If you have been waiting for those callow and shallow Montreal Expos to come a cropper in the heat of the National League East race, we regret to inform you that it simply hasn't happened. The Expos have just sort of hung on, like lint on the Mets' and Cardinals' fall sweaters, and hardly seem overwhelmed by pressure, even though they approached the final week of the season with an outside shot at a demipennant.
Why, last week pinch hitter Wallace Johnson was actually singing Meet the Mets as he ambled down the runway to take the field for a critical game at Shea Stadium. Even the Expos' press communiquè mocked the notion that the team's situation should produce tension. "For the Expos' magic number for elimination by St. Louis," it advised the fourth estate, which has largely ignored or underestimated Montreal, to "call the Cardinals."
Call them collect. Think the Cards weren't quaking at the prospect of playing Montreal four times in the season's final week, knowing they had already lost 10 of 14 to the tricolores? With the Expos a remarkable 88-67 as of Sunday, three games back of the Cards with seven to play, the very worst they could end up with is a record that would be better than all but three teams in the National League—assuming that the San Francisco Giants don't collapse during this final week.
That's astonishing, considering that even before the season began free agent Andre Dawson, the Expos' most consistent power hitter over the last five years, had gone (to the Cubs), free agent Tim Raines was going (nowhere, as it turned out; no club signed him during his free agency, and he was required to miss the first month of the season), and relief ace Jeff Reardon was freshly gift-wrapped for the Twins in a trade that amused fans throughout the monolingual world. As for the Olympic Stadium roof that the province of Quebec spent the last decade working on, it, too, very nearly missed Opening Day after suffering a large tear.
The Expos' future seemed so precarious that commissioner Peter Ueberroth was privately telling people over the winter that he feared for the franchise. Sure enough, Montreal started poorly—they were 8-12 at the end of April—but then they made a sharp about-face and became one of the best teams in the National League.
Whom do you credit? Buck Rodgers and his Futuristic School of Managing? Tim Wallach, master of the two-out RBI? Raines, whose return to the lineup on May 2 launched Montreal on an 80-54 pace? Tim Burke, who rescued the bullpen with 16 saves, a 1.24 ERA and a 7-0 record? Casey (Pigpen) Candaele, a 5'9" utilityman who always wanted to grow up to be a big league ballplayer, just like his mom? Or 'Zilla?
'Zilla is an 18-inch-high toy simian that several Expos picked up at Fisherman's Wharf during a trip to San Francisco in May, and he can be found in the Montreal clubhouse. There is a Band-Aid on 'Zilla's neck to commemorate the time starting pitcher Bob Sebra was struck with a line drive, and sunglasses rest on his nose, honoring Raines, who once "cooled" an opponent's hit into an extra base.
After each game 'Zilla finds his way into the locker of the Expo who has most dubiously distinguished himself. Pitcher Bryn Smith earned 'Zilla on June 12 for grounding out to Phillies rightfielder Glenn Wilson, and Candaele has been 'Zillaed for absentmindedly taking an outfielder's glove to second base.
Candaele's confusion is understandable because he has started at five positions and played six. Pigpen is not the name that Helen St. Aubin (formerly Callaghan), who played in the Ail-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the '40s, chose for her son. But it suits a scrapper who has begun each of his five pro seasons on the bench and has finished every one but this one as a starter.
"I play him in center for a few games and the center fielders are mad," says Rodgers. "I play him at second and the second basemen are mad. He keeps everybody alive."
If a player goes into a slump, Rodgers refuses to let him flail his way out. The manager smugly observes that outfielder Mitch Webster's homer and single in last week's 4-3 defeat of the surging Pirates came after Webster was dropped from the starting lineup the day before. Thus have Expo egos been carefully cajoled into submission.
"The way everybody feels," says pinch hitter Dave Engle, "we can even give Buck a 'Zilla." And they did, a well-deserved one at that, for ordering a sacrifice bunt on a 3-0 pitch.
Back in the spring the mood around the Expos' West Palm Beach training compound was markedly different. "Kind of like an expansion team," says Webster. Dawson had signed with the Cubs as a free agent in early March, and free agent Raines, in spite of his credentials as one of baseball's finest hitters and base stealers, couldn't get the Expos or anyone else to meet his asking price. By the time he took the Expos' offer, he couldn't suit up until May.
Then, with the season just three games old, shortstop Hubie Brooks, who hit .340 in '86, broke his right wrist and was lost for six weeks. "People were telling me this would be the worst team I'd ever play on," says pitcher Neal Heaton, now 12-10 after most of baseball had given up on him. "That scared me." It should have, considering Heaton played on some miserable teams in Cleveland and Minnesota before the Twins traded him and a few roster bodies for Reardon last February.
While Heaton filled one slot in the starting rotation, Rodgers had to scavenge around for the other arms. "Just once I'd like to see a pitching prospect, not a suspect," he said as a parade of veterans, from Len Barker to Bruce Berenyi filed through camp. Sure enough, except for Heaton the starting pitching came around glacially.
In September, however, Montreal's starters had been credited with 13 of 15 victories. Smith had elbow surgery during the off-season and now earns the major league minimum plus an additional $11,000 a start. Through Sunday he had 25 starts, some $275,000 worth, and was 10-8. Veteran Dennis Martinez, whom Baltimore abandoned after he had a bout with alcohol, was 11-3 after beating the Mets 5-4 Thursday for the fourth time this season. And Pascual Perez, who served time in a Dominican jail on drug charges during 1984 spring training, was 6-0 after coming up from Indianapolis. After four-hitting New York on Sept. 17, he said, "The last time I smiled this much was for the jury."
The smiles spread through the stretch, as the Expos won eight on a 12-game road trip then returned home to sweep three from St. Louis. Says Rodgers: "That's what sold every guy in this clubhouse that we were legit." Meanwhile Raines (.329 through last week) and Andres Galarraga (.309) were hot at the plate, and Wallach, who was batting .297 and had picked up 52 of his 117 RBIs with two out, was making a rush for MVP. "For being responsible for your team's success over what was expected, no one else comes close," says his politicking manager.
After a loss to the Mets back in August, Candaele was lingering in the dressing room, tossing a football with a couple of clubhouse boys. One ran a hitch-and-go route out the clubhouse door and down a corridor. Candaele followed him out and let fly.
"Did he catch it?" a teammate yelled.
"No way," said Candaele. "He 'Zillaed it."
If the Cards end up blowing what was once a 9½-game lead or the Mets fail to defend their divisional title, they will also have dropped it. But if the Expos fall short this final week, they'll have only 'Zillaed it, and baseball can be an awful lot of fun when that's the worst fate that awaits you.