PLAYING THE LOSING GAME

Odd things happen when both baseball teams try to lose
April 17, 1988

Even to the occasional sports fan the word "playoff' conjures up expectations of intense competition. To an also-ran team it is an opportunity to atone for a "season's shortcomings, a second chance to win it all. But in the 1950s, in the Montreal Royals' Junior League, playoff came to mean something else again.

The league was composed of 10 sand-lot baseball teams scattered throughout Montreal and its suburbs. Because there was an age limit of 21 and no residence restrictions for players, the teams were of college caliber. Financial support came from the Brooklyn Dodgers and their powerful Montreal Royals AAA farm team. The players were well scouted, but in a land where hockey is king, most of those who entered the minor leagues were quickly discouraged by homesickness and hot weather. There were a few former junior players whose perseverance was rewarded: Ray Daviault pitched for the 1962 Mets, Tim Harkness played first base for the Dodgers and the Mets, and Ron Piche and Claude Raymond were members of a Milwaukee Braves pitching staff that included Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette; Raymond also made the National League All-Star team as an Astro in 1966.

The Town of Mount Royal, a suburb north of Montreal, was English-speaking and affluent. In the 1950s its recreational facilities were the envy of the area, and its baseball field rivaled that of the Montreal Royals' Delorimier Stadium, where I had my first glimpse of baseball greatness: Jackie Robinson in his home Royals debut in 1946.

I did not live in the Town, as Mount Royal was called, but I pitched and played outfield for the Town Juniors. With an Irish mother and a French father, I also had the only French surname on the team—an anomaly that was often treated with favor by the French sports press. During my four seasons with the Town Juniors, the team had little success in spite of ample talent. Only once did we win a playoff spot. But I will never forget how this one modest success was aborted by an ill-fated decision that unleashed a chain of improbable events still difficult to believe.

In 1954, when I was 19 years old, the Town Juniors were a good team. At the beginning of the season, we felt we had a realistic chance at the championship. But other teams in the league were also strong, and the standings were tightly bunched throughout the season. Although we won our share of games against the top teams, we ended the regular season in a tie with Plateau Mont Royal, a team from east of Montreal, for fifth place. Because the top six teams made the three preliminary playoff series, both Plateau and the Town had qualified, but a sudden-death twilight game between our two teams would have to be played to determine the final standings and, thus, the pairings for the preliminary series.

When I entered the dressing room on the August evening of the sudden-death game, I sensed immediately that something was afoot. There were a few strange smiles, more like smirks, around the room. Our coach, Nelson Bain, sat in a corner, studying the final standings. As I began to change into my uniform, he asked me which team I would prefer to face, first-place Laval or second-place Ville-Marie. Since we had split our four games with Laval but had been unable to beat well-disciplined Ville-Marie, Laval was my choice. "Good", he replied, "because we're going to throw this game with Plateau." To preserve whatever good reputation we may have enjoyed, we would not overtly concede the game but would simply let the other team win. The ethics were questionable, but it appeared a harmless enough ploy, so I tacitly approved.

Plateau's home turf was Pare La Fontaine, a large public park that was a bastion of French-Canadian youth sports. Since our two communities represented socioeconomic contrasts in Montreal, there was a natural rivalry between our teams. The white-collar English would play the blue-collar French. There was another difference: Most of our players were large that year, while the Plateau players were unusually small. I hated to pitch against them; it seemed as though every strike had to be belt-high. The tallest player was of only average height, and the shortest players, the Samson brothers, could hit anything with surprising power.

Plateau also had a scrappy young shortstop, a friendly kid who spoke pretty good English. His name was Claude Ruel. Like many in the league, he was hoping for a future in hockey. (Unfortunately, an eye injury deprived him of a playing career in the NHL, but he made his mark anyway when he coached the Canadiens to the 1969 Stanley Cup.)

The sudden-death game was played at a neutral field, Jarry Park, which later became the site of the Montreal Expos' first stadium. As the visiting team, we batted first. Although coach Bain wanted us to lose the game, he had not requested a shutout; in fact, he had told us to make the loss look legitimate. This requirement was fulfilled to an unfortunate extreme by one swing of the bat. With a runner on base, Ross Hughes, our rightfielder, found the pitch he had been waiting for all season and gleefully slammed it. The ball landed on an adjacent Softball diamond and rolled to the sidewalk of Boulevard St. Laurent. Fearing for his game-throwing plan, coach Bain ordered, "No more scoring. Strike out if you have to!" The half inning ended, and we took the field.

I was not in the starting lineup. So I may have been the first to observe an uncharacteristic levity on the Plateau bench. Plateau's leadoff hitter, one of the Samsons, was all smiles as he came to the plate. He was greeted with four straight balls. It was after he reached first base that I suspected we might have fallen into a bizarre trap. Plateau was not cooperating: Samson took a lead almost halfway to second base and started a little dance. When we didn't try to throw him out, his coach yelled to him in French, and he quickly scurried back to first base. I guess the Plateau team was concerned about its reputation, too.

It seemed to me the cat was out of the bag and that both teams were trying to lose the game. Furthermore, neither team wanted anyone else to know what was going on, especially the umpires. The farce was on.

One of baseball's many curious facets is that a team cannot score on itself. We had a 2-0 lead, but Plateau was winning. To adapt a Yogi Berra quote, "If they wouldn't score, we couldn't stop them." In a curious way, this anti-game had become a contest of a different sort—a new, perhaps perverted, challenge to which we had to respond. Coach Bain told us to play as though we were unaware of Plateau's plan.

After four quick innings, Bain told me to start loosening up to pitch. Because I was supposed to be resting for the "real" playoffs, I questioned this move, but he had a new plan: We would use up our subs and then stage an injury to force a default. To be convincing, he wanted something dramatic. At that point, I jokingly suggested that Hughes volunteer to stick his head in front of a pitch.

"You're close," Bain said. "You will throw a pitch, and Johnny [Umbach, our catcher] will fake an injury."

When our team came off the field at the top of the sixth inning, Bain, Umbach and I quickly discussed our tactics. It was decided that a fist would be the signal for a wild pitch in the dirt, and Umbach would do the rest.

I took the mound in the bottom of the inning and retired the first batter on a ground ball. Then, with a l-and-2 count on the second batter, I saw Umbach's fist. I had selected a spot about three feet in front of the plate; if I could come close to it, I calculated that the height of the bounce would be about right. The important thing was to keep the pitch down the middle. For this one, I came right over the top and gunned it. The ball hit slightly in front of my target, but the carom was perfect—right into the lower part of Umbach's chest protector, and he made it appear convincingly close to his most sensitive area.

Umbach's scream must have been heard two blocks away. He keeled over and assumed a fetal position on the ground, waiting for help to arrive while attempting to hide his giggling behind his moans and sobs. Coach Bain told the home plate umpire that Umbach had forgotten his protective cup, and the official sympathetically pointed out that there was a hospital nearby. Four players, one on each limb, carried our "casualty" to a car. When they were safely out of sight and their laughter out of earshot, the umpire was informed that we had no more eligible substitutes.

By this time, I had retreated from the scene at home plate to a point on the first base line, not far from the Plateau bench. As the umpire ruled that Plateau had won by forfeit, I sensed someone standing behind my left shoulder and heard a semiwhisper in broken English: "Maudit ["Goddam"] Dionne, dat was a nice pitch, you——!" There is something almost pyrotechnic about the way a French Canadian enunciates an obscenity, especially a three-syllable English one. It was the Plateau coach, and he was neither fooled nor amused by the performance. With the passage of time, I have tried to persuade myself that his curse was in part congratulatory.

The theater of the absurd had ended, and we had won by losing, but now the serious games were about to begin. With remarkable ease, we defeated first-place Laval in two straight. Our jubilation was quickly dampened, however, when we learned that Plateau had also advanced to the semifinals by dispatching second-place Ville-Marie in similar fashion. Town was going to have to face Plateau again! And we knew that that sudden-death game would not go unavenged.

Our first game against Plateau was on a sunny Saturday afternoon at our home field, and it was my turn to pitch. For five innings everything went our way, and we quickly opened up a 2-0 lead. Plateau showed little offense up to that point, and I felt in command. But by the third time through the batting order, the strike zones were looking even smaller and my fastball was getting bigger. A walk and a single preceded a Samson triple, and the score was tied. Plateau waited until the last innings to score its winning runs.

The real humiliation was reserved for a night game before a packed house at Pare La Fontaine. On that dimly lit field, our shadowy figures in soiled gray uniforms made it all seem like a dream. It became a nightmare, however, as every line drive Town hit found a glove, and every grounder Plateau hit found a pebble. After its fifth run, I stopped counting. Plateau's Paul Roy was not a hard thrower, but on this particular night he resembled Nolan Ryan; at times it was difficult to tell whether the darkened ball was even being pitched. We scored no runs; in fact, we produced no hits, and I do not remember a single Town base runner.

Plateau Mont Royal did not win the championship that year. It was defeated by Verdun, a talented team that included pitching ace Piche and several Junior A Canadiens hockey players. I have often wondered how Verdun would have fared if it had encountered the same aroused Plateau team that we had.

I played one more season for the Town of Mount Royal Juniors. I had a good record and even made the all-star team, but my name seldom appeared in the Montrèal-Matin and then only when required in scoring summaries. After a few more seasons in semipro leagues, I gave up baseball to pursue graduate studies in the U.S.

One day in 1959, back in Montreal on a visit, I was standing on a crowded downtown corner when I heard my name called from across the street. It was followed by, "Thrown any more games lately?"

I didn't see who it was. I didn't really want to know.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSGREG RAGLAND

Gerald F. Dionne, a physicist, used to coach youth baseball in Winchester, Mass.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)