Thursday, April 17, 2014

Revisiting the Montreal Expos

It's a long subtitle, to be sure.
Jonah Keri borrowed the home run call of a long time Montreal Expos announcer for his history/reminisce of the Expos, "Up, Up, and Away."

It's also the title of chirpy pop song from the 1960s, and that fits Keri's recounting of the on-field action of the team he grew up rooting for. But the final section could have taken the name of a much darker rocker from the same era, "Sympathy for the Devil"; it is probably the kindest examination of Jeffery Loria as a baseball owner I can imagine.

I've always had a soft spot for the Expos, probably in part because they came into being the same year that I discovered baseball (1969). Of course, three other teams were created at the same time, and I never regarded the Padres, Royals or Pilots/Brewers in quite the same way. I suspect the blatant garishness of the Expos' original tri-color caps appealed to the pre-adolescent me, or maybe it was the idea of a baseball team that wasn't based in the United States -- or maybe it was the rash of Expos in my first batches of baseball cards in 1970: Mack Jones. Ty Cline. Coco Laboy. (What a wonderful name: Coco Laboy.)

Keri loved his Expos, win or lose, mostly lose. The Expos, partly through bad luck, partly through some questionable decisions, never won even a full division title, even though they at least twice in their history accumulated an impressive amount of talent. The team of the early 1980s of Gary Carter, Tim Raines and Andre Dawson had marvelous front-line talent but failed to patch its holes. Indeed, management often failed to recognize that they had holes. And the brilliance of the 1994 team was lost to the players strike, which was provoked by a faction of team owners that included that of the Expos.

There are two running themes to Keri's book: the games on the field, and the struggle of the business. Keri is vivid and enjoyable with the athletes (if sometimes unapologetically high-brow in citing modern analytical stats unimagined by the players of the time). And -- this is rare in sports writing -- he is largely believable and realistic in his examination of the finances.

Keri has a journalistic background in business reporting, and his description of the franchise's chronic lack of capital (particularly after the original owner, Seagram's heir Charles Bronfman, decided he'd had enough of baseball) puts the onus for the franchise's ultimate failure not on the men who followed Bronfman as the lead owner of the team but on the minority partners, who as a group essentially regarded their stakes in the Expos as a one-time charitable contribution.

It was, as Keri describes it, their tight-fistedness that forced the dismantling of the 1994 powerhouse and enabled Loria to gain control of the franchise a half-decade later. In truth, the Expos were born largely on the whim of the city's over-ambitious mayor of the 1960s; a major league team in that city never really had the backing of the economic powers or, as the city and province's politics became dominated by a separatist part, the political powers either.

Keri would like to see MLB return to Montreal, but he realistically doubts the practicality of its rebirth there. His ultimate conclusion: Montreal failed baseball, and baseball failed Montreal.

His book does not fail the memory of his Expos.

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