Anxious for a big-time star to lure disenchanted Quebecers to their new ball park, last winter the Montreal Expos offered free agent Reggie Jackson some $3.5 million to play right field in Olympic Stadium for the next five years. They invited Jackson to Montreal for a visit one cold weekend, and wined and dined him at the city's most elegant French restaurants, but Jackson said non, merci.
"Don't worry," the Expos consoled their fans, "we'll have an outfield of Valentine, Dawson and Cromartie." Try selling Valentine, Dawson and Cromartie to fans already turned off by the Expos' penchant for trading away such quality players as Rusty Staub, Mike Torrez and Ken Singleton. "Let's hope the Stanley Cup playoffs never end," said one disgruntled Montrealer. "That way we won't have to watch the Expos at all."
Well, the hockey season did end, and—would you believe it?—the hottest topics of bilingual conversation around Montreal these days are not Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Larry Robinson but Ellis Valentine, Andre Dawson and Warren Cromartie. The Expos seem to have lucked out at last. For the grand total of about $85,000, or some $615,000 less than they would have paid Jackson this season, the Expos have the best young outfield in the major leagues, not to mention the best bargain.
Rightfielder Valentine, who like Dawson and Cromartie is 23, makes $35,000 and leads the Expos in batting (.303), home runs (17) and runs batted in (55). Centerfielder Dawson, who like Cromartie makes $25,000, may well be the National League's Rookie of the Year. He is hitting .291 with 12 homers and 42 RBIs. Cromartie, also a rookie, has a .281 average with three home runs and 33 RBIs.
Largely on account of their three young outfielders, the Expos have sublet their usual last-place position in the NL East to the New York Mets. "I hate to sit and watch," says veteran Montreal Outfielder Del Unser, who despite a .271 average usually sits and watches, "but those kids are exciting." In one four-game series against division leader Chicago, Valentine, Dawson and Cromartie produced a total of 21 hits, six home runs and 20 RBIs.
So far, 36% of their hits have been for extra bases, and they have beaten out 37 grounders for infield hits. In the field, Valentine and Dawson catch everything—Cromartie doesn't catch much of anything—and their arms range from great (Valentine) to average (Dawson) to on the third bounce (Cromartie).
The complete player is Valentine, who as a rookie last season led the Montreal outfielders with a .279 batting average. The 6'4", 205-pound Valentine "has the best arm in baseball," claims Expo Manager Dick Williams, who does not hesitate to rate Valentine's gun with the legendary arms of Roberto Clemente and Carl Furillo. Playing the outfield in only 88 games in the 1976 season, Valentine finished tied for fourth in the NL in assists with 12. This season he has thrown out only six base runners in 93 games, but as Williams explains, "Nobody dares to run on him anymore."
Before the recent All-Star Game, Valentine, who was Montreal's lone representative at Yankee Stadium, engaged in an impromptu throwing contest with Pittsburgh's Dave Parker, San Diego's Dave Winfield and Los Angeles' Reggie Smith. "We threw some clotheslines," says Winfield. "We left the fans with their mouths open. No, we didn't bet on our arms. We did it just to show off." Steve Garvey, who served as their cutoff man, says, "The show those guys put on with their arms kind of set the tone for the game."
Valentine likes to put on a show, and not just with his arm. He often pauses at home plate to watch his home runs leave the premises, although on at least two occasions he has been burned when a "home run" became a very long single.
A graduate of Los Angeles' Crenshaw High School, Valentine was Montreal's second-round selection in the 1972 draft. He showed only modest power during his five seasons in the minors, but a .306 batting average at Triple-A Memphis in 1975 convinced the Expos to rush him to Montreal. He struggled early, was sent to Denver for several weeks, then returned to hit .279. This season he raised his average above .300 in the Expos' 14th game and it has remained there. "I'm on a lifetime hitting streak," Valentine says confidently.
Dawson is Valentine's silent partner. "Andre has to become more aggressive and take charge on the field." says Williams, who was so turned off in spring training by Dawson's reserved nature that he did not move him into the regular lineup until May 29. "It took me a while to feel comfortable," Dawson says. Still, he never uses two words when one will do, and rarely uses even one.
Born and raised in Miami, Dawson was the 250th player selected in the 1975 draft and signed with the Expos for $2,000. In 186 minor league games he hit .343, and had 41 home runs and 130 RBIs. In typical fashion, the Expos promptly rushed him to Montreal. What better way to placate their disgruntled fans than to give them a centerfielder named Andre—even if he were no more of a Frenchman than Ken Dryden.
Since becoming a regular, Dawson has batted .316 and picked up a new nickname, "Awesome" Dawson. St. Louis Manager Vern Rapp, who managed Dawson last year at Denver, says. "Dawson is the kind of complete player who comes along once in a lifetime."
The comedian of the group is the loud and cocky Cromartie, but all too often he makes people laugh with his fielding antics in left field. In one game he turned a fly-ball out into a three-base hit when he casually flipped the ball out of his glove instead of removing it with his bare hand. In another game he dropped a fly ball while attempting an unnecessary one-handed stab. And then there is his four-star classic: he moved in to catch a routine fly ball only to have the ball land behind him and roll for an inside-the-park home run.
"My disadvantage is defense," Cromartie admits. "I can accept that, though, because I can make up for it with my bat." Sometimes he does. Playing for Quebec three years ago, he lost the Eastern League's batting title by .009, and last season at Denver he was among the leaders in the American Association batting race when the Expos recalled him in August.
The only left-handed batter of the threesome, Cromartie works regularly with a batting tee to maintain his level swing. He has hit left-handed pitchers well (.261), but has failed to come through when Expo runners have been in scoring position (.211). Cromartie did not hit his first major league home run until his 402nd at bat for the Expos, and when the ball disappeared over the right-field fence he charged around the bases with his right fist raised. When he reached the dugout, though, none of the Expos were there to greet him. Instead, the players were trying to "revive" Williams, who was stretched out on the floor. "I like to laugh," Cromartie says, "and I like to make people laugh."
Cromartie, who like Dawson grew up in Miami, married a French-Canadian, the former Carole Ringuet, in December 1975 and now Montreal's baseball fans just hope that the Expos don't trade off Cromartie the same way they disposed of Singleton, Torrez, Tim Foli, and Bill Stoneman after they had married Quebecers. Barring that, as Second Baseman Dave Cash says. "Montreal's outfield problems are solved for the next five to ten years."