Plane rides never feel this good. Not at 2 AM. At least not this late in the season. I’m lounging back, seat reclined, eyes closed, my light slumber brought to you by the soundtrack of Robert, Jimmy, and the rest of Led Zeppelin on this new music device called the Sony Walkman which was sweeping the planet at the time. It was September 1980 and my Montreal Expos had just taken two out of three from the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies of Mike Schimdt, one of the greatest third basemen to ever play the game; of Steve Carlton, one of the top left-handed starting pitchers in baseball history, hell, one of the best pitchers, period; Tug McGraw, that quirky reliever, the classic oddball southpaw who seemed to have discovered the fountain of youth, placing the final touches on what was arguably the greatest season of his career; my old teammate Garry Maddox, who by this point was among the three best defensive center fielders in the game. By the way, Pete Rose also played every day at first base for them. The Phillies had barely any weakness and we were ahead in the standings by a half game with six to play. We weren’t confident we would bring Montreal to the playoffs for the first time in its 11-year existence. It was a sure thing. We felt that. Management felt that. Our fans felt that. As our charter flight came to a complete stop, I peered through the small window and found one of the most beautiful images my eyes had ever seen to that point. Hundreds upon hundreds of Expos fans were waiting for us, under the moonlight, signs, banners, kids and grownups jumping up and down with joy, with affection, anticipating that moment when we stepped off the plane. We hadn’t won anything yet. They didn’t care. They were just happy to see us. A whole lotta love indeed.
We still had six games to go. Imagine what this city will do when we actually make the playoffs. What will they do when we win the World Series?
There was no IF. Just WHEN.
The Cardinals were coming to town for their final three-game set with us. We basically split the season series. I think we won maybe one or two games more. Didn’t matter – we were pretty loose. I walked into the clubhouse at Olympic Stadium before the first game and there’s Gary Carter, hanging out with Steve Rogers, our ace, on the couches, taking in some daytime TV. Bad daytime TV.
“What the hell are you guys watching,” I asked with half a chuckle. Kid beckons to the end of the couch for me to sit down. “C’mon, Johnny D, this is the good part.” “I got better things to do than watch soap operas. Isn’t there anything else on?” Carter shakes his head with a laugh – remember, this is 1980, cable is in its infancy, ESPN isn’t everywhere yet. “Ah, it’s just something to pass the time. How’s your arm feelin’?” My arm was fine; I just hadn’t pitched much during September. I made 49 appearances in 1980 between both the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos. The next time I toed the rubber my 50-game bonus would kick in. I knew I was going to pitch in at least one of the final six games, but there were a ton of mouths to feed in that pen. One of the best relief corps I’ve ever seen. There was the ageless master Woodie Fryman, who was 40 at this time; Fred Norman, the former Reds stalwart who was finishing his career as long man and spot starter; my old teammate Elias Sosa; Stan Bahnsen, the one-time 20-game winner who was now the 7th & 8th inning workhorse. The pen was so good, the team ended up releasing Dale Murray, a one-time lights-out reliever who came up with the club in 1974 and was on his second tour with Montreal. An injury to Woodie Fryman was the catalyst getting me into Canada, on the recommendation of my 1st manager Charlie Fox, who now was the assistant to GM Jim Fanning. Once Fryman was better, manager Dick Williams had a tough time finding innings for all his guys in the pen. We had a solid starting staff, too. Steve Rogers seemed to throw 250 innings every year, was one of the most talented hurlers in the league. Scott Sanderson, Bill Gullickson – Gully struck out 18 guys in a September game, this was his rookie season - David Palmer, Charlie Lea’s first year, too – he would go on to start the All Star Game in 1984. This isn’t even mentioning Bill Lee was also one of our starters. Quirky element of the 1980 season; we were only behind the Cardinals by one for Team Complete Games in the National League, but 11th in the majors. So Dick had a hard time finding innings for his relievers with the starters going so deep into games.
We made pretty easy work of the Cardinals – a tough win that ended with my buddy Johnny Tamargo slamming a pinch-hit 3-run blast to win 5-2; a 7-2 victory for Gully and a David Palmer 8-0 shutout. Woodie appeared in the first two games and Palmer went the distance in the third.
We were just giddy – in first place, breezing through a Cardinals squad that would get a Whitey Herzog facelift during the 1980 off-season – four of their nine top position players and basically the entire starting staff outside of Bob Forsch were sent packing that winter as Whitey made the ballclub his own.
As for me, I still hadn’t pitched – I was stuck on 49 games. I understood the deal. I had a hot August for Montreal, pitching my best in almost two years, but Dick had his guys, wanted to leave the dance with those that brought him to this point. I knew the score, but I still wanted to pitch and I wanted that 50th game.
I’m sitting at my locker, listening to some Clapton on my Walkman, starting to get into my groove, my back to the rest of clubhouse. Not being anti-social, it was early; no one was really there, just doing my own thing. I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Dick. Half street clothes, half uniform; his untucked Expos jersey hanging over tan slacks.
“Hey,Skip, ” I nodded. It wasn’t so much a speech as it was a declaration. Dick clears his throat. “We’re, uhh, we’re adding you to the postseason roster. You’re coming with us to the World Series and playoffs.” I got choked up. This was it – my first time going to the NLCS and possibly the World Series. Through also-ran clubs in San Fran, St. Louis & San Diego, now I was finally going to the big dance. Playing in those games meant so much then. The opportunity to shine on a national stage, the exposure to other clubs. I was most likely going to be a free agent after the season ended. So much at stake in my life, but with the pen they had here, Dick didn’t need to add me. No joke, I very nearly started to cry. Dick was like, “What’sa matter?” “Dick, I’m honored, you just made my day. You made my friggin’ year, my career. I appreciate it, Skip.” I felt that Williams liked me for that. We didn’t see eye to eye all the time, but I will always be grateful for him giving me a chance to join the team as we moved along through the post-season.
We were unstoppable. Winning five in a row and still only up by a half game over Philadelphia? Sure, that’s annoying, but it didn’t matter. We all thought we were going to the playoffs. I remember one of coaches at the time said to me, “I’m gonna get my airplane now.” He was a fully licensed pilot. “That’s what my playoff check is going to.” Guys were talking about winning the whole thing. Fine line between confidence and taking the Phillies lightly? Maybe. It’s not that the team was overlooking the regular season; it was simply a fact in our minds that we ARE going to the playoffs. The Phillies can’t stop us. It wasn’t that 2nd place was never an option.
It just wasn’t possible.
Everyone in the organization was drinking the Kool-Aid. The team had us measured for World Series rings, playoff tickets were printed. We had a team meeting to talk about post-season bonus shares. Kid insisted I join the conversation. I hung out a lot with Gary - we were both California born and bred. They gave me a full share, which floored me to even be thought of as a full-season Expo when I was only there a month and a half. I know Gary had an awful lot to do with this. No one was better than us – not the Astros, the Dodgers, the Yankees, KC, no one could beat us. We just took two of three at The Vet last weekend. Doing the same at home will be no problem.
And then the Phillies beat the Cubs the night before playing us in the final series of the regular season, tying us for first. Didn’t matter. We were still the best team in the National League. The buzz in the stands – the seats were packed. 57,000+ came out to Olympic Stadium that Friday night to witness the Montreal Expos get closer to their first playoff berth. You wanna talk about adrenaline - it was like someone placed a battery pack on my shoulders and the electricity just flowed all through my body. I had pitched exceptionally well against Philadelphia. I wanted in this game more than any other in my career.
Game 160 would have no need for me. Top of the first – Sanderson vs. Dick Ruthven, a good pitcher in his own right. Rose singles. Bake McBride doubles. Sac Fly from Schmidt. 1-0 right off the bat. Game was love-love until the sixth, when Schmidt smoked a Sanderson fastball into the seats. Philly ended up on top 2-1. We just couldn’t hit Ruthven. Bahnsen pitched an inning and 2/3s. Woodie got the last out in the ninth after Stan left with two men on. Philly took over first place.
Saturday afternoon was the most important game of my career. I was still on 49 appearances.
That day was so cold, windy, rainy. The game was delayed. I was rested, prepared to get my guys into the post-season. This was my moment. The Montreal faithful waited, all 50,000 of them, through the multiple delays to see the Expos just get to Sunday. No one was printing tickets on Saturday. There were no ring fingers measured on the day of Game 161. No one asked about playoff shares. Let’s just get to Sunday.
Philly’s bats threatened every inning, but our ace Steve Rogers kept us in the game. Striking out “The Bull” Greg Luzinski with McBride on third in the first inning; Dawson nailing McBride @ 3B for the third out in the 3rd. At our turn at bat in the inning, lead-off hitter Jerry White blasts a two-run HR to get us on the board. By the time we get to the sixth, we’re up 2-1. I’m sitting in the bullpen – I usually sat in there from the very first pitch, best seat in the house for my money. It’s the seventh inning now and Steve’s given up seven hits in six innings. They’re gonna need me.
Greg Gross grounds out to Chris Speier at short. Pete Rose strolls to the plate. It’s an important moment, Pete singles, of course. Bake McBride seemed to be on base the entire series, singles to center. First and second. Schmidt comes up. The park was deafening. You couldn’t hear yourself think, it was so loud. We were right there, me, the city of Montreal, I wasn’t about to let Philly take this from me, from them. Without being asked, I started stretching. I wanted Dick to think if they needed me, I was there for him. I touch my toes, I stare at the cracks in the asphalt of the bullpen concrete beside the bench, I hear the letdown sound of the crowd and see Schmidt dance that two-step batters make as they round 1st base after a single. Bags are loaded. Greg Luzinski comes to the plate. I had good numbers against The Bull and Rogers was on fumes at this point, I wanted that ball, but if this was anyone’s game to be won or lost, it was Steve’s. He had been there since the Parc Jarry days, battled through a 15-22 season in ’74 that he didn’t deserve, with Kid Carter coming a year later – this was their club. They deserved to battle it out together. Steve delivers. Luzinski smashes a line-drive in the gap to center. Pete scores. Bake scores. Phillies take the lead, going for more as the throw comes in from Hawk, Andre Dawson, to Larry Parrish, who nailed Schmidt at the plate with a perfect throw and then the Bull inexplicably thought he could take second, gets thrown out as well. Double play, Phillies lead, but the inning is over and so is Steve’s night. Now it was up to us in the pen to keep our club in the game. I was ready. I start throwing. I know I’m getting in this game, I know I will save it for Montreal.
Oh, it was a sloppy game. Philly gave us so many chances just to take it. McBride making the final out of the inning at third. Manny Trillo’s unlikely error at second in the bottom of the seventh. Dick takes Speier out of the game and has Ron LeFlore run for him. That was like just handing us 2nd base. Ron was fast, but he was out of his mind in 1980, stealing 97 bases, to that point only Maury Wills, Lou Brock and a sensational youngster out of Oakland named Rickey Henderson stole more in a single season. Obviously, Ron steals 2nd. Phils reliever Ron Reed inexplicably tries to pick LeFlore off and chucks the ball into center field. Dick pinch-hits Steve with lefty-swinging Willie Montanez. I start throwing in the pen. I know I’m getting in this game. Dallas Green counters with Sparky Lyle, who needs no introduction for most of you. Dick calls Willie back and sends righty-swinging Johnny Tamargo up in Willie’s place, hoping to catch the game-winning lightning in a bottle from the other night. Sparky pitches Johnny carefully. Too carefully and walks him. Thinking back now, it’s incredible all the important names and folks who stepped between the lines during this game. A young, smiling rookie named Tim Raines runs for Johnny. Guess what happens? Yup, he steals second. Raines on 2nd, Ron LeFlore on third. No one was considering this during this inning, but it was pretty clear that Raines, who played 2nd base in AAA that season, was going to replace Ronny in left field. We all knew that LeFlore was a one and done in Montreal. Amazes me to think what the Expos could’ve done with an in-his-prime Ron LeFlore and a rookie Tim Raines at the top of the order. It’s a shame we never found out. Jerry White faced Sparky with two men on and flew out to Maddox in Center. LeFlore scores – tie game. Rodney Scott steps to the plate. Another speedster. Raines. Rodney. LeFlore. Even Rodney Scott, our starting 2B, stole 63 bases. Scottie doubles to left field, Raines scores and now we’re up by one. I know I’m getting in this game. Woodie, the 40-year old man, pitched yesterday. Bahnsen threw almost two innings yesterday as well. I know I’m getting in this game. I know I’ll save it for Montreal.
Dick calls for Elias Sosa to start the 8th inning. I sit back down. Del Unser, who started in place of Garry Maddox, singles to right field. Sosa gets Keith Moreland to ground to short, forcing Unser at 2B. Trillo pops up and then Bowa singles to deep short. Dick calls on Woodie, a southpaw , to pitch to Greg Gross, a lefty. Strictly a situational move, I say to myself, because I know I’m getting into this game. Dallas Green counters with Garry Maddox, who was on the bench that day. Dick keeps Woodie on the mound to face the righthanded hitter.
Woodie fans Maddox. 4-3 Expos going into bottom of the eighth.
Conflicted feelings all over the place. Happy, we’re winning. Unhappy, I’m not in the game, contributing to this wonderful group of guys that have considered me one of the 25 that began together in April. I want to show my appreciation by closing this one out for them. I also wanted to pitch in my 50th game.
Ninth inning. I’m not that upset that I’m not being brought in here because, remember, this is 1980 and the notion of the one-inning closer hasn’t been conceived yet. Woodie walks Rose. Bake grounds to 2B, where Pete gets forced. Schmidt hits a slow roller to 3rd, where Parrish can only get the play at first. Bob Boone steps to the plate. I’m warming up in the bullpen again. I know I’m getting in this game. Especially here, against the right-handed hitting Boone. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that much sadness in my heart when Boone smacked that single to center off Woodie to tie the game in the ninth. At this point, I was hoping Woodie could close it out – it was pretty clear that Dick was gonna lose this game with Woodie on the mound or go to extra innings – I just sat down on the bench. Dick had Woodie intentionally walk the next batter and put the go-ahead run on 1st. Ramon Aviles, a utility infielder, hit for the pitcher. Woodie used all the guile left in his tired arm and Aviles went down on strikes. What kept me going was the thought that if we go to extra innings, I know I’m getting in this game.
Tug McGraw starts the bottom of the ninth for Philadelphia. As if the gods of Baseball gave this funny, funny man, this walking anecdote from 1970s counter-culture baseball, one more outstanding season in the sun. There may not have been a better reliever in either league than Tug in 1980, and here we are trying to win our season against him. Tug’s famous screwball didn’t let him down, striking out both Larry Parrish and Jerry Manuel (subbing for Speier) rather quickly. Obviously, with the pitcher coming up, Dick hits rookie Tim Wallach for Woodie. I start warming again. I know I’m getting in this game.
Stan Bahnsen threw 1 2/3 yesterday. He’s warming up, too. It’s now 28 degrees out. As we’re throwing, it’s obvious, I’m starting the 10th.
“Johnny, “ Stan says, rubbing his pitching arm,”It’s killing me. Just too damn cold. I can’t feel a thing.” Dick was pitching Bahnsen quite a bit over the final two weeks of the season. He was burning him out. But I knew what the numbers were. Schmidt was hitting .181 at the time against me. Small sample size, you say? Maybe, but in 1980, those stats were the only tools a manager, a scout or pitching coach had at his disposal to make an informed decision. The bullpen phone rings. Bill Lee answered the call.
“They want Bahnsen,” Spaceman says.
I was beside myself. I’m not getting into this game. At this point, this could go to the 20th, doesn’t matter. Now I know I’m not getting in. Facing Trillo, Bowa & Maddox, Stan shuts them down rather easily. In the bottom of the inning, we threatened, with the man who seemed to be our MVP of that final week, Jerry White, singles to left and gets to third with two out, only for Tug get it together through the crowd noise of 50,000 strong, to strike out our Hawk Dawson and get the game to the 11th.
11th inning: Dick stays with Stan. At this point, I am resigned to not be pitching in this game. Rose leads off. It’s the most important game of the season so Pete does what Pete does, he gets on base. Stan gets McBride to pop out. Schmidt steps to the plate. This was supposed to be my moment, not for selfish reasons, but because I feel I was the best pitcher in this moment for the ballclub. I should’ve been in there. This is the thought that’s been going through my head as soon as Schmidt dug in, the thought when he smacked the pitch over the left field fence, the thought to this day, 32 years later.
I should’ve been in this game. The Phillies poured out onto the field from the dugout as they do in 2012 when a hitter jacks a walk-off dinger, celebrating Schmidt’s 2-run blast even before the game was over. Might as well have been. Bahnsen stayed in after the home run, but Dallas Green pretty much said to us it’s closing time by having Tug bat for himself in the 11th. We had our 5-6-7 coming up to bat, Kid, Cromartie and Larry Parrish. Great hitters all of them, but we knew it was over. After Parrish struck out, McGraw jumped straight in the air, the Phils celebrated on our mound and I sat there, stunned. Then angry, angry because I’ll never know now, in the annals of playoff-level baseball, who I am. Am I Mike Torrez? Am I Bucky Dent? Am I Calvin Schraldi? Am I Mariano Rivera? Who am I? No one wants to honestly admit we define our players in the post-season by these small sample sizes, but we do. We sure do. Am I the hero or am I the goat? Baseball history will never know. I will never know. With all sincerity in my heart, I would rather be Donnie Moore, giving up a classic TV-worthy, game-winning, career-altering home run and at the very least experiencing the chance to revise baseball history, than sit on a paint-chipping, wooden, bullpen bench in Canada and watch it happen to someone else.
After the game, still in my uniform, I walked by the manager’s office. Dick owned two rings from leading the Oakland A’s. He brought the 1967 upstart, “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox to a seventh game. He’s experienced great victory and heart-breaking defeat. This was nothing new. Still hurt, I’m sure. The difference was this was his fourth or fifth trip to the rodeo, to the sensation of playoff or near-playoff baseball. This was my first – wasn’t sure if I would ever get another one. I just stood in the hallway, in front of his door, staring at him. He looked over. I couldn’t speak – just raised my arms, opened my palms, with body language that basically yelled WTF.
“What,” Dick said, sipping a beer.
“Why didn’t you pitch me? You know Schmidt’s batting .181 with 10 strikeouts against me. Bull (Luzinski’s) just as bad.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that,” Dick fired back. “I didn’t know this.”
“Is it my job to be your pitcher AND your scout? My job is to go out and pitch.”
“I didn’t know…ok….I didn’t know.” And that was that conversation.
A newspaper man stepped quickly behind me, catching up to ask the same question I was trying to figure out myself. I was having none of that. “You have to ask Skipper,” I replied, nodding to Dick’s office, walking toward the exit, “He makes the moves, not me.”
Carter caught up with me as I was leaving the clubhouse.
“Johnny,” Gary said, grabbing my arm, “You OK?”
“No,” I laughed, “I’m not OK. I shoulda been in that game.” Kid patted me on the shoulder. “Look, we have a tremendous pen out there, but if the game’s on the line and I hear you’re throwing 97-98, I’m taking my chances with you. I really don’t know why they didn’t put you in. I’m sorry.” I thanked Gary for his kind words, and on some level I understood Dick’s motivation. I wasn’t here from Day One. Even if the team voted me a full share of playoff money, I wasn’t in the pen with Woodie & Stan & Sosa from Opening Day.
I left the ballpark that night, rode the subway back to my hotel apartment and tried to go to sleep. When that didn’t work, I got up and walked down the block, grabbing a pie at this place called Pines Pizza. Ran into a couple of the fellas, enjoyed some sad laughs and proceeded to close a bar or two. Tried to wash down the closing of our season with a few beers. Succeeded, too.
The next day was Game 162. Didn’t mean shit to anyone but a select few. Pete Rose, of course played because that’s what Pete did. Schmidt sat, Maddox sat, Tim McCarver played his final game @ first base. Tim Raines started his first game ever in Left Field. He would play alongside Hawk Dawson for the next seven seasons or so. Really though, it was a throw away game.
Not to me. I was still at 49 appearances.
I found our pitching coach Galen Cisco, in the dugout alone before the game.
“Galen, I need one more appearance to get my bonus. Do you think it will be possible that I could pitch?” Galen Cisco is a class act, and offered a very concerned response.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“Pitching in games should have nothing to do with a bonus, but since this is a throwaway, I’d like to get my bonus.” Galen asks me to sit on the bench.
“I know you’re pissed off you didn’t get in the game. We found out you didn’t give up shit against Philadelphia. We’re not happy about that, either, the scouts should’ve told us. That’s why you were brought here. To go head-to-head with Philly. Why didn’t Dick use you? I dunno.” Galen was called away, but left with a light slap on my knee, mouthing “Don’t worry,” as he left me sitting there. I know he had to get the permission from Dick to play me in the final game.
In the fifth inning, with the Phils ahead 5-2, I got my 50th appearance. Pitched two innings, kept us in the game, gave up a hit and struck out one. Got ‘ol McCarver to line out to short in the next-to-last at bat of his career. I was glad to get my 50th appearance – it was a not an insignificant amount of money for 1980, to be honest. But, damn, did I want Game 161. Sometimes I think maybe if I got into that game, maybe we win, maybe we don’t. Maybe my career changes, maybe it doesn’t. I’ll just never know. I really think this state of being is much, much worse than losing.
I filed for free agency after the season. The Expos drafted me in the 1980 Free Agent Reentry Draft", which was the process back then. I really enjoyed my time in Montreal . The city is absolutely gorgeous, the fans were special. The front office treated me well. I packed up my hotel apartment at La Cite’ and jumped into a cab toward the airport. When I arrived at Dorval for my flight back home, there were no banners. No fathers and sons waiting for hero ballplayers. No signs with my name on it. Just other people in transition.
As I reclined in my chair on the plane, I placed the headphones from the Sony Walkman over my ears, gazing out the window overlooking Montreal, reflecting on Baseball in Canada, wondering what the cap on my 1981 baseball card would look like. A part of me hoped it would be the Expos; the first song on my mix tape knew better.
“California Dreamin’. “
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