Daytona Beach, Fla. — Montreal was baseball's big surprise team of 1979, battling Pittsburgh down to the last day of the season before being nosed out in the National League East.
Was it a fluke -- or have the once-hapless Expos finally arrived?
Manager Dick Williams, understandably enough, subscribes to the latter view. Williams points with pride to the way his players, many of whom had no previous experience in tough pennant races, hung in there through the stretch drive against the veteran Pirates last September. He feels that the baptism of fire they received then can't do anything but help in what he expects to be another down-to-the wire battle against Pittsburgh, with Philadelphia and perv haps St. Louis and even Chicago also getting into the act.
"Going through what we did last year has to make us that much stronger," Williams said. "It's a lot different situation down here this year than it was last spring. I think we're definitely listed as a strong contender."
Certainly the 1980 Expos figure to be an exciting team to watch. The off-season acquisition of outfielder Ron LeFlore (78 stolen bases from Detroit) combined with the speed of holdovers Rodney Scott (39) and Andre Dawson (35) will give opposing catchers plenty to think about all year.
"I plan to bat them 1-2-3," says Williams. "That's a lot of speed at the top of the lineup."
There's plenty of solid hitting, too, in the persons of LeFlore (.300); third baseman Larry Parrish (.307, 30 homers, 81 RBIs); catcher Gary Carter (.283, 22 HR, 75 RBIs); Dawson (.275, 25 HR, 92 RBIs); and outfielder Ellis Valentine (. 276, 21 Hr, 82 RBIs). A key element here, as those statistics show, is that the Expos possess a remarkably well balanced array of dangerous hitters through the middle part of the lineup rather than having to depend on one or two sluggers whose slumps could prove disastrous.
The Expos, in fact, contrary to a public image that perhaps still lingers from an earlier time, were a strong offensive team last year -- fifth in the league in batting and trailing only Pittsburgh and Los Angeles in home runs. Still in all, though, it was a pitching staff that combined the league's best earned run average with tremendous depth that really kept them up there.
By way of illustration, two of the club's top hurlers last season were left-handers Dan Schatzeder (10-5, 2.83 ERA) and Rudy May (10-3 and 2.30). Any baseball fan knows that a good southpaw is hard to find, so perhaps all one has to know is that both Schatzeder and May are gone this year -- the former in the LeFlore trade and the latter via the free agent route -- yet the Expos still appear to have one of the strongest staffs around.
The ace on the basis of ability and overall performance the last few years is Steve Rogers, whose 13-12 record last season is misleading when you consider he was sixth among the league's regular hurlers with a 3.00 ERA. The others are fellow right-handers Dave Palmer (10-2) and Scott Sanderson (9-8) along with left-handers Bill Lee (the club's top winner at 16-10) and Ross Grimsley (10-9). "We're looking for Rogers to win more and we know we're going to have a bounce-back year from Grimsley," Williams said."
On the other side of that coin, one might note that Palmer came out of nowhere last year and Lee had the benefit of switching to a new league. Either or both could easily fall off as NL hitters become more accustomed to them. But managers basking in the Florida sunshine seldom think such thoughts. They just assume that last year's successes will continue on the same track while the disappointments rebound.
The most talked about rookie in camp is Bob James, a fireballing 21-year-old right-hander who will get a long look in terms of bullpen duty. Williams is very high on the youngster, comparing him to Yankee relief ace Rich Gossage, but a minor league record of 123 walks in 132 innings does make one wonder if he's really ready.
If James can find the plate, he'll join veteran Elias Sosa on the right-handed side, while Woodie Fryman and newly acquired Fred Norman are the left-handers. Not exactly a world-beating relief corps, and Williams has lost a lot of flexibility, too, with the departure of Schatzeder and May, both of whom alternated between bullpen and spot starting duty.As far as the regular lineup goes, the arrival of LeFlore more or less offsets the departure of first baseman Tony Perez via the free agent route, since Ron is slated to play left field while last year's regular at that position, Warren Cromartie, will move in and battle Rusty Staub for the first base job. Otherwise it's the same as last year with Scott at second base, Parrish at third, Chris Speier (possibly battled by newly acquired Bill Almon) at shortstop, Dawson in center field, Valentine in left, and Carter behind the plate.
Gary may well be "the best catcher in the major leagues," as Williams calls him, and thus a key this year is how he comes back from a long, tough season in which he seemed to wind down at the end and also incurred a thumb injury which led to an off-season operation. Williams seems to have learned a lesson from the experience, for he says he intends to use his backup receivers more tis year.
If this system works, if the addition of LeFlore's speed offsets the loss of Perez' power, leaving the offense about the same, and if the pitching comes through as expected, Montreal could well be in the race again. A more realistic estimate, though, is that this team which had never before played even .500 ball caught people by surprise last season, and that it will find things a bit tougher starting out tabbed as a contender right from Opening Day this time.