It might have been October, the way the fans were carrying on. Playoff time. World Series time, even. Summers being what they are in Montreal, it was already chilly enough. An hour after the hometown Expos had handed the Los Angeles Dodgers their 51st loss of the season—giving the defending National League champions the worst record in the league—there were still hundreds of fans inside the Olympic Stadium rotunda last Saturday toasting the Expos, leaders by 6½ games in the Eastern Division. An oompah band—five pieces, including tuba—was belting out such Bavarian favorites as Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Beer Barrel Polka. The barrel, incidentally, had been rolled out to the makeshift beer garden an hour and a half before game time, and dozens of patrons, stomachs filled with Carlsberg, were now dancing polkas onto each other's feet. There was much clapping. Suddenly the band, looking snappy in green lederhosen and white knee socks, shifted into Ein Prosit, and plastic cups were raised in a toast. As everyone drank, the cornet player led the throng in a robust Hip, Hip, Hip, Hooray! and a cheer of "We're No. 1!" rang out. Quèbecois who would not have used the King's English to direct a stray dog to the sausage factory were merrily chanting "Weee're ze No. 1!" As any Chicagoan, Bostonian or Philadelphian knows—as any American knows—no baseball team is No. 1 on July 7. But in Montreal this madness has been going on for weeks.
Forgive them their excesses. The Expos, after all, have never led their division past May 17 (which they did last year), and have never even played .500 ball for a season—in fact, they have a 10-year record 202 games under that. There are no sour memories of pennant-drive collapses. There was something of a pennant drive in 1973, when the Expos finished 3½ games behind the Mets, but it was of the back-door variety, because the team wound up the season four games under .500. Driven by a starry-eyed faith that the team is somehow blessed, Montreal is beginning to give its heart to the Expos. The soul, of course, remains with Les Canadiens, its beloved hockey team, but for now this Great American Pastime is pretty good fun. Let others celebrate October in October; Montrealers will celebrate it in July. And they're right: the team is No. 1, emerging from last weekend with the best record in the league—another first. The Expos were 17 games above .500 and a phenomenal 28-7 at home. Ein Prosit, mes amis.
There is nothing Canadians enjoy more than beating their bullying big brother south of the border. "Socially and economically, Montreal is constantly competing with the U.S. in any number of areas—standard of living, oil, the dollar," says John McHale, president and general manager of the Expos. "Now it's baseball, too. The irony of beating Americans at their own game is not lost on these people. It doesn't matter that almost all our players are U.S.-born."
Last week's Dodger series brought attendance to roughly 800,000, and the Expos have hopes of drawing two million for the season. To accommodate the fans, 89% of whom are French-speaking, the Expos have two radio crews, one broadcasting in English, the other in French. Same with the club's publicity department, Richard Griffin handling the English, Monique Giroux the French.
The Expos' change in fortune is at least partly the result of McHale taking over as general manager from Charlie Fox after last season. In his two years at that post, Fox had primarily distinguished himself by trading away Gary Roenicke and Don Stanhouse, who have helped make the Baltimore Orioles the team they are today. He also made some news by flooring his star pitcher, Steve Rogers, with a punch in the nose. It seems old-schooler Fox decided Shortstop Chris Speier needed a dressing down in front of his teammates. When player-representative Rogers took exception and ordered his general manager out of the clubhouse, the 57-year-old Fox uncorked his right.
With 36 one-run losses in 1978 and a team pinch-hitting average of .165, the Expos' first priorities were relief pitching and bench strength. McHale traded Utility Infielder Stan Papi, who was 3 for 24 as a pinch hitter, to Boston for Bill Lee—l'homme de l'espace, he could be called in Montreal. Then McHale picked Elias Sosa, who was 8-2 last season as a reliever for lowly Oakland, from the free-agent market. Lee's arrival freed Woodie Fryman, a lefthanded starter last year, for the bullpen, where he has a 1.16 ERA and five saves. Sosa has nine saves and a 1.73 ERA, while the bench—bolstered by newcomers Tony Solaita and Duffy Dyer—is pinch-hitting a respectable .260. As a partial result, Montreal is 15-12 in one-run games.
However, the most important off-season acquisition has turned out to be Rodney Scott, who came from the Cubs billed as a utility infielder. But Scott ended up beating Dave Cash out of his job at second base, which, in turn, has solved the Expos' pinch-hitting problem (although $300,000 a year is a bit steep for a man who has batted only 17 times in half a season). "To me the name of the game is defense," says Montreal Manager Dick Williams, who won a pennant at Boston and two World Series at Oakland. "Scott has much greater range than Cash. That's all there is to it. He's been the biggest difference in this team."
Offensively, Scott is hitting in the low .220s, although he leads the team in walks and has 22 stolen bases, fifth best in the league. But Williams compares him in value to Dick Green, who played second for Williams in Oakland. "Green made Campy Campaneris a better shortstop. It's the same with Rodney."
Williams has reason to stress defense. No Expo is batting over .299 or has more than 14 home runs. As the Los Angeles teams of the mid-'60s repeatedly proved, championships can be won with pitching and defense. The Expo attack is a balanced one, with four players—Tony Perez, Gary Carter, Ellis Valentine and Andre Dawson—having between 40 and 46 RBIs. As a team the Expos are near the middle of the pack in most offensive categories. But the pitching staff has 10 shutouts—five by Rogers—and is nip and tuck with Houston for the league's best ERA. Handling Rogers and the rest of the Expo pitchers is Gary Carter, probably the best all-round catcher in the league right now. His skills are not lost on the Montreal fans. During a three-game sweep of the Phillies earlier this year (all shutouts), Carter threw out pinch runner Garry Maddox on an attempted steal in a late inning. "They gave him a one-minute standing ovation," says Williams. "Not too many catchers get one of those."
But this year all sorts of people are getting standing Os at the 60,476-seat Olympic Stadium, which, three years after the Olympics, is still under construction. By 1981, it is hoped, a retractable roof will protect the field in inclement weather. That's a far cry from quaint Jarry Park, which the Expos departed after a dismal 1976 season in which they drew only 646,704 fans.
"This is the first year we've been able to recapture the picniclike ambience of Jarry Park," says McHale. In addition to the beer garden, the team has created a mascot named "Youppi"—approximately the French equivalent of "Yahoo." "The fans here are a little different," says Rogers, the senior Expo. "They are used to hockey games, in which something is happening about every 15 seconds—a check or a shot or something. In baseball, cheering should be anticipatory: stomping your feet with men on base, things like that. We used to have to climb on the dugouts and scream a little just to see if they were still breathing back there. But Youppi has helped a lot."
Indeed, Montreal fans recently gave Rogers a standing ovation of his own all the way through a time at bat (the count went to 3-2, too), not in anticipation but in appreciation of a no-hitter he had going against the Phillies. It was broken up in the eighth inning. (On Saturday night against the Dodgers, Rogers had another no-hitter in the eighth. Again it was broken up, but he won 2-1.) In the Phillie game the noise reverberated down off the stadium's overhanging roof, making a terrific racket.
And there's plenty of noise to come. "In the 10 years the Expos have been around," says Montreal Gazette writer Ian MacDonald, "the Canadiens have won seven Stanley Cups and the Alouettes three Grey Cups. This town had a six-year love affair with the Expos, but now they want a winner. The people are used to winners."
Now that they have a new one, don't expect them to wait around till fall to celebrate it. Ein Prosit, mes oompahs!