Montreal - Jul. 25, 2011 - I first spoke to Dick Williams long before I met him. It was in the winter of 1978, following his second season managing the Expos. I was a soon-to-be 19 year old radio junkie working at CKO Radio doing a little bit of everything. I'd write news updates for the anchors, produce talk shows, occasionally read updates myself, get coffee, run downstairs to get a fellow employee or three out of the Hymus Tavern, power down the station at night (while helping myself to some hard - to - find albums in the old CFOX music library. Never felt guilty about it. Most were supposed to be delivered to Radio McGill. I made much better use of them. Know anybody else who's got an LP of Lothar and the Hand People?), make photocopies and generally do as I was asked/told. But I desperately wanted to cover sports. So I put in a request to talk to somebody who had a big impact on my young life. The manager of the 1967 Boston Red Sox Impossible Dream season who was, thanks to John McHale, now managing in Montreal.
McHale hired Williams after the Karl Keuhl disaster of 1976 (years later Mchale admitted that firing Gene Mauch and replacing him with Keuhl was the biggest mistake he ever made). By then, Williams was a two time world series champion with the Oakland A's who wanted to manage the Yankees but contractually wasn't able to (George Steinbrenner eventually settled on another guy who would go on to manage the Expos - Bill Virdon. And while Williams saw his Yankee dream fade away, Billy Martin was brought in. Williams ended up in Anaheim with an expansion - like Angels franchise). Having worked in Montreal as a thirdbase coach under Mauch in 1970, Williams was familiar with the city. And he brought much needed credibility to an Expos team that was finally ready to join the Big Leagues by moving into an impressive new stadium (hmmph) in time for the 1977 season. After failing to woo Reggie Jackson north to play for his old Oakland A's manager, the Expos settled on a couple of lesser known free agents including secondbaseman Dave Cash. The Expos did improve under Williams in '77, going from 55 wins to 75, then added free agent lefty Ross Grimsley in time for the 1978 season. When asked if he thought his team could at least get to the .500 mark, Williams replied, "If we don't play .500 I probably deserve to be fired". While Grimsley became the Expos first - and only - 20 game winner, the team finished with just one more victory than the year before ending the season at 76 - 86.
That's the back story to my first interview with Williams. After a brief introduction I quickly reminded him of his quote about not playing .500. Long silence. Uh oh, I thought. Too much of a smart ass. And probably sounding like a 15 year old punk. I went to work quickly, throwing everything I could remember about the '67 Red Sox at Dick, especially how impressed I was by the way he handled his bullpen (I was eight years old in 1967). He warmed up. The interview went fine, especially for a first (I was much more intimidated the first time I questioned Scotty Bowman). And Dick Williams didn't have any trouble getting to .500 the following two seasons.
In 1979 the Expos were 30 games over .500, winning a franchise record 95 games. Pushed by Williams to acquire Bill Lee and others, John McHale assembled a championship calibre club, winning baseball's Executive of the Year award. The pitching staff consisted of five lefthanders (Lee, Grimsley, Dan Schatzeder, Rudy May & Woody Fryman) and five righthanders (Steve Rogers, Scott Sanderson, David Palmer, Stan Bahnsen & Elias Sosa). The bench was led by veterans Tommy Hutton, Duffy Dyer, and Cash. It was Williams who, looking to add speed to the line up and better range in the infield behind a largely sinker ball staff, gave the everyday second base job to Rodney Scott leaving Cash and his fat contract on the bench. As per usual, Williams was at his best late in games, using his bench and bullpen better than almost any of his contemporaries with the possible exception of Sparky Anderson. Dick Williams was at the helm when Montreal was a feared franchise. Unfortunately they couldn't beat the eventual world series champion Pirates in 1979 nor the Phillies in 1980.
George Kimball was almost a mythical figure I had heard about for years (mostly from Bill Lee), a guy who was the east coast answer to Hunter S. Thompson. Somebody who lost an eye in a bar fight (so the story went - it was actually a house party), and wore an eye patch for years. Big, very big in Boston. I should meet him, I was told by countless people in the business. (It wasn't easy to read him back then. There was no internet, and unless you were in Boston, you couldn't find a copy of The Phoenix or The Boston Herald.) Then, about five years ago I received in the mail a copy of George's book "Four Kings" which was followed by an introductory e-mail from George. Naturally he ended up in studio whenever he was in Montreal to cover his first love - boxing. Everybody knew that George was living on borrowed time (he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the esophagus six years ago; told at the time that he had about six months to live) so we cherished every second. A few months ago I received George's latest work entitled "Manly Art" with cover illustrations by one of America's great outlaw singer - songwriters Tom Russell. I waited for the follow up e-mail to book an interview. Sadly, it never came.
Speaking on air to Stephen Brunt as we discussed the deaths of Kimball & Williams I was terribly saddened to hear that Rod Beaton had also recently passed away. Beaton had been ill for many years but I completely missed his death in late June. He was best known as USA Today's baseball writer but Rod was also a huge hockey fan, having once covered the Philadelphia Flyers for a newspaper in Delaware. But more than that he was a great conversationalist who loved to swap stories on sports, movies and music. He was a blast to hang around with. And, like so many of his counterparts, he was madly in love with the city of Montreal.
So, given the melancholy nature of my mood and working the afternoon of the Major League All Star game, a game I never used to miss but haven't seen since the final one at the old Yankee Stadium, my ears perked when I heard Simon Tsalikis, filling in for Randy Teiman, ask, through intern Eric Thomas, Marco Campagna who his all time top five favourite Expos were. So I ran with it on the air for the next week and the response was overwhelming. I promised to tabulate the results ( over 100 e-mails received plus contributions from members of The Team 990 and a dozen or so on air calls with a 5-4-3-2-1 points system at work - except for Terry Haig who said he couldn't cut his list down to five so I gave single points to all 15 of his names - including the late Larry Bearnearth). No fewer than 68 different names were submitted including Pete Rose, Rex Hudler & Spike Owen. Here are the results:
Pedro Martinez 148 1/2
Tim Raines 121 1/2
Vladimir Guerrero 118
Larry Walker 86
Bill Lee 57
Gary Carter 53
Andre Dawson 48
Tim Wallach 43 1/2
Dennis Martinez 37
Orlando Cabrera 26
(tie) Larry Parrish, Woody Fryman, Mark Grudzielanek & Charles Bronfman
A pretty fair indicator, I'd say. Clearly, The Spaceman Gets props for never really leaving even though he threw his last pitch in 1982. Among those who might have placed higher had we taken more e-mails were John Wetteland, Steve Rogers, Warren Cromartie, Hubie Brooks, Delino DeShields and Brad Wilkerson.
As listener Rob Brophy put it, "Man I miss them".