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A TEAM THAT'S HARD TO TOP
Peter Gammons
July 31, 1989
Things are looking up for the division-leading Expos, their balky Olympic Stadium roof notwithstanding
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July 31, 1989

A Team That's Hard To Top

Things are looking up for the division-leading Expos, their balky Olympic Stadium roof notwithstanding

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The long-awaited opening of the retractable roof on Montreal's Olympic Stadium took place last week, and the roof performed the way Expo fans have come to expect their team to perform: It looked good at first and then came a cropper. On July 18, the night after the official opening went off without a hitch, high winds prevented the club from closing the Kevlar top after unexpected rains came during a game against the Atlanta Braves. Play had to be halted for an hour and 57 minutes, and angry fans stormed the ticket office, pounding on the windows. From fans and the media, the umbrellalike lid's poor performance elicited instant and unflattering comparisons with the retractable roof on the Toronto Blue Jays' much praised new SkyDome. Oddly enough, though, the Expos were laughing about the whole affair.

"Who cares what they think in Toronto," says Expo manager Buck Rodgers. "Heck, they had a rain delay there, too [on June 7, when play was suspended at SkyDome for six minutes in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers]. We'll have the last laugh. So laugh now."

Something funny is going on in Montreal this summer. After 20 years of disappointment, the Expos are suddenly, well, maybe not America's Team, maybe not even Canada's Team, but they are a team that believes in itself and believes that it can win the National League East. After last weekend's four-game sweep of the collapsing Cincinnati Reds, Montreal was 57-41 and sitting atop the division, three games ahead of the second-place New York Mets.

The reason, in a word, is pitching. "The Expos are probably the best team in the National League," says Atlanta manager Russ Nixon. "The Giants are playing great. The Mets have the most talent. But the Expos have the pitching. While you don't know about how well [Dwight] Gooden will come back, Montreal goes into every series the rest of the season knowing it can win because of great starting pitching. Not even the Dodgers can match Mark Langston, Bryn Smith and Dennis Martinez. [Pascual] Perez and [Kevin] Gross are quality starters, too, and the Expos have the good bullpen with the All-Star closer [Tim Burke]. It looks as if it's Montreal's year."

Expo general manager Dave Dombrowski gave up a chunk of the team's future two months ago when he traded young pitchers Randy Johnson, Brian Holman and Gene Harris for Langston, who can become a free agent and go elsewhere at the end of the season. The addition of Langston gave the Expos not only the best rotation in baseball but also a psychological lift. "We were playing O.K.," says outfielder Tim Raines. "Then we were in San Francisco [on May 25], and the word started getting around that we might be getting Langston. Guys were getting all excited, and when it became official, we all were saying to one another, '[Management] will do anything to win. So will we.' " When the deal was made, the Expos were 23-23 and sitting in fourth place; their record since then, as of Sunday, was 34-18.

The acquisition of Langston sent a message throughout the organization that this is a go-for-broke season. "[Owner] Charles Bronfman told us to do anything we could to try to win this year," says Dombrowski. "It's been 20 years [since the club entered the league], and there is a stigma—much of it steeped in myth about playing in Quebec—attached to this franchise. It's something that only winning can cure. I can't even imagine what it will be like in Canada the first time it hosts the World Series."

Dombrowski started fulfilling Bronfman's order in the off-season, when he dealt pitchers Floyd Youmans and Jeff Parrett to the Philadelphia Phillies for Gross, an '88 All-Star. Then, after failing to sign infielders Steve Sax and Scott Fletcher, both of whom were free agents, Dombrowski traded with the Boston Red Sox for Spike Owen to fill a gaping hole at short. Matters went a bit awry when Perez had to spend most of spring training in a drug rehabilitation center and lost his first seven decisions of the season. The need for another pitcher became urgent. Thus the gamble was made to get Langston. That was followed five weeks later by a deal in which the Expos sent three minor leaguers to the Braves for Zane Smith, who gives Montreal an experienced starter in the event of an injury and, for now, a setup man for Burke.

Trading six young players making less than $400,000 all told for lefthanders Langston and Smith, who pull down a combined $1.75 million—"We're more than $2 million over budget," says Montreal vice-president Bill Stoneman—didn't faze anyone in the Expos' organization, nor did knowing Langston can walk away at the end of the season. "You've got to take chances in life," says Rodgers. "When the chances are on good pitchers, the odds are in your favor."

The significance of the spending hasn't been lost on the players, who are playing full tilt and having a ball to boot. "This place sure has changed," says Raines. Raines was a member of the Expo teams that finished two games out of first in 1979 and one game out in '80 and lost in the final game of the '81 National League Championship Series to the Dodgers. Then things began to slide.

"I remember when we were supposed to be the team of the '80s, but then we didn't win and the place went dead," says Raines. "Then [Gary] Carter and [Jeff] Reardon were traded, Andre [Dawson] left, and it looked like the franchise was dying. I know I wouldn't be here if collusion hadn't prevented me from going elsewhere. But I'm glad I didn't go. This is the most fun I've ever had. It used to be that all you ever heard around the clubhouse was how tough it is to play in a foreign city. Now, all you hear about is how this is the happiest summer of everyone's baseball life."

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