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Blue Monday: The Day That Haunts Montreal

An exclusive first serial from ‘Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos’

T   he following is an excerpt from Grantland staff writer Jonah Keri’s new book, Up, Up, and Away, which details the history of the Montreal Expos. The book will be released on March 25 and is now available for preorder.

♦♦♦

The first playoff berth in franchise history had been secured. The first playoff series in franchise history had been won. All that remained was a five-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, with the winner earning the National League pennant and a trip to the 1981 World Series. Ray Burris’ five shutout innings in Game 2 sent the Expos back home to Montreal with the series tied 1–1. Jerry White decided Game 3 with a three-run homer in the sixth inning that turned the crowd at Olympic Stadium into a delirious mess. The Expos had a chance to clinch the series in Game 4, only for the Dodgers to score six runs over the final two innings en route to a 7–1 win. Now, with the League Championship Series tied 2–2, the Expos were a single victory away from advancing to their first World Series. What transpired next became one of the darkest moments in Expos history, one that would haunt the team for the rest of its existence and turn one man into a pariah for the rest of his career.

This is the story of Blue Monday.

♦♦♦ 

Serge Touchette: “They won that first playoff series in Philadelphia. So they flew to L.A. They played two games there, split, then came back to Montreal. We came back around five o’clock in the morning. When we got out of the plane and got through customs, there were about two to three thousand people waiting for the team. I couldn’t believe it. That’s when I realized it was even bigger than I thought it would be. Even the players, they couldn’t believe it. People were cheering like crazy.

“Then they played that first game in Montreal. One of the biggest moments ever in the history of the franchise happened in Game 3. Jerry Reuss was pitching for L.A., tied 1–1 in the 6th, Jerry White comes up … and hits a three-run homer. The reaction from the fans … it was like an explosion. Fifty thousand people stood up at the same time and went crazy. People were dreaming about the World Series.”

Rick Monday: “This is before the roof at Olympic Stadium—it’s cold, there’s a threat of not only rain, but snow. Being from southern California, snow is a big deal when you’re trying to play baseball. But we were reading in the papers how the boys from Hollywood won’t be able to handle the cold weather. So Tommy Lasorda in his infinite wisdom before the first game up there said, ‘We’re going to show them how tough we are. They can’t down-talk to us!’

“‘I don’t want anyone wearing their jackets!’ Tommy told us. So, we’re introduced, we don’t have our jackets, we’re on the third-base line and they proceed to introduce all but two people even in attendance for the game. They introduced everybody, and all the while the boys from Hollywood are standing there, shivering. And we’re thinking, ‘Whose great idea is this?! It’s cold!’ ”

It only got worse from there. Game-time temperatures hit about 9 degrees Celsius (the high-40s) for Game 3 at the Big O. They plunged to near freezing for Game 4, but the boys from Hollywood staved off elimination (and pneumonia) anyway, blowing out the Expos 7–1.

Game 5 was scheduled for the next day, a Sunday afternoon, with temperatures again diving toward zero. The Expos were expecting another packed house of 54,000-plus. Forecasters had predicted rain, sleet, or both, which combined with the cold prompted the umpires to postpone the deciding game until Monday afternoon. The predicted downpour wasn’t as bad as feared, with some on hand that day believing the game could have been played—but the postponement did allow starter Ray Burris to pitch on a full four days’ rest, after shutting out the Dodgers 3–0 in Game 2. It also reduced the Game 5 crowd to a shivering, tense gathering of 36,491. A tight, low-scoring game only raised the tension.

Steve Rogers: “Look at the first inning. We put runners at first and third with no outs against Fernando [Valenzuela]. Dawson’s at the plate. Fernando usually throws the screwball. Instead he throws that little slider, jams Dawson right to the shortstop for a double play. A run scores. And that’s it. That’s our offence. Now, while nobody could say in the first inning that that’s important, you look at how the game went on—that first inning was as critical as anything. They’ve already got someone warming up in the bullpen. If Hawk sees it better or gets a ball over the plate and drives it, we might be into the bullpen. One big hit and Fernando might be gone.”

Mike Scioscia: “Fernando gave up that run in the first inning and then proceeded to pitch as well as you could ever imagine anyone pitching. You know, Fernando was young. He was only 20, but he understood the ramifications of what was going on out there. He was really focused on every pitch. We just didn’t do much offensively to help him.”

While Valenzuela dominated, Burris tossed another gem of his own, scattering five hits over eight innings. But the Dodgers pieced enough together in the fifth to tie the game. Monday and Pedro Guerrero led off the inning with back-to-back singles. After a Scioscia lineout, Burris uncorked a wild pitch, pushing runners to second and third. With Valenzuela up, the Expos brought the corners in, watching for a potential game-tying squeeze. Instead, Valenzuela swung away, slapping a grounder to second to score the tying run.

Both teams went down in order their next two times up. In the seventh, the Expos put two on, but didn’t score. The Dodgers pushed Davey Lopes into scoring position in the eighth with an infield hit and a steal, but didn’t score. On to the ninth the game went, with the score still tied 1–1. The Expos had pinch-hit Tim Wallach for Burris in the bottom of the eighth, meaning they’d need a new pitcher for the ninth. Jim Fanning now faced a big decision. Due up for the Dodgers was the heart of their order: right-handed hitters Steve Garvey and Ron Cey, and 35-year-old, lefty-swinging Rick Monday, who’d hit a ton in part-time duty that year and pushed the lighter-hitting Ken Landreaux out of the lineup.

The Expos’ bullpen wasn’t particularly deep that year, so even after their starter had given them eight innings, there were only two likely choices to start the ninth. Closer Jeff Reardon was battling a bad back, though he’d pitched in Game 1 of the series. The other most likely option was starting pitcher Steve Rogers.

Jim Fanning: “People don’t remember that Jeff Reardon wasn’t Jeff Reardon yet. He only had 10 saves in his career before coming to the Expos.”

Rogers: “Reardon had a bad back, but they sent him down there and he was ready to go for the ninth inning.”

Touchette: “They wanted to go with their best guy at the time, which was Rogers. Even if he wasn’t a relief pitcher, if you’re going to get beat, you want it to be your best guy. Rogers was the best pitcher in baseball at the time. He pitched well every time out down the stretch. He beat Steve Carlton twice in a week in the first playoff series. He threw a complete game against the Dodgers in Game 3. He would be pitching on two days’ rest, but he was pitching so well. I thought it was a good move.”

Tim Raines: “Rogers had to come in, but he had almost never pitched in relief in his career.”

Fanning: “Ask yourself who was the best pitcher in the National League the last five weeks of the season. Rogers. He’d given up two runs in the entire playoffs. After the rainout, he came to [pitching coach] Galen Cisco and me and said, ‘It’s my day to throw between starts anyway.’ I told him if it came to that, I wouldn’t have him relieve during an inning in progress. I said it’d be at the start of an inning. Burris was pitching a hell of a game, then he started to tire. We had an opportunity there to start the ninth, where it was not a save situation. So Steve Rogers came into the game.”

♦♦♦ 

Rogers: “You know being brought in for that situation, it was not what had been discussed prior to the game. There were a lot of things that ebbed and flowed in that decision-making process. I was going to be the first guy out of the pen if Ray got into trouble and got knocked out early. It was always contemplated that I would be the first guy out of the bullpen before it got out of hand. Then he goes out and throws eight innings of one-run ball. Hell yeah, Ray was on his game.

“So they sent me down to warm up in a spot I wasn’t necessarily expecting. I was fine physically, but my adrenaline was pumping too hard. I didn’t control it and I was overthrowing the sinker. Mechanically, I lost the angle. I just took the bad mechanics from the bullpen out to the mound. I was going to have a throw day on either the second or third day, so I mean, I could have thrown five innings if they needed it. Physically and mentally at least, I was fine.”

Garvey led off the inning with a first-pitch popout. Then Rogers got himself in trouble. Facing Cey, the Dodgers’ fireplug third baseman, Rogers fell behind 3–1, then fired his trademark sinker. Instead of diving below the batter’s knees as it had done so many times throughout Rogers’ career, the pitch stayed up—a telltale sign that Rogers’ mechanics weren’t right, that he wasn’t executing his pitches the way he normally did.

Cey took a huge swing and crushed the ball toward the left-field corner and the very reachable 325 sign. But he didn’t quite get all of it. Hanging up in the cold October air, the ball died at the warning track, settling into Tim Raines’ glove for the second out.

That brought Monday to the plate. The Dodgers’ right fielder was a modest 5-for-22 without a single extra-base hit in the playoffs leading up to that at-bat. Fanning had left-handers Bill Lee and Woodie Fryman available. Lee had warmed up and was ready to go, though he’d pitched sparingly in the postseason to that point. Fryman had been torched for five runs in 2⅓ innings of work during the playoffs.

Bill Lee: “Reardon, Fanning would bring him in for the right-handers, but he’s got to bring me in for the left-handers. When the inning started, I had warmed up on my own. I did it on my own, and I tapped my hat, and he brought in Rogers. He gets the first two guys, lefty’s coming up, and Fanning leaves him in.

“Monday ain’t gonna hit me. I’m gonna throw him a fastball, then he’s gonna foul it off his foot. I’m gonna throw him another fastball, then he’s gonna foul it off again. I’m gonna throw him a breaking ball away, he’s gonna wave at it, inning over.

“He went with Rogers because that way he wouldn’t have been criticized. That’s the way he thinks, because, see, for Fanning, when you think, you hurt the ball club. Fanning, he can’t pull the trigger. He has a really nice gun, but he’s got no fuckin’ bullets in it.”

Fanning: “Rogers was going to be the guy. It didn’t matter if the guys coming up were left-handed or right-handed hitters.”

Rogers: “We wouldn’t even be out there if I hadn’t pitched so well leading up to that game. If I don’t pitch that well, they don’t even think of putting me out there. If I just scuffled in the third game and I come out after six innings, would they have looked at me [to pitch the ninth inning of Game 5]? No, it would have been Reardon from the get-go.”

In 1981, we were still years away from widespread, batter-to-batter obsessions over righty-lefty matchups, to be sure. This also wasn’t the first, or the last, time Lee and Fanning would emphatically disagree; one incident the following season would result in a near-fight, and a huge fallout for both men’s careers.

Bottom line, Rogers wasn’t coming out. But he was struggling, overthrowing and failing to locate his sinker. For the second straight time, he fell behind the batter 3–1.

Monday: “I’m looking for a pitch I can drive. Very seldom does he get a ball above the knees, so you have to hit it whenever it is above the knees.”

Rogers: “You can make a case that the stretch of three starts leading into this game was the pinnacle of my career. But my mechanics just weren’t there that day. Gary [Carter] called sinker away, and I just threw it so badly that it just was one of those settling, nothing fastballs.”

Touchette: “‘It was a BP fastball.’ That’s what he said afterwards.”

Terry Francona: “It was a good swing. But it was so cold. I don’t think anybody thought he hit it hard enough to go out.”

Andre Dawson: “I didn’t even think it would make the wall. It just seemed to carry and carry. I don’t know what the wind was doing that particular day. I knew he hit it good, but I didn’t think he hit it that good.”

Monday: “Here’s the thing: it was so cold. There had already been balls that were hit hard that went nowhere—even in batting practice. You hit the bejeebers out of it and it goes nowhere. Steve had been so successful against us that year, and just a couple of days prior. And we knew we were probably not going to get a ball elevated at all.

“I finally do get one, and it’s the only time in 19 years and 240-something home runs that I ever lost the flight of the ball. I knew it was hit hard, but I thought it was hit too high. Because I lost sight of the ball, I went down the first-base line and I’m watching Andre Dawson and he keeps going and keeps going and I’m thinking it’s going to be too high—it’s going to be caught. Then he kept going and I was like, ‘Maybe it’ll be off the fence, maybe it will be off the wall.’ I was already past first base at the time. I was thinking, ‘If it’s off the wall I would be on second, maybe third base.’ ”

Raines: “I’m in left field and I’m watching Andre go back to get the ball. He’s running out of room.”

Francona: “It kept carrying and carrying. Next thing you know, he’s going around the bases with his arm in the air.”

The Monday homer felt like a crushing blow. But all was not yet lost. The Expos started a rally in the bottom of the ninth. After retiring Rodney Scott and the heavily slumping Dawson to start the inning, Valenzuela walked Gary Carter. Another walk, this one to Larry Parrish, knocked Valenzuela from the game. Lacking a true closer, Lasorda summoned Bob Welch from the pen to face Jerry White—the same Jerry White whose Game 3 homer might’ve ended up being the biggest in franchise history had the Expos made it to the World Series. On the first pitch, White slapped a slow roller into the hole between first and second. Lopes ranged far to his left, gathered it in and fired to first, where a fully outstretched Garvey snagged the throw an instant before White’s foot hit the bag. Inning over, game over, season over, dream over.

Francona: “It just deflated us. Nobody thought we were going to lose.”

Raines: “The Monday home run, it was probably one of the … I wouldn’t say the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it was pretty hard to take. And then the last out was a groundball, bang-bang to first base. And I’ll never forget this: Warren Cromartie and myself were sitting on the bench, because everybody else had left. Just sitting there. ‘What the hell, these guys beat us.’ We sat on the bench after it was over and I was like, ‘I can’t believe we’re not going.’ I could not believe we weren’t going to the World Series. We won [Game 3], all we needed was to win one game. We just couldn’t win that one game.

“We probably had the best team in baseball. No, we did have the best team in baseball that year. We’d have kicked the Yankees’ ass that year. If the Dodgers beat them, we’d have probably swept them. We had the team.”

Scioscia: “The Expos were a really talented club. You look at a lot of the players on the team, how their careers went, you can imagine how good they were. The guys that didn’t have power could fly. The guys that couldn’t run real well had unbelievable power. And then you had Andre Dawson or Tim Raines that could do both. You know, they had a deep lineup. They had great balance. They could steal a base. They could hit the ball out of the park. They all played terrific defence. So, that was really one of the best baseball teams I’ve ever played against.”

Monday: “You can’t look past what a tremendous team the Expos had. I quite frankly don’t think that the Montreal Expos of 1981 truly got the attention they deserved in terms of how good that ball club was and how good those players were. At that time, it was a ball club you looked at and said, they could beat you a lot of different ways. They could beat you with pitching, they could beat you with defence, they could beat you with offence, they could beat you with their speed—a lot of different areas. It’s unfortunate we don’t ask, ‘Who else is on the podium?’ It’s, ‘Who’s holding the largest bouquet of flowers?’

“During that series, people were dancing in the aisles. It was really a tremendous, and I mean a tremendous, venue. In that series it was like a World’s Fair, and the Olympics, and the World Series all at once. People were dancing and hollering, bundled up and having a good time. Every time the Expos did something really well, which they did often during that year, everyone would start singing, ‘Valderi Valdera.’ So now we win it, and we go back into the clubhouse and somebody started singing it in the locker room. It was finally our turn to sing. We had been hearing it over and over and over and over and over, and finally the crescendo was in our locker room. We found out later that some people got irritated, but we didn’t do it as a disrespectful thing. It was blowing off steam; it was a magical moment. For us there was that extra incentive too, that little burr that was still under our saddle from ’77 and ’78. The World Series is going to start the next night. So it was a relatively short one-hour, 10-minute flight. Thank goodness it was not any longer. It was … let’s say a very boisterous flight.”

More than three decades later, some bitter Expos fans haven’t forgiven those involved in the moment, when Monday smashed that hanging sinker over the 12-foot wall in centre, 400-plus feet from home plate. Some questioned Fanning’s managerial inexperience, wondering if the Expos skipper should have used a different pitcher—Reardon at the start of the inning, or a left-hander against Monday after Cey’s near-homer. Or when Rogers fell behind Monday 3–1, Fanning or Gary Carter could have suggested Rogers pitch around Monday to bring up Pedro Guerrero, who’d been awful throughout the postseason.

Others never forgave the two principals in the matchup, Rogers and Monday. Rogers won 158 games in his 13-year career, posting a career ERA of 3.17 (16 percent better than league average). He put up several big seasons, including his nearly unhittable stretch in September 1981, all the way through the playoffs with three lights-out starts against the Phillies and Dodgers—plus a huge year in 1982 right after giving up the infamous homer. Monday had been the first overall selection in the first-ever amateur draft in 1965. More famously, on April 25, 1976, he grabbed an American flag from two protesters just before they could set it on fire in the outfield at Dodger Stadium. His career numbers were pretty damn good too: 1,619 hits, 241 homers, 125 OPS+.

Still, fairly or not, mention either man’s name in Montreal and many old-time Expos fans flash back to that fateful day.

Rogers: “I talked to Monday about it after the fact. You know something? I’ve heard it and I understand what he’s saying. He’s saying, ‘My career was more than just one pitch.’ He said, ‘I think I had a pretty damn good career.’ He got paid to hit the kind of pitch I threw. He got paid to hit that ball hard. He did his job and I didn’t do mine.

“The only thing I could say that has bothered me at times about Montrealers—and I understand it, so it hasn’t bothered me in depth, it hasn’t bothered me to the core—but when I’ve been up there a few times over the years, people come up to shake your hand, and go, ‘Blue Monday.’ Everybody does it. I’ve come to terms with that, and it’s because that’s the easiest way for them to relate to me. It’s not meant to be negative. They know where they were when they were listening and the ball went over the wall. Every now and then it’s said in a way that’s not as nice. But I’ve come to grips with the fact that, for the most part, it’s not malicious.”

Jacques Doucet: “Steve Rogers was the main card of that team: the ace. People forget his great career. I was broadcasting a game for the Quebec Capitales [of the Can-Am League]. Bill Buckner’s one of the managers in the league. He comes into town and I went to him and said, ‘Mr. Buckner, you and Steve Rogers have something in common. One play ruined your reputation.’ I remember mostly when he was playing for the Dodgers and the Cubs, he was a really good hitter then and throughout his career—2,700 hits! Still, people come back to that one play. Same thing with Rogers.”

Monday: “The next year we go into Montreal, and Steve Yeager and I are going to dinner. We go in, we sit down, and we had ordered a beverage and we’re at a table looking at the menu and this man comes up to us and goes, ‘Gentlemen, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’ This was the general manager of the place. A nice restaurant. And we said, ‘You’re open, right?’ This was a Sunday night, if I remember correctly. And he goes, ‘We don’t want any fights in here.’ I was like, ‘We’re not going to fight. We just got off a plane, we’re going to have dinner.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’m not worried about you guys fighting, but there are six guys at this other table over here who want to kick your ass.’ There were other things too. I would get so many phone calls that I’d finally have to put a block on the phone at the hotel. Some of them were humorous, some of them were very dark humour, some of them were no humour.

“A few years go by—I’m retired and now a broadcaster. It was the last year the Expos were going to be in Montreal. My wife joins me on the road trip and we bring my stepdaughter with us: she’s a junior in high school at the time. So we’re spending the afternoon in the old town and taking in the sights and my wife, Barbara Lee, says, ‘Why don’t we take Ashley to the restaurant we went to last year?’ The restaurant has been there, I don’t know, it must be 100 years old. As we were walking to the restaurant, Barbara Lee says, ‘Why don’t you tell Ashley about 1981, and what happened the following year when they asked you to leave a restaurant?’ So I’m telling her the story. We open the door to the restaurant, and I was saying, ‘You know they don’t like me in this town.’ We start to walk in, and this hostess runs toward us. ‘You can’t come in! You can’t come in!’ I turn to Ashley and say, ‘See?! They really don’t like me here.’ It turned out they had an electrical fire in the kitchen and that’s why we couldn’t come in. But at that moment it was like, ‘See?’ So we had a good laugh about that.

“Talking about all of this … you’re trying to get me shot in Montreal in case I ever return again, eh?”

Warren Cromartie: “I’m a big fan of Rick Monday, ever since he pulled that flag up. Always liked his style. He was a student of the game. Every now and again I wake up in a cold sweat thinking about that son of a bitch. And every time I see him, I want to punch his fucking lights out.”

Filed Under: MLB, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos, Books, Sports Books, Montreal Expos, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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