their support and promising “a whole lot more wins” at the conclusion of the final home game in that maiden voyage of 1969. The team had lost a dismal 110 games that first year.
The excitement of shooting for 70 in ‘70 would bring a countdown until the late stages of September when they finally hit that plateau culminating in a 21-win improvement over the previous season. A pennant race in ’73 would follow, but it would be all downhill from there until walking off the golf course into his California home following the 1975 season when his wife told him he had a phone call, and it was John McHale telling him he was fired. Again, years later, McHale would admit to regretting that decision.
4. Dick Williams had a proven track record before arriving in Montreal for the 1977 season. Williams had already presided over the Boston Red Sox “Impossible Dream” season of 1967 and back-to-back World Championships with the Oakland A’s. He was to take the fruits of Mel Didier’s prized Expos farm system and make them into a winner inside the then-brand-new Olympic Stadium. Efforts to help ownership recruit free agent star Reggie Jackson failed (Reggie chose the Yankees instead) but Dick did make progress in molding young players Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Tim Raines and Steve Rogers into consistent All-Star caliber performers.
Williams’ 95-win campaign of 1979 would be the greatest Expo win total of all-time. But unlucky for them, they would be two games short of the NL East champion Pirates who would go on to win the World Series that fall. A year later, Les Expos would fall agonizingly short again, this time finishing a single game back of the eventual 1980 World Champion Phillies.
Feuding with the Ace of the pitching staff, Steve Rogers, while a propensity to lose big games when it mattered most ultimately spelled the end of Dick Williams in the second half of the 1981 season. The team would crack the postseason nut without him but fail to live up to their expectations of “the team of the 80’s” afterward.
3. Frank Robinson is a name far more synonymous with a Hall of Fame playing career and the distinction of being the first ever African-American manager than it is for managing the ’04 Expos. Hired just days before spring training of 2002 after MLB’s plans to fold the ‘Spos and Minnesota Twins were scuttled by a U.S. court, Robinson actually relished the chance to manage his own team “without an owner looking over my shoulder.” The Expos were ownerless and were run by the Commissioner’s Office.
Not much was expected of those penny-pinching Expos but gut instinct, old school feel, and throwing analytics to the wind, along with an All-Star first half from 2nd baseman, Jose Vidro catapulted Montreal into an unexpected wild-card race. That was good enough to convince GM Omar Minaya to be a buyer at the deadline and trade for prized pitcher, Bartolo Colon. They fizzled in the end but posted a winning record both that season and the year after.
Robinson faced his share of criticism for bunting too much and not relating to players 40 years his junior. But given the circumstances of what he had to work with. We give him number 3 on this list.
2. Buck Rodgers took over a Montreal squad in transition going into the 1985 season. Superstar Catcher Gary Carter had just been traded to the Mets in the team’s first major salary dump. Buck had failed in his first go-round running a roster with the Milwaukee Brewers and was determined not to repeat his earlier mistakes of micro-management and trying to do too much.
His teams were scrappy, entertaining and he was fun-loving as testified in Jonah Keri’s Canadian number 1 bestseller and outstanding memoir of the Expos, ‘Up, Up and Away.’ Buck loved to sit in the bar, pound beers and tell stories.
Rodgers would begin 1987 by losing Andre Dawson to free agency and Tim Raines to a salary dispute for the first month of the season. Buck manipulated that depleted lineup to win 91 games that summer in part from the emergence of Andres Gallaraga who stepped up to hit .305 that year. All good enough to earn Buck Rodgers the 1987 NL Manager of the Year award.
But as all too often in Expo lore, the team came up short once again. This time, finishing four games back of the Cardinals. The biggest collapse in franchise history would follow in 1989 when Buck’s Expos would blow an early August three-game pennant lead to drop 37 of their final 55 games and fall to .500 by the end. GM Dave Dombrowski had reportedly tried to fire Rodgers at the end of this slide but was overruled by team owner Charles Bronfman. Once the team was sold to new ownership less than two years later, Buck was shown the door.
1. Felipe Alou is the undisputed greatest Montreal Expos manager of all-time. There is plenty of debate to be had on this top 11/only 11 list, but you will find the least argument when it comes to this top spot. Alou not only sparked a clubhouse from complete revolt early in the 1992 season when he took over and led them to an uplifting campaign, but he also gave the team’s crumbling fan base new hope that better days were ahead.
The ’93 version of les bleu, rouge et blanc would win 33 of their final 42 games to put a scare into the eventual NL Champion Phillies. It was Alou who would help a young Pedro Martinez harness his control problems by convincing him to throw his fastball with four fingers instead of just 2 in doing his part to make GM Dan Duquette’s Delino Deshields for Pedro Martinez trade one of the greatest MLB steals of all-time.
The ’94 Expos had the best record in baseball and were on pace for a 103-win season on August 12thof that year when the season would be interrupted, and later canceled, by a players strike.
The disappointment of what should have been from that season remains a sore spot to Expo fans and baseball historians everywhere. One can only wonder if baseball in Montreal would still be alive today had Alou’s ’94 Expos had their chance to finish what they started. But to this day, Felipe insists if and when a team does return to Montreal, it will be the dream of righting the wrong of ’94 that will ultimately make it happen.
(Photo Credits: Getty Images, Associated Press, Alan Diaz/AP)