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February 15, 2014 at 11:35 am ET
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One Game: Philadelphia @ Montreal – Sept. 26, 1976 (Game Two)

When I think of the late, lamented Montreal Expos I think of my favorite all-time player (Casey Candaele), the players I saw play for Indianapolis when they were the Expos AAA team (among them Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker and Randy Johnson), and of course the 1-2 screwings of the 1994 strike and Jeffery Loria / Bud Selig and MLB.

But mostly, I think of the early days – the beloved goofballs of the early ‘Spos and their misbegotten yard, Jarry Park.

Converted into a semi-major league park quickly after MLB awarded a franchise to Montreal in the “Holy CRAP! We have to give KC a franchise or they’ll sue us – quick get three other cities, pronto” Expansion of 1969, Jarry Park had quirks (the swimming pool), weather issues (it was outdoors in Canada), and an intimate feeling from the fans and the players that no other park could really match.

MLB didn’t want the Expos in such a makeshift place for very long, and Montreal scrambled to get a new park to save the franchise. Finally, it was decided (maybe) that the team could use a converted Olympics Stadium after the Summer Games of 1976, so there was a definite (maybe) end point for Jarry Park.

It so happened to be one of the worst seasons for Montreal in its entire history, even counting the expansion years and the sad, sad years post 1994.

The Expos fired Gene Mauch after a disappointing 1975. They were backdoor contenders in 1973 and 1974, but took a step back in ’75. Mauch preferred small ball, and it didn’t seem like his tactics fit the team anymore. The team probably was right in moving to another manager, but they hired the wrong man for the job.

Karl Kuehl was a baseball lifer, and a long time minor league manager. Like many minor league managers, he was a hard ass since he had to shape those meddling kids into shape. Sometimes it works. It didn’t in this case. Kuehl ran his team like they were still a bunch of kids (and they were young, but most all  had some big league experience), and the veterans revolted.

Tim Foli got into a public spat with the manager, calling a press conference and saying that Kuehl “had some complex or something that won’t let him manage the team”. Kuehl benched Foli for three games. Pepe Frias botched some plays at short, leading to losses, and Foli quietly got his job back, no doubt because the brass said so. The fact that Foli, of all people, should call someone out for being bad at his job and having a complex, well, there’s irony for you.

Gradually, the team drifted out of Kuehl’s control and he was fired shortly after a spat between a writer and Clay Kirby resulted in punches being thrown, the writer being offended by Kirby’s blasting of Kuehl’s strict rules on curfew and deportment (the vets were ignoring him and Kuehl basically said, “This time for sure I’ll enforce them.”) while his ERA was 5.72, which the sportswriter pointed out to Mr. Kirby. Whammy!

So with the team 43-85, Kuehl was let go and Charlie Fox took over for the rest of the year.

But something was definitely wrong in Montreal  – the era of good feelings was over. The fans didn’t come out to the park. The Olympics cut into attendance. Gary Carter had a horrible year. Andre Thornton had a horrible year after they gave up two players for him. The kids didn’t hit. The veteran pitchers broke down and the youngsters weren’t much better.  They tried to improve by getting Del Unser and Earl Williams. That didn’t work, as you can imagine.  The only bright spots on offense were the play of Bombo Rivera and Ellis Valentine, and the pinch hitting prowess of Jose Morales.

1976 was also a lousy year for weather in baseball. There were a lot of early rainouts in the season, which made for a lot of doubleheaders. So many that the Phils and the Expos had to play two doubleheaders during the last home stand. The final game of the homestand was game two of a Sunday afternoon doubleheader, and it was to be the last game played in the lovely, quirky Jarry Park.

Philadelphia entered the Sunday doubleheader having already clinched a tie for the division. They took the opener 4-1 with Jim Lonborg giving up just four hits in a complete game and that sealed the NL East title. The Montreal fans applauded the Phils for the accomplishment after the game.

In game two, Philadelphia decided to play its scrubs, giving starts to Fred Andrews, Rick Bosetti, Johnny Oates, Tommy Hutton, Terry Harmon and John Vukovich. No Luzinski, no Schmidt, no Boone, no Bowa, no Cash. Ron Reed, normally a reliever, got the start.

Montreal countered with Dennis Blair who spent most of the year in Denver for some reason after pitching well for the Expos in 1974 and 1975 at age 20 and 21. As typical of the Expos in 1976, they got a years worth of horrific pitching by Kirby and others and left Blair in Denver until September, when it didn’t matter at all.

The weather was cool, in the 50’s, and rain was imminent. The first game took just two hours, and the Expos management hoped to get in the second game quickly. They had a giveway with some nice prizes for Fan Appreciation Day and some fireworks to shoot off afterwards.

Montreal got on the board in the second after a double by Frias and a single by Valentine. The crowd of 14,166 was pleased. It probably would have been larger had the weather and the team not been horrible, but still, the crowd was bigger than normal, and bigger than they saw in New York and Chicago the rest of the year (save for Fan Appreciation Day at Shea). Yes, more often than not in 1976, attendance was only low to mid four figures for many non-contenders during the week late in the season. And baseball is dying?

Blair had been pitching well, but his team let him down in the third. Harmon reached on an error by third baseman Pat Scanlon (who was playing instead of the promising rookie Larry Parrish because, well, you know, something or other). Morales is catching (instead of Carter or Barry Foote – Carter played RF most of the season, BTW) and Harmon easily stole second. He moved to third on a grounder and scored on a Jay Johnstone single to right to tie the game.

Reed is done after three (he was just getting some work in) and Ron Scheuler comes in for Philly in the fourth. Schueler bottles up the Expos, allowing a single to Andre Dawson (up for a cuppa joe at the end of the year) in the fourth and fifth. Meanwhile, Blair is also dealing against the Philly scrubs. It’s 1-1 after five.

With one out in the sixth, Andrews  hits a squibber that Scanlon (not Larry Parrish) can’t handle. Vukovich then hits a grounder to Scanlan (not Larry Parrish). It could be two, but nope. It’s an error. Tim Blackwell singles home Andrews and its 2-1 Philly. Two unearned runs made possible by errors by Scanlon (not LarryParrish).

Pete Mackanin works a one-out walk from Schueler in the Expos half of the sixth. After Dawson pops up, Valentine laces a ball in the gap. Bosetti flags it down, wheels a relay to Andrews at short and Mackanin is gunned down for the final out of the sixth.

By now, the rain had started in earnest. Blair set the Phils down in the seventh, but Schueler does the same, getting Scanlon (not Larry Parrish) to fan with a man.

Then, the rain intensifies. It became too much. The umps called the game after seven. A lot of the fans had left already during the delay. Both teams had to travel. The game was relatively meaningless.

But wait, there were prizes and fireworks! So the Expos carried on with those. Most of the fans who won prizes were long gone, though, and the soggy fireworks were more of a bust than anything with about as much pop as the Expos power hitters generated in the season. Instead of good times and the celebration of the end of the first Montreal baseball era, it was a quiet and soggy conclusion.

It was a sad ending to a colorful park. But the Expos were never sure it was REALLY the end. Only in February 1977 did the team get the official okey-doke to move to Olympic Stadium. By then, they hired Dick Williams, who quickly got them back to where they were in 1973-75 and then propelled them to their first golden era.

Still, the maudlin and premature ending of Jarry Park is a metaphor to the ending of the Expos as a whole. Forlorn and gone, ending prematurely and with a thud – but never forgotten. Jarry Park lives on, holding various events, thankfully. Expos fans can always trek there to pay respects.

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