It’s been more than a year since they played baseball in Montreal or, as they did the last time they ever saw daylight, Flushing. Yet the Expos continue to lurk among us. The streets of baseball are too crowded with Expos tonight.
While the Washington Nationals go about not being sold, not building a ballpark and not wearing a W that doesn’t immediately make me think “Senators” when I see it, the Montreal Expos knock about in the semi-consciousness. I’ve tried to forget them, or at least not think about them. But they don’t quite go away.
I’m practically alone on being concerned with Metspo matters, I realize. Nobody else cares. Everybody else on both sides has moved on. Youppi works for a hockey team, and if Youppi’s put it all behind him…well, that’s some behind.
I imagine there must be a few sad Expophiles still suffering from a case of the berefts in Quebec, but there were only a few fans of any kind who visited Olympic Stadium in the final years of its baseball existence. Sparse attendance was the only reasonable response to the accelerated death throes that MLB inflicted on Montreal, but things weren’t going so swimmingly up there before contraction chat commenced.
Whatever. Somebody needs to keep a menorah burning in the window for departed franchises and it oughta be a Mets fan. We were born of departure, of course, of Giants jetting to San Francisco and of Dodgers darting to L.A. We were also the final home for the last active New York Giant, Willie Mays in 1973, and the last extant Brooklyn Dodger, Bob Aspromonte in 1971. That’s likely the final time you’ll see those two in the same sentence…what, Sandy Koufax couldn’t have gone in for Tommy John surgery and come back with us at 45 after his buddy Fred Wilpon bought his hometown team?
The Mets tend to harbor lasts. The last Houston Colt .45, Rusty Staub, retired a Met in 1985. The last Seattle Pilot pitcher, Mike Marshall, ended his days here in 1981. The last Milwaukee Brave catcher, Joe Torre, was decommissioned from active duty at Shea in 1977, albeit as a player/manager who hadn’t caught since 1970. I don’t know who the last Montreal Expo in MLB captivity circa 2018 will be, but chances are he’s a deteriorating Met by then. (Two cents says it’s John Patterson and his right arm, likely off a lengthy rehab stint, six years removed from his last double-digit win season.)
Already the Washington Nationals resemble less and less their Expo forebears and not just because paying customers were spotted at D.C. home games. The Nats recently traded Brad Wilkerson for Alfonso Soriano. The Expos would never acquire Soriano and nobody was more of an Expo from a Met standpoint — guy the rest of the world barely knew but was constantly sticking knives in our hopes and dreams by slugging .639 against us in ’04 — than Wilkerson.
Save for Endy Chavez. Now that was an Expo who gave me night sweats. That was a borderline Major Leaguer who fantasy and roto players no doubt tossed in the take-’em pile. That was a card that serious collectors shoved in their spokes without a second thought. Who the hell was Endy Chavez?
A Met-killer, that’s who. An absolute pain in the Astacio. A .364 hitter versus the Mets in the Expos’ final season. Ninety-three points better against us than against the rest of baseball. Endy Chavez connected for 37 hits in 2002. A full 15 — 41 freaking percent — were accumulated in the service of ruining what was already a disastrous Mets season. The foundation of Endy Chavez’s big league career was forged on the dubious backs of John Thomson, Mike Bacsik and Pat Strange.
Where did this guy come from? The Mets, of course. He was one of those players who slipped out of the system when nobody (Steve Phillips) was paying attention, taken by the Royals in the 2000 Rule 5 draft. When Chavez wound up in Montreal, he abided by Rule 1: Make the Mets pay for giving up on me.
Good to great news: Endy Chavez, who so owned the Mets before he moved to Washington and was then traded to Philadelphia, is once more Met property. Omar Minaya, who brought him to Montreal has brought him home, signing the outfielder to a one-year deal just before Christmas (the news surprisingly got a touch lost amid Johnny Damon’s, uh, fashionable haircut). He is likely to compete with Tike Redman, an honorary ex-Expo Met-killer — Pittsburgh essentially being Montreal South in baseball terms — for a spare OF slot.
He will also likely cause the name Ender Chavez, as pronounced by the wonderful Warner Fusselle, to resonate in my head every time he comes to bat should he make the band. Ender Chavez is Endy Chavez’s brother, a Cyclone in 2002, the one year the ‘Clones were smart enough to have their games broadcast on a real radio station so I could drive around the South Shore of Nassau County on summer Sunday evenings and listen to them via the voice of Fusselle. Last I checked, Ender was in the Nationals’ system. If he ever makes the bigs, I hope his vengeful streak doesn’t run as deep as that of his older sibling.
And I hope neither of the Chavezes befall a fate along the lines of what has landed upon Jeff Reardon. Reardon wasn’t a cult ‘Spo. He was the real thing, one of the best closers of the 1980s. He achieved fame in Montreal. He did so after leaving New York.
By now you’ve likely heard Reardon’s alleged and bizarre tale: the armed jewelry store robbery, the peaceful apprehension, the claim that antidepressants popped in the name of salving personal tragedy (the O.D. death of his 20-year-old son in 2004). The whole episode is hard to fathom, more difficult than the recurring misadventures of Darryl and Doc even, since until yesterday the only ill will any of us could have possibly drummed up regarding Jeff Reardon was the trade that made him a former Met.
Before he grew grumpy beyond practicable redemption, Frank Cashen was a whiz. His trades worked splendidly (Allen and Ownbey for Hernandez), equitably (Brooks, Fitzgerald, Winningham and Youmans for Carter), temporarily (Scott for Heep) or theoretically (Treviño, Harris and Kern for Foster). Swapping Jeff Reardon and Dan Norman for Ellis Valentine was an early misstep of the Bowtie’s, but even it can get a hindsight-pass if one remembers that Ellis Valentine was Vladimir Guerrero when Vladimir wasn’t two. He was the Montreal rightfielder who had each and every tool and wielded them brilliantly against us. In his first four full seasons, Ellis Valentine batted .335 versus the Mets. He was pretty good against everybody else, too.
So on a Friday night in late May 1981, when the Mets posted on the big Shea scoreboard in the eighth inning of their game with the Cubs that they had acquired the Ellis Valentine, it was, like, Wow! We got one of the best players in the National League! Sure, he wasn’t having a particularly good season — .211 — and hadn’t yet overcome a severe fractured cheekbone from the year before (he wore one of those batting helmets with the protective mouthguards that you used to see but don’t seem to anymore), but c’mon. This was Ellis Valentine, not yet 27 years old. He could hit, he could run and he was legendary for how he threw. This was like taking Joel Youngblood and multiplying him by Claudell Washington.
Giving up Jeff Reardon bothered me some, though not as much as it should have. I have a vague recollection that I had it in for him in 1980 for giving up gophers (10 in 110.1 innings), but knew he could throw hard. He could’ve been our closer but Neil Allen had wrested that mantle. Reardon was either going to be one heckuva setup man for the Mets or tremendous trade bait.
Scoring this deal was easy. Expos by a first-round TKO. Valentine was just as crummy for the Mets as he was for the Expos in ’81. Reardon blossomed in Montreal, serving as the missing ingredient that the theretofore close but cigarless ‘Spos lacked in 1979 and 1980. I can still see the wire-service photo that ran in the Tampa Tribune of him and Gary Carter embracing after clinching the second-half title of the split-season National League East. They did that at Shea Stadium on the second-to-last day of the year as the Mets were engaging in a battle for fourth place.
(The next day, the dismissal of former Milwaukee Braves catcher Joe Torre as Mets manager was announced on the same scoreboard that heralded the arrival of Ellis Valentine in May before the season finale was complete. Those are the only two flashes of the Mets breaking relevant transaction news to their crowd mid-game that I can recall. Such transparency seems to have gone the way of the protective mouthguard.)
Reardon kept getting better, saving more than 40 games three times and closing out the Cardinals to seal the Twins’ 1987 world championship. Ellis Valentine kept getting worse. The Mets’ attempt to market him, Kingman and Foster as some kind of all-powerful electric company in 1982 fritzed out immediately. Valentine’s career arc served mainly as a Ghost of Juan Samuel Future, but Cashen didn’t bother to notice. In the offseason that followed, just after Valentine filed for free agency, I found myself flying between New York and Tampa in a seat next to an honest-to-goodness advance scout who would go on to somewhat bigger things and who was kind enough to indulge my in-flight questions after I discovered his occupation.
I asked, essentially, what’s wrong with Kingman, Foster and Valentine? The scout told me Kingman’s a creep, Foster’s washed up and Valentine…let’s just say he intimated some habits that would have led you to believe that if an Ex-’Spo with Met ties would get into deep, deep trouble late in December early in the next century, it wouldn’t be Jeff Reardon.
Funny how that works.