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WILL INEXPERIENCE BE A GREAT TEACHER?
Steve Wulf
September 21, 1981
When the Montreal Expos abruptly dismissed Dick Williams, they replaced him with Jim Fanning, who last managed Class C Eau Claire in 1962
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September 21, 1981

Will Inexperience Be A Great Teacher?

When the Montreal Expos abruptly dismissed Dick Williams, they replaced him with Jim Fanning, who last managed Class C Eau Claire in 1962

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He literally didn't know how to tie his shoes. Jim Fanning had the intricacies of the bowknot down pat, but on his first day as manager of the Montreal Expos he had to ask his coaches whether the bow went over or under the flap that extends from the tongue of baseball shoes. Fanning, the former backup catcher to Joe Garagiola, hadn't been in uniform since he managed the Eau Claire (Wis.) Braves to a third-place finish and the postseason championship in the Class C Northern League in 1962.

Until last week Fanning was the vice-president for player development of the Expos, and Dick Williams, who in his 14-year career had guided the Red Sox and A's into three World Series, was the manager. But Montreal was floundering, and John McHale, the chief executive officer, wanted to avoid another season of disappointment after losing the division title on the last weekend two years in a row. So on Labor Day he asked Fanning, his friend of 20 years, to take over the team. The call came while Fanning was typing a four-page, single-spaced report on the Denver Bears' playoff victory in the American Association.

Twenty-four hours later the Expos suffered a 10-5 defeat by the Philadelphia Phillies. The next night Montreal squandered two leads and lost 11-8 to the Phillies, and one of the Philadelphia papers referred to Fanning as "Alice in Blunderland." In Chicago on Friday the Expos failed to score the tying run with runners on first and third and none out in the ninth, and the manager was again hung out to dry.

What did Fanning do to deserve this? He certainly didn't ask for the job. He was the quintessential organization man. He was loyal, trustworthy and smart. First as general manager and then as farm director, he had provided the Expos with their considerable talent. When McHale decided that Williams had to go, he thought of Fanning. "I wanted somebody who would come in for the month without rocking the boat, who knew the players. Jim was a natural choice."

Not everybody thought so. Harry Caray, after reading the Cubs' score during the first inning of Friday night's White Sox telecast, editorialized: "The Expos haven't won since replacing Dick Williams as manager. Nice going, John McHale. With an intellect like that, you could graduate from Notre Dame." John McHale did graduate from Notre Dame.

Some of the players weren't too happy, either. "For the first time in five years, I sit down," said Outfielder Warren Cromartie, who was benched by Fanning. "Another goddamn General Patton. We needed a change, but not this change. We're a game and a half out, everybody's future's on the line, and we've got a guy coming down from the booth."

Pitcher Bill Lee, who always puts it another way, put it another way: "We've changed horses in mid-torrent. And we haven't even got on the horse, and now we're tumbling over and over down the river of despair."

Things brightened considerably on Saturday when the Expos won 2-0 on a combined three-hitter by Steve Rogers, Woodie Fryman and Jeff Reardon. Ironically, Rogers and Reardon were commonly cited as two of the reasons Williams was fired.

Rogers was making his first start since Aug. 28. On Aug. 30, Williams had sent him in to pinch-run in the 11th inning against the Atlanta Braves. Rogers tried to break up a double play and ended up breaking the sixth rib on his left side. Even Rogers, a sometime critic of Williams, defended the move, but as far as the Expo fans were concerned, that broke the camel's back, not to mention Rogers' rib. The callers on sports phone-in shows in Montreal were outraged, and when the Expos returned home on Sept. 3 the fans were singing, "Dick Must Go." The front office was listening.

McHale also didn't think Williams was using Reardon enough. The Expos had acquired the bearded reliever a couple of weeks before the strike from the Mets for troubled but talented Outfielder Ellis Valentine. "Maybe Dick wasn't used to having that one big guy in the bullpen," McHale says. Reardon had made only 12 appearances in six weeks under Williams. "I don't like to complain," Reardon says, "but I do like a lot of work." It wasn't as if he had been ineffective: As of last week he had given up just four earned runs in his last 43 innings. One of the first things that Fanning did was to tell Reardon he was his stopper.

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