1979 Montréal Expos
Managed by Dick Williams
- All-Stars: Gary Carter, Larry Parrish and Steve Rogers
- Player of the Year: Larry Parrish
- Best Rookie: David Palmer
- Players of the month:
- Minor League Player of the Year: Randy Bass (Denver AAA)
- Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Rick Ramos (West Palm Beach A and Memphis AA)
The 1979 Montreal Expos became very good very quickly. Coming off ten consecutive seasons with a record below .500, they suddenly emerged as one of the powers of the National League early in the season, a position they would not relinquish until early in the 1984 season. There had been signs that the team was moving in the right direction under the tutelage of Manager Dick Williams as they had moved from one of the bottom-dwellers of the league to reach 4th place in 1978 and had developed a potent if inconsistent offense in two years. They were now ready to take the final steps toward contention.
1979 was also the year when the Expos marketing department, under the guidance of Roger D. Landry, had two brilliant ideas. After the San Diego Chicken had taken baseball by storm in 1977, the Expos had introduced their own mascot in 1978, but the kindest words that can be said about Suki, a hominid with a baseball-shaped head and two antennas sticking out, was that he was inoffensive even if he did scare a lot of children. In the off-season, Landry turned to Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets to design a friendlier mascot. His company came up with Youppi! a furry orange bear-like creature wearing uniform number !; he was an instant and unqualified success with the fans. The second stroke of genius was a publicity campaign centered around the slogan Le fun est dans l'stade, a slangish way of saying that enjoyment could be found at the ballpark. Aside from the baseball game, a visit to Stade Olympique included things live music bands and a beer garden in the inner concourse, children's games, a wider choice of concession stands than was the norm in those days, and an active and enthusiastic organist, Fernand Lapierre, whose sound was more reminiscent of a hockey arena than of a typical 1970s baseball stadium. Lapierre became famous for playing the march The Happy Wanderer (Valderi, Valdera) when the Expos had completed a successful rally, with all the fans joining in by singing at the top of their lungs.
All of these moves served to pump some life into the drab concrete bowl that was Stade Olympique. Combined with the team's newfound success on the field, this conspired to drive attendance over two million for the first time in team history, including a record 59,282 for a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals on September 16th, which was 22 persons more than the previous record, set on July 27th during a doubleheader with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The two-million mark would be reached again in three of the next four years, the exception being the strike-shortened 1981 season. At that point, Montreal was considered one of Major League Baseball's most successful franchises, easily outdrawing teams in much larger cities. Not only were the Expos drawing a lot of fans at home, they were also nearly unbeatable in their house. Their 28-7 record over their first 35 home games was the best of any team in the divisional era, which started in 1969, only matched by the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals.
The Expos had replaced General Manager Charlie Fox with John McHale after the 1978 season, after Fox had clashed with various members of the organization, most notably All-Star pitcher Steve Rogers. McHale did not attack the trade market as aggressively as his predecessor had, but he did pull one major coup when he wrested left-handed pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee from the Boston Red Sox for generic utility infielder Stan Papi. The eccentric Californian became a fan favorite in Montreal, and his knack for drawing press attention, first by stating during spring training that he was in favor of marijuana and in fact had eaten it on his pancakes, earning a fine from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, then by being hit by a taxicab while taking a midnight jog in Los Angeles, CA, and finally by sporting a huge beard more fitting for a biblical patriarch than for a baseball player. All the media attention kept the press off the younger players, while Lee's outstanding performance on the mound, with team-leading 16-10 record and a 3.04 ERA in 222 innings meant that his antics were accepted with a shrug.
Bill Lee led an outstanding pitching staff that was remarkable for a number of reasons: first, it included five right-handers and five left-handers, an extremely rare occurrence in major league history; second, none of the ten pitchers that started the year on the staff missed any time all year; and finally, the Expos got probably the best performance from the last three members of their staff - fifth starter Dan Schatzeder, and long relievers Rudy May and David Palmer - that any team has ever received. The three were a combined 30-10, with ERAs of 2.83, 2.30 and 2.63 respectively in a combined 379 innings. The three vultured some wins away from Steve Rogers, who was 13-12 in spite of pitching 5 shutouts and posting an ERA of 3.00 over 249 innings. Starter Scott Sanderson, with only two months of major league experience behind him, went 9-8 with a solid 3.43 ERA before tiring towards the end of the season, at which point rookie Palmer stepped in the rotation and was outstanding. The only real disappointment was Ross Grimsley who couldn't reproduce his heroics of the previous year, when he was the only Expo pitcher ever to win 20 games, and ended the year deep in Manager Williams' doghouse with a 10-9 record and a horrendous 5.36 ERA. The bullpen was very solid, with free agent Elias Sosa stepping into the closer role with aplomb, recording 18 saves with a 1.95 ERA, and support from two veterans, left-hander Woodie Fryman, who saved 10 games with a 2.79 ERA and right-hander Stan Bahnsen who was 3-1, 3.16 in 94 innings as a middle reliever. The Expos repatriated their former bullpen ace Dale Murray from the New York Mets for the stretch drive, and he posted a 2.77 ERA in 13 innings, while Bill Atkinson, called up from AAA Denver also helped out with a 2-0 record and a 1.93 ERA over 14 September innings.
The Expos' offense was led by third baseman Larry Parrish, who had a career year and won the team's Player of the Year award, with a .307 batting average, a then team-record .551 slugging percentage, with 39 doubles, 30 home runs, 80 runs scored and 82 RBI. Catcher Gary Carter hit .283 with 22 home runs and 75 RBI, center fielder Andre Dawson hit .275 with 25 home runs, 90 runs scored and 92 RBI, right fielder Ellis Valentine hit .276 with 21 home runs and 82 RBI, while first baseman Tony Perez and left fielder Warren Cromartie also posted good numbers. In the infield, Williams made the surprise decision in spring training to replace second baseman Dave Cash with newcomer Rodney Scott. Scott was a controversial player because, on one hand, his Triple Crown line of a .238 batting average with 3 home runs and 42 RBI was pretty unimpressive, but on the other Williams insisted that he was one of the most valuable players on the team given his stellar defense, his ability to take pitches and draw walks in the second slot of the batting order, and his outstanding speed. Indeed, 1979 was the first year that the Expos' character as one of the premier running teams in baseball was set, with Scott's 39 stolen bases just ahead of Dawson's 35; this would last until 1994 and the departure of the last of a series of great base stealers, Marquis Grissom.
In 1978, the Expos' bench had been a huge weakness, but that changed dramatically in 1979. Under the leadership of pinch hitter Tom Hutton, the group of unheralded substitutes organized themselves into the Bus Squad, with Bus supposedly standing for "broke, underrated superstars", taking pride in their limited but effective contributions to the team's success. The group included catcher Duffy Dyer, third baseman Ken Macha, shortstop Jim Mason, first baseman Tony Solaita and outfielder Jerry White, with third-string catcher John Tamargo being added when he joined the team in August. Dave Cash did not join the group, as he had trouble accepting losing his job, but proceeded to hit a solid .321 in limited playing time. In July, the team dumped Solaita, who had been a productive hitter, in order to bring back the team's first superstar, Rusty Staub, who had been the Detroit Tigers' designated hitter the past three and a half seasons. Staub had become a liability in the field, but his return was a huge hit with the fans, and he could still hit, posting a .267 average with 3 home runs in 38 games.
The pennant race with the Pittsburgh Pirates was epic. The Expos started the year red hot, with 15 wins over their first 20 games and were 15 games over .500 at the All-Star break, but they couldn't shake off the Pirates. Worst, they had lost a lot of games to rainouts, and were facing a grueling schedule in September, with nine doubleheaders on the program. They were trailing the Pirates by three games on September 1st and the young team was expected to fade down the stretch, but they held on, posting a superb 23-11 record that month, including a sweep of three consecutive doubleheaders against the New York Mets. After splitting a doubleheader with the Pirates on September 24th, they found themselves half a game ahead of their rivals, but they had lost Carter to an ankle injury in the second game and would lose four of their final five games without the future Hall of Famer in the line-up. On September 29th (Boxscore), 19-year-old pinch-runner Tim Raines scored a run in the bottom of the 9th on a pinch-hit single by Cash to earn a 3-2 victory against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Expos' players waited anxiously for the results of the Pirates' game gainst the Chicago Cubs; when Mick Kelleher scored an unearned run in the top of the 13th inning to give the Cubs a 7-6 victory (Boxscore), the Expos were still alive, one game behind the Pirates, who had one more to play, while the Expos had one remaining home game and could go to Atlanta, GA for a make-up doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves if necessary. Unfortunately, the Pirates won their final game while the Expos lost theirs when Steve Carlton pitched a three-hit shutout (Boxscore) and the season was over without a need to travel south. A huge disappointment, but what a great year it had been !
- "Bus Squad" in Montreal Expos: La Revue Baseball, Vol. 11, No. 4 (July 1979), pp. 5,7,42.
- Norm King: "How 'Bout Them Expos; May 29-31, 1979: Montreal Expos 9, Philadelphia Phillies 0; Montreal Expos 2, Philadelphia Phillies 0; Montreal Expos 1, Philadelphia Phillies 0 At Olympic Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 42-44. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6
- Norm King: "Back-to-Back-to-Back Jacks; June 17, 1979: Montreal Expos 19, Houston Astros 3 At Olympic Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 45-47. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6
- Rod Mickleburgh: "Expos Regain First PLace from Pirates; September 24, 1979: Montreal Expos 7, Pittsburgh Pirates 6 At Three Rivers Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 48-50. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6
- Brodie Snyder: The Year the Expos Almost Won the Pennant, Virgo Press, Toronto, ON, 1979.