A TEAM THAT'S HARD TO TOP

Things are looking up for the division-leading Expos, their balky Olympic Stadium roof notwithstanding
July 30, 1989

The long-awaited opening of the retractable roof on Montreal's Olympic Stadium took place last week, and the roof performed the way Expo fans have come to expect their team to perform: It looked good at first and then came a cropper. On July 18, the night after the official opening went off without a hitch, high winds prevented the club from closing the Kevlar top after unexpected rains came during a game against the Atlanta Braves. Play had to be halted for an hour and 57 minutes, and angry fans stormed the ticket office, pounding on the windows. From fans and the media, the umbrellalike lid's poor performance elicited instant and unflattering comparisons with the retractable roof on the Toronto Blue Jays' much praised new SkyDome. Oddly enough, though, the Expos were laughing about the whole affair.

"Who cares what they think in Toronto," says Expo manager Buck Rodgers. "Heck, they had a rain delay there, too [on June 7, when play was suspended at SkyDome for six minutes in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers]. We'll have the last laugh. So laugh now."

Something funny is going on in Montreal this summer. After 20 years of disappointment, the Expos are suddenly, well, maybe not America's Team, maybe not even Canada's Team, but they are a team that believes in itself and believes that it can win the National League East. After last weekend's four-game sweep of the collapsing Cincinnati Reds, Montreal was 57-41 and sitting atop the division, three games ahead of the second-place New York Mets.

The reason, in a word, is pitching. "The Expos are probably the best team in the National League," says Atlanta manager Russ Nixon. "The Giants are playing great. The Mets have the most talent. But the Expos have the pitching. While you don't know about how well [Dwight] Gooden will come back, Montreal goes into every series the rest of the season knowing it can win because of great starting pitching. Not even the Dodgers can match Mark Langston, Bryn Smith and Dennis Martinez. [Pascual] Perez and [Kevin] Gross are quality starters, too, and the Expos have the good bullpen with the All-Star closer [Tim Burke]. It looks as if it's Montreal's year."

Expo general manager Dave Dombrowski gave up a chunk of the team's future two months ago when he traded young pitchers Randy Johnson, Brian Holman and Gene Harris for Langston, who can become a free agent and go elsewhere at the end of the season. The addition of Langston gave the Expos not only the best rotation in baseball but also a psychological lift. "We were playing O.K.," says outfielder Tim Raines. "Then we were in San Francisco [on May 25], and the word started getting around that we might be getting Langston. Guys were getting all excited, and when it became official, we all were saying to one another, '[Management] will do anything to win. So will we.' " When the deal was made, the Expos were 23-23 and sitting in fourth place; their record since then, as of Sunday, was 34-18.

The acquisition of Langston sent a message throughout the organization that this is a go-for-broke season. "[Owner] Charles Bronfman told us to do anything we could to try to win this year," says Dombrowski. "It's been 20 years [since the club entered the league], and there is a stigma—much of it steeped in myth about playing in Quebec—attached to this franchise. It's something that only winning can cure. I can't even imagine what it will be like in Canada the first time it hosts the World Series."

Dombrowski started fulfilling Bronfman's order in the off-season, when he dealt pitchers Floyd Youmans and Jeff Parrett to the Philadelphia Phillies for Gross, an '88 All-Star. Then, after failing to sign infielders Steve Sax and Scott Fletcher, both of whom were free agents, Dombrowski traded with the Boston Red Sox for Spike Owen to fill a gaping hole at short. Matters went a bit awry when Perez had to spend most of spring training in a drug rehabilitation center and lost his first seven decisions of the season. The need for another pitcher became urgent. Thus the gamble was made to get Langston. That was followed five weeks later by a deal in which the Expos sent three minor leaguers to the Braves for Zane Smith, who gives Montreal an experienced starter in the event of an injury and, for now, a setup man for Burke.

Trading six young players making less than $400,000 all told for lefthanders Langston and Smith, who pull down a combined $1.75 million—"We're more than $2 million over budget," says Montreal vice-president Bill Stoneman—didn't faze anyone in the Expos' organization, nor did knowing Langston can walk away at the end of the season. "You've got to take chances in life," says Rodgers. "When the chances are on good pitchers, the odds are in your favor."

The significance of the spending hasn't been lost on the players, who are playing full tilt and having a ball to boot. "This place sure has changed," says Raines. Raines was a member of the Expo teams that finished two games out of first in 1979 and one game out in '80 and lost in the final game of the '81 National League Championship Series to the Dodgers. Then things began to slide.

"I remember when we were supposed to be the team of the '80s, but then we didn't win and the place went dead," says Raines. "Then [Gary] Carter and [Jeff] Reardon were traded, Andre [Dawson] left, and it looked like the franchise was dying. I know I wouldn't be here if collusion hadn't prevented me from going elsewhere. But I'm glad I didn't go. This is the most fun I've ever had. It used to be that all you ever heard around the clubhouse was how tough it is to play in a foreign city. Now, all you hear about is how this is the happiest summer of everyone's baseball life."

Whether all that happiness can persuade Langston to re-sign with Montreal is still in question, but he has been a tremendous asset since joining the team. After his 13-strikeout, four-hit performance against the Reds last Thursday, he was 7-3 as an Expo with a 2.21 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 85% innings. "He has been every bit as dominant as we expected," says Rodgers. "But on this staff, he doesn't have to carry the burden of being the Number One guy. We've got a couple of other guys who can lay claim to that, too."

One of them is Bryn Smith, whose 2.07 ERA at week's end was the lowest in the majors. He was 9-3 and had allowed more than three earned runs only once in his 19 starts this season. Smith has rebounded from elbow surgery he had at the end of the 1986 season to return to the form that made him 18-5 in 1985. The other starter, who would be No. 1 on a lot of teams, is Martinez, a former Oriole who has put his career back together after going through alcohol rehab five years ago. He was 11-1 with a 3.23 ERA after getting the decision in a 12-4 win over Cincinnati on Sunday.

With Langston, Smith and Martinez a combined 27-7 and Burke tied for fourth in the league in saves with 21, Montreal has been able to overcome a troublesome string of injuries. Outfielder Hubie Brooks and first baseman Andres Galarraga, who combined for 49 homers and 182 RBIs last season, will likely be hampered for the rest of the season by knee injuries, and last week Owen was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained ankle. Raines is hobbled by a right quadriceps strain that limited him to two starts from June 26 to July 16. "It's probably going to bother me the rest of the season," he says. "It hurts me when I bat righthanded, but most of all, it keeps me from being able to run."

Because he can no longer run wild on the base paths, Raines is in what Rodgers calls "the transition from an intimidating terror on the bases to a Joe Morgan-kind of player." Rodgers has moved Raines into the cleanup spot, and Raines has responded by hitting .459 with runners in scoring position. "This team is completely different because we're just a bunch of guys," says Raines. "We don't have a star. The leader is probably Spike Owen."

"That's one reason this team has such chemistry," says reliever Andy McGaffigan. "Tim Raines is a star, but he doesn't know it."

"This is a team that bonds together well," says Owen. "Players do things together. I also think it's easier to come together as a team in this situation. First, there isn't all the media attention there is in Boston, New York or cities like that. Second, we're all in another country together, and I think that brings us together more than some place where half the players live there year-round and have a separate circle of friends and interests."

Oh, how winning makes a difference. The old bugaboo about playing in a foreign country now seems like an asset. "It's different, but you get used to it," says Bryn Smith's wife, Patti. "The ball club is incredible to the players' families. The team has baby-sitting services at the park. This year it has French lessons for players and their wives. It arranges bus field trips for the families when the club's on the road. There are numbers we can call if anything happens when the team is gone."

However, Patti also admits that she usually takes an hour-long drive across the border to Plattsburgh, N.Y., to do the food shopping. "When I shop in Montreal, I can figure out what's in cans and jars by reading the English part of the labels," she says. "But there are important staples we have to go there for, like Doritos."

Adds Bryn, "There are two things that really get to the players. They don't serve ketchup with french fries. They serve gravy. Then when you order a Coke, they don't put ice in it. They don't know how to make iced tea. Ice is hard to come by, and if you ask for it, they tell you in French that you're stupid because you get more Coke without the ice."

Most players would rather forgo these hardships. "Other than Pete Rose [in '84], the last free agent the Expos signed [from another club] was Elias Sosa in 1979," says Rodgers. "No free agent will come here. Almost every no-trade provision includes Montreal. That puts us at a big competitive disadvantage. People think this is like going to play in Siberia, but Montreal is a great city with a marvelous life-style."

"If we can get to the World Series, I think a lot of the perceptual problems will be cured," says Dombrowski. "Hopefully, that'll help keep Langston and the six other potential free agents here. People complain about the recognition, but this is like Minnesota was in '87. Who knew those guys except Kirby Puckett until the World Series? If we make it to the Series, Raines and Galarraga and Brooks will all become household names like Gaetti, Viola and Hrbek."

A World Series ring might make a lot of things easier. "We can live without ketchup on our french fries and Coke without ice to play on a team like this," says Smith.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAMartinez is a part of a staff that not even the Dodgers can match. PHOTORONALD C. MODRALast Saturday the Expos beat the Reds 6-5, and the retractable lid worked just fine. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERInfielder Damaso Garcia and the other Expos may leave National League foes in their dust. PHOTOTONY TOMSICThe Expos boldly acquired Langston (above); Bryn and Patti Smith feel no less courageous marketing in French-speaking Montreal. PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.]

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)