Truth be told, it wasn’t until my late 20s that I had any idea I’d be covering baseball for a living. Up until June 1, 1998, the day I left my hometown of Montreal and days as a news reporter to go to Toronto to cover the Blue Jays, my fondest baseball memories were of the Expos and their rare moments near the top of the sport.
The best Expos team ever, of course, was the 1994 squad whose destiny was forever altered by the strike. There can be no arguing this. Any team where Pedro Martinez is a third or fourth starter, Rondell White a fourth outfielder and Jeff Shaw booed because he’s one of the more inconsistent bullpen guys you have is a team to be reckoned with.
But the Expos teams that truly captured the imagination of not just a city, but an entire country, were rooted some 15 years earlier in the squads dominated by catcher Gary Carter. It was Carter and fellow Hall of Famer Andre Dawson who truly put major league baseball on the map in Canada.
For three straight years, beginning in 1979, the Expos took the eventual World Series winner to the final weekend of the season in the pre-wild-card era. The Pirates clinched the NL East over the ‘Spos on the final day of the ’79 season. I was sitting in the stands at Olympic Stadium as an 11-year-old in 1980 when Mike Schmidt homered in extra innings to beat second-place Montreal and clinch the division on a Saturday night before Sunday’s season finale. Bret Boone’s dad, Bob, had tied the game with an extra-base hit with two out in the ninth. I mentioned that to Bret at the 1999 World Series when he was with the Braves and he told me he too was there that day — same age as me — experiencing the magic of a dramatic Expos playoff chase that wasn’t to be. As an aside, my current in-laws in Philadelphia — the typical rabid sports fans they tend to have — were all cheering for Schmidt and company and even attended playoff games that year at The Vet. Yeah, I put up with a lot.
Then, in 1981, the Expos rode Carter’s bat into their first post-season ever. His home run helped the Expos come from behind at Shea Stadium late to beat the Mets and clinch the “second-half” of that strike year. I remember being at a seventh grade house party that night, watching on TV with all the guys and even the girls. We were all baseball fans back then and could not believe our Expos were going to some strange version of the MLB playoffs.
Then, after finally disposing of those pesky Phils in the garbage round, Carter’s three-run homer against the Dodgers put Montreal up 2-1 in a best-of-five NLCS. It looked like Canada’s first World Series appearance was clinched. But it was not to be, as the Expos dropped the final two games at home — losing on Rick Monday’s home run off the great, underated Steve Rogers in the ninth inning of the decisive game on a Monday afternoon that remains forever known as “Blue Monday” in Montreal. I’ll never forget that, right before Monday’s homer, someone else had driven a ball to the wall where none other than Terry Francona hauled it in on the warning track. Needless to say, the relief was short-lived.
But those were the magical days for baseball in my city. The days when people thought playoff races would last forever. Indeed, the Expos were beaten out for the NL East by St. Louis the following year as the Cards went on to win the World Series. But it was a distant second the Expos finished. The magic was done. Cocaine had impacted the squad, as it did so many other teams in that era, and the innocence was forever lost.
Just as many Mariners fans, I’m sure, came of age when Edgar Martinez doubled to bring Ken Griffey Jr. around to beat the Yankees in 1995. Sure, the 2001 team had the better record and that 2000 squad may have been the best of them all from the playoff games I covered firsthand. But that 1995 squad in Seattle is probably the closest the Emerald City came to replicating what Montreal and all of Canada felt in the years 1979 through 1981 when the Expos came so close. And I write all of these details without even having to look them up. They are seared into my brain.
Photo Credit: AP
The Toronto Blue Jays? Yeah, they won two World Series several years later and made the playoffs quite a bit. But they were more of a big trade, expensive free agent team with one of the highest payrolls in the game. I respect all of what Pat Gillick did with those teams but it still wasn’t the same from a coast-to-coast Canadian perspective. Little known fact in the U.S.: much of Canada hates Toronto and many fans didn’t cheer for the Jays when they played in the World Series. Yeah, I know. It’s sacrilege. Shoot me. But the homegrown Expos of 1979-1981? Easily more popular nationally and it’s not even close.
Carter was “The Man” for all of us kids coming of age. He played the game with enthusiasm and didn’t do anything off the field that would diminish him in our eyes. Yeah, I’ve heard the stories about how some of his teammates felt he was a self-promoter. But you know what? As a fan, he was everything to me. The guys in my class wanted to be like him and the girls all wanted to marry him even though the entire city knew he was a happily-married, family man.
And when the Expos needed a clutch hit, he was there. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame, along with teammate Andre Dawson. Tim Raines was also on those teams and will go to the Hall someday.
But Carter was the guy. Dawson was a gifted talent and I’ve since had the pleasure of meeting him — which I never got the chance to do with Carter — but it was Carter who carried his team in the 1981 playoffs when it mattered most. It was Carter who every kid in my class idolized as we skipped junior high school at Western Laval to go to games in 1981.
When you grow up in Canada, you aren’t taught to assume the world is your oyster. You accept that you’re always going to be dwarfed by the big neighbor down south. You remember the names of your fellow Canadians who leave a mark south of the border. And when one of your teams has a chance to make a mark in the United States — inventor of baseball — you latch on to that, as proof that you can indeed be something more. That you, as an individual, can leave your mark just as your team is doing.
Carter was easily the best, most identifiable player in the history of the team that forged my baseball identity. Dawson was a close second, Raines third. All worthy of Cooperstown. And Carter, despite the jealousy of some teammates, really did stick to the family values he preached.
Not every ballplayer can say that. Believe me.
Carter was my hero growing up and the guy who introduced me to Major League Baseball in a faraway land that really is quite different from the United States, despite what many Americans think. He’s the reason I had the guts to pursue this job, having paid enough attention to baseball that I could possibly dream of working for a U.S. paper.
One of my best memories of baseball as an adult was working alongside Rich Griffin, the Toronto Star baseball columnist who was a quasi-celebrity in Montreal as PR chief of the Expos when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s (and who can tell you why Rogers was pitching to Monday in that decisive 1981 NLCS game instead of, you know, an actual relief pitcher). But as a kid, nothing topped “The Kid” for excitement and enthusiasm about the game. When I listen to the numbers, repeated the past 36 hours, about 11 all-star appearances, the 300+ home runs and all the big performances in the 1979 and 1981 All-Star Games and the playoffs with both Montreal in 1981 and the New York Mets after that in 1986, it boggles the mind while still making sense. Yeah, a catcher did all that. A really good catcher. But when you’re a kid, all you knew was that, with the game on the line, he’s the guy your entire nation wanted up at the plate.
They rode their hopes and dreams on his back.
And now, those hopes and dreams are forever gone. For a city, much of a nation and a childhood never coming back.
R.I.P. Mr. Carter. And thank you.