By Stuart Nulman
Up, Up and Away! by Jonah Keri (Random House Canada, $32)
During the final weekend of this March, nearly 90,000 rabid Montreal baseball fans filled the cavernous Olympic Stadium to watch a two-game pre-season series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets. And somehow, in spirit, the Montreal Expos returned to their East End home, albeit for a brief return visit.
Yet, you couldn’t miss the unforgettable sight of the majority of those in attendance sporting the variations of the familiar red/white/blue tri-colour makeup of the Expos on-field uniform, with that distinctive “MB” meld of a team logo. It’s been 20 years since the 1994 edition of the Expos fielded one of the best teams in the franchise’s history – only to have their division, league and World Series championship ambitions dashed by a players’ strike; and it’s been 10 years since the Expos played their swan song season in Montreal before they pulled up stakes and headed due south to become the Washington Nationals.
And for many of those fans who made the pilgrimage to the Big O last month, the wounds of 1994 and 2004 haven’t healed yet. And on top of that, they keep asking themselves why Major League Baseball placed such a cruel fate on the Expos, and what did the team do to deserve such a fate? Well, I think their questions will be adequately answered after they read Jonah Keri’s book Up, Up and Away!
This is a book that has been a long time coming, and is a story that needed to be told. Keri, a veteran sports journalist and author, who was a native Montrealer and himself a rabid Expos fan, gives the inside story of the Montreal Expos’ 35-year rollercoaster existence as a National League franchise.
Yet when you start reading the book, the impression you get was that the Expos was a team that was bitten and cursed before they even took the field for their inaugural season in 1969. Mayor Jean Drapeau, councillor Gerry Synder and owner Charles Bronfman promised Major League Baseball and the National League that if Montreal was granted a franchise, the team would have a domed stadium of their own by 1972. However, before that became a “reality”, they had trouble finding the team a temporary home; Delorimier Downs (the home of the much revered Montreal Royals) was too small, and the Autostade near the Expo 67 site was too expensive to convert into a baseball stadium, which is why they settled on tiny Jarry Park, in which the all too short expansion plans were delayed by a massive snowstorm, and almost wasn’t ready for opening day. As well, the players they chose during their expansion draft were either too young or too old for the majors, and some players – like veteran Maury Wills – were quite vocal about their aversion to playing for this upstart team in Montreal.
Keri outlines the many reasons why the Expos were such a beloved, yet cursed, team. One reason that really stands out was the team’s inability to hold onto a good player for an extended period of time. Because of continuous financial difficulties, and the reluctance of a string of owners (especially Claude Brochu, who is painted as the villain of this saga) to let loose their purse strings and invest in trading and drafting talented players, it was almost like the team had no choice but to cut loose their best players for either money or players who were mostly mediocre at best. Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Jeff Reardon, John Wettleland, Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Vladimir Guerrero … the list of talented players the Expos lost to other teams where they excelled even further just goes on.
As well, Keri occasionally involves himself in his narrative of the Expos story, as he parallels the team’s burst of success in 1979, 1981 and 1994 with his personal devotion to the team, which was exemplified with “The Maple Ridge Boys”, a group that included him and his friends, in which they fanatically followed the team at home and even on the road, which is a vivid example of a sports fan’s devotion to the home team. He even chronicles his painful disillusion after Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig cancelled the 1994 season during the players’ strike; however, that sense of disillusionment melted away when his girlfriend and future wife bought him a 1959 Felipe Alou rookie card for his birthday.
Besides the terrific research and countless interviews he conducted with former players, broadcasters and front office personnel, Keri offers several sidebar pieces that give some new perspectives on different aspects of the Expos story, such as a brutally honest analysis of the team’s 1969 opening day line up; the story behind the “MB” logo; the appeal of Pascual Perez; the case of why Tim Raines should be a Hall of Famer; and why Vladimir Guerrero was the last Expos superstar.
So whether you were a fan of “Le Grand Orange” or “El Presidente”, remember the painful legacy of “Blue Monday”, was harassed by Souki, the Expos’ pre-Youppi mascot; attended the 1982 All-Star Game, or was a proud resident of “Jonesville”, Up, Up and Away! is a book that you must read, so that you can get the full story of the bittersweet history of the team that we affectionately called “Nos Amours”, and realize how much we really miss them.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.