1991 Montréal Expos
Awards and Honors
- All-Stars: Ivan Calderon and Dennis Martinez
- Player of the Year: Dennis Martinez
- Best Rookie: Bret Barberie
- NL Gold Glove: Andres Galarraga (1B) and Tim Wallach (3B)
- 1990 Topps All-Star Rookie Team: Delino DeShields (2B) and Larry Walker (OF)
- Players of the Month:
- Minor League Player of the Year: Matt Stairs, Harrisburg (AA)
- Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Reid Cornelius, West Palm Beach (A) and Harrisburg (AA)
For the 1991 Montréal Expos, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times, but it was mainly the worst of times.
Regarding the best of times, this was the year of the greatest game ever pitched by an Expos' starting pitcher, Dennis Martinez's perfect game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, which took place on July 28th. It came two days after another (quasi) no-hitter, on July 26th, when Mark Gardner held the Dodgers hitless over 9 innings, only to lose the no-hitter and the game in the 10th inning. It was also the year when Marquis Grissom established himself as the best centerfielder in the National League, and that can also be traced to a specific game: on April 28th, he went 4 for 5 with a grand slam, driving in 5 runs in a 9-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals; he had played sparingly over the first three weeks of the season and was hitting just .148 heading into the game. After that, he was an unstoppable force, raising his batting average above .300 within a week, and ending the year at .267 with 73 runs and a league-leading 76 stolen bases.
But it was mainly the worst of times. On May 23rd, the Expos were no-hit by a then largely unknown Tommy Greene of the Philadelphia Phillies. It was just the third time in team history that this had happened and Greene would become a true bête noire for Expos batters that year, following with another complete game shutout on May 28th, this one a three-hitter, and seven scoreless innings in another win in his next start against Montreal on August 3rd. More generally, the Expos' batters had a terrible year all around and the team ended up in sixth and last place in the National League East, with a record of 71-90, 26 1/2 games out of first place. It was also the year when the ownership started openly bad-mouthing the team's ballpark, Stade Olympique, in the media, in effect telling fans to stay away, a questionable strategy aimed at obtaining new digs but that had no chance of succeeding and did untold damage to the Expos' image. Only a decade earlier, the owners had been telling everyone that Stade Olympique was the fun place to be, and the message was well received; later, it was the promise of soon having a functioning retractable roof making an engineering marvel complete that was the draw, but now suddenly fans were told they were losers for heading to a concrete dump. The damage would be significant and long-lasting, eventually costing the city its team, but the seeds of this were planted in 1991. And in a case of hubris being punished by the gods in a swift and unmistakable manner, on September 8th, shortly after the end of the last game of a homestand, a large chunk of concrete detached itself from the structure and fell into the stands - luckily empty by then. The provincial government immediately closed the stadium and ordered a thorough inspection, which meant the Expos did not play another home game that season, finishing the year with 26 straight road games.
There was one major trade in the off-season: on December 23rd, the Expos sent OF Tim Raines and two minor leaguers, Mario Brito and Jeff Carter, to the Chicago White Sox in return for OF Ivan Calderon and P Barry Jones. The reasoning was that Raines was now starting his decline after being one of the best outfielders of the 1980s and was getting expensive, that the Expos needed someone to hit in the middle of the line-up (Calderon) and that Jones had the makings of a true closer. The trade was not well received by the fan base, as Raines was hugely popular, but Calderon did have a good season - or at least a good first half before a shoulder injury limited him largely to pinch-hitting in the last few weeks. He hit .300 in 134 games and led the team with 19 homers and 75 RBIs while stealing 31 bases in spite of the time missed, but the injury would basically end his time as a major league starter, while Raines would remain productive for a decade. Jones was not able to make the move from successful set-up man to closer: he went 4-9, 3.35 and his 13 saves came along with 8 blown saves, including some really awful performances. He did lead the league with 77 games pitched and pitched better in the second half, but the damage was done. He would be traded after the season. The two Rule V draftees, Nikco Riesgo and Greg McCarthy, failed to contribute anything of value (McCarthy in fact spent the entire season on the disabled list) and free agent signings were underwhelming, with Rick Mahler and Ron Hassey, both on their last legs, the only additions.
The Expos also lost two prospects for the entire season: OF Moises Alou, victim of a shoulder injury in the Dominican Winter League and C Greg Colbrunn, whose own shoulder injury would force him to move to 1B when he was finally recovered. Just before the season started, on April 1st, they traded OF Otis Nixon to the Atlanta Braves, where he would emerge as a star, while the Expos received basically nothing in return. However, Nixon was clearly surplus and would not have received significant playing time, and had relatively little value at the time given his spotty performance until then. The relatively quiet off-season was a reflection of more complicated times upstairs, as the team's sale by Charles Bronfman to a consortium led by former team President Claude Brochu, was finally completed. It was Brochu who decided to bad-mouth the team's home, and in the longer term, his lack of capital coupled with his insistence of running the show himself would badly handicap the franchise. But for now, hidden behind the poor on-field performance, there was a solid foundation, and particularly a productive farm system and a willingness to give some young executives a chance to prove their mettle. The Expos would soon become a veritable General Manager factory as a result. In particular, a young Dan Duquette got his first chance to be a General Manager that year, succeeding another young man in David Dombrowski, and he would soon start showing his genius.
It may have felt at the time as if the Expos had fallen into the doldrums, but the poor on-field performance was really a one-year blip, as the Expos had had a winning record in 1990, and would become winners again in 1992. They were incredibly streaky: they got off to a terrible 5-13 start, then, starting with the Grissom game mentioned above, won 10 of 12 games to reach .500 on May 12th. It looked like the ship had been righted, but starting on May 22nd, they lost 10 of 11 games, including Greene's no-hitter and shutout. At the end of that streak, on June 3rd, manager Buck Rodgers was fired and replaced by thirty-something Tom Runnells. Rodgers had been at the helm since 1985 and the team had regularly exceeded expectations during his tenure; however, he was the old administration's man, and Brochu was convinced he had a boy-wonder in Runnells, someone who would be a successful manager for decades and who would be able to shape the wealth of young players into a cohesive group. It wasn't to be. The change did not bring obvious results, although Runnells did obey the front office's call to give some of the team's young pitchers a chance to start. Thus, Mark Gardner, Chris Nabholz, Brian Barnes and Chris Haney got to take a regular turn in the rotation, combining for 94 starts behind ace Dennis Martinez, who had a tremendous season in addition to his perfecto, going 14-11, 2.39 while pitching 222 innings. The youngsters were not as good, as among the group only Nabholz finished above .500 at 8-7, but that was only because he won his final six decisions starting on September 1st. There was another epic losing skein starting in mid-July, when they went 4-20, but starting in late August they had a 12-2 run. The long road trip to end the season also took its toll, with losses in six of the final seven games. It was hard to figure out what the Expos' real level was with all that yo-yoing.
The Expos made a few in-season trades: on July 15th, they traded Tim Burke, the all-time team leader in games pitched, to the New York Mets in return for Ron Darling. It was a puzzler, as Darling was unhappy to leave New York and made it known, and after three poor starts was traded again, going to the Oakland Athletics for little return. He actually had some good years left, but his acquisition was botched. The other trade, on July 21st, sent another pitcher, Dennis Boyd, to the Texas Rangers in return for three prospects who actually had some upside but would not play for the Expos that year. Thus, any help came from within the organization, with the aforementioned young starters, and relievers such as Mel Rojas and Jeff Fassero, the latter an unheralded minor league free agent who would turn into a gem. They also gave a shot to Dave Wainhouse, a former #1 draft pick, but he showed little in his two games. But really, behind Martinez, the pitching staff was more promise than performance.
The hitters struggled all year, apart from Grissom and Calderon (until he went down). The two very good rookies from the previous year, 2B Delino DeShields and RF Larry Walker, both did well, with DeShields drawing 95 walks, scoring 83 runs and stealing 56 bases, in spite of hitting .238, while Walker batted .290 with 16 homers and 64 RBIs. The overall hitting context in the majors was difficult that year, so these numbers were even better than they looked. However, two veterans, 1B Andres Galarraga and 3B Tim Wallach, struggled badly: Galarraga hit just .219 with 9 homers in an injury-plagued season, while Wallach fell to .225 with 13 homers. Catching was a mess, as Colbrunn, who was expected to take over the position, was unavailable. Gilberto Reyes, a former Dodger prospect with a tremendous throwing arm but little else, got the most playing time, but hit .217 with no power. Veteran Hassey was the main back-up and caught Martinez's perfecto, but otherwise was not much of a factor, while Nelson Santovenia and Mike Fitzgerald did not help much either. One pleasant surprise was Bret Barberie who came up in mid-year and hit .353 in 57 games as a utility infielder. Runnells took a shine to him, and it would cause problems in 1992, but for now he was the single interesting addition to an otherwise underperforming offense.
- Gary Belleville: "May 10, 1991: Larry Walker’s first career two-homer game lifts Expos over Padres," SABR Baseball Games Project.
- Gary Belleville: "July 26, 1991: Mark Gardner loses game, no-hitter in extra innings," SABR Baseball Games Project.
- Rory Costello: "Dennis Martínez' Perfect Game; July 28, 1991: Montreal Expos 2, Los Angeles Dodgers 0 At Dodger 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. 84-85. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6
- Danny Gallagher: "El Presidente's perfect game", in Remembering the Montreal Expos, Scoop Press, Toronto, ON, 2005, pp. 158-163.
- Danny Gallagher: "Rodgers 'best-equipped Expos' manager'", in Remembering the Montreal Expos, Scoop Press, Toronto, ON, 2005, pp. 99-104.