YORKTON - There are disappointments in sports which for fans leaves lasting marks.
In Saskatchewan, the touchdown pass to Tony Gabriel (the 1976 Grey Cup), and the 13th man penalty, (2009 Grey Cup), are perhaps the most glaring examples.
But, if you are a baseball fan in Canada you are likely also to lament the Montreal Expos moving to Washington in 2005. I admit I still hope the Nationals lose every game they play.
I have always liked baseball, and growing up on a Saskatchewan farm there were only two TV channels, so when the Expos were on, and barn chores were done, I loved watching.
And through the 1980s the Expos were very entertaining with a bunch of stars including Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Tim Raines, and Gary Carter.
The string of fine years actually started in 1979 though, a year chronicled in a recent book release; ‘1979 The Expos First Great Season’ by Norm King.
I was 19 at the time, just out of high school and already a fan, so while the particulars of the season may have faded the book quickly brought up a flood of memories about the team, and its players.
How could one forget Rusty Staub who the book points out was the first big star for the Expos. He had a .296 average from 1969-71, averaging 26 home runs and 90 RBIs per year and a .406 OBP.
Or, Andre Dawson, who was a true five tool star. One passage from the book sums him up well; “Dawson did it all that day, with a home run, two doubles and an intentional walk, but the key to the win was his sacrifice bunt in the bottom of the 12th.”
Yes, I did a double take regarding the bunt, but this was the National League and a different era, one where things such as knowing how to sacrifice bunt, do a hit and run, steal a base, where still exciting elements of the game – a far cry from the home run or strikeout which is largely the accepted strategy of the game today.
Another example; “Up came the dangerous Mike Schmidt, (Philadelphia), who had hit his 44th home run of the season in the fifth. Schmidt brought his booming bat to the plate and … bunted? Instead of letting the future Hall of Famer use his power to win the game, manager Dallas Green called on the slugger to sacrifice the runners along. Schmidt executed and moved pinch-runner Lonnie Smith to third with the tying run.”
So just how different was baseball in 1979?
Well Atlanta’s Phil Niekro finished with 21 wins, but somehow also 20 losses.
Of course this was when pitching staffs regularly rotated only four starters, and the idea of pulling a starter unless absolutely necessary was still not prevalent. Starters were expected to be finishers too.
Baseball was different, and frankly more entertaining back then because more tools were used to get runs. Today, it’s go deep or retreat to the dugout.
That is one of the best elements of ‘1979’ that it provides readers who may only vaguely recall the Expos, a glimpse inside the game when it was quite different from what we see today.
There is also a rather sad yet heartwarming story about how ‘1979’ came to be.
Author Norm King was a huge Expos fan since the team was formed in 1969. And he spent what ended up being the last two years or so of his life working on the book.
“But he was diagnosed with a very serious cancer during that time,” explained Don Rice, (more on him in a bit). “He continued working on it because writing an Expos book was his dream. And the Expos 1979 season meant a lot to him. But nine months after he was diagnosed, he passed away in 2018.”
In stepped a group of friends who tried to finish off the book for him, including Leslie Matheis Hoffmeister, who had talked with Norm on the phone numerous times about the book and even flew from Baltimore to Ottawa more than once to meet him and go over the book. However, there were too many issues, the book couldn't be finished and eventually languished,” said Rice.
That's when Expos historian Danny Gallagher, who has written several books about the Expos, stepped in.
“He had known Norm and his widow Lucile McGregor, and contacted Lucile in April 2021 to find out what progress was being made on the book. He offered to finish it off and make Norm's dying dream a reality. Lucile gave him the go ahead,” said Rice.
And that was where Rice, who lives in Saskatoon became involved.
“Danny let me know about this project, and even though I never knew Norm, I empathized with the situation and really wanted to see that book become a reality. I had previously thought on my own that it would be outstanding to have a more recent book about the 1979 Expos published. (There had been a shorter book published in 1979.)”
So Rice volunteered to assist Danny, editing the book, adding the odd story, selecting pictures and working on the appendixes.
Rice was an easy sell from the perspective he was a huge Expose fan himself, having been born and raised in Ottawa.
“The family had the radio on with games, or TV, and we’d go to Montreal to see games,” he said in a recent Yorkton This Week interview.
Growing up playing baseball he said it was natural “to pretend to be Expo players.”
Being involved in the book brought Rice’s passion for the team back into sharp focus.
“My heart and soul was in it,” he said, adding that he was excited to help in-part because of King and also because he was “such a fan of the Expos.”
Rice said for him the book “is a great hop down memory lane,” with the book sharpening memories that he too admitted had faded.
The team, noted Rice was just so compelling to follow in 1979, thanks in-large-part to 39 come-from-behind wins.
“No game did you think they were out of it,” said Rice.
The book is certainly one old Expos followers will want to check out. It really brings into focus a different time in baseball, and a team still missed at least by this writer.