Charlie Lea, the only Montreal Expo to toss a no-hitter at Olympic Stadium, died at his home in Collierville, Tenn., on Friday.
Reports indicate that the 54-year-old, former all-star died of a massive heart attack.
Lea, who had been working as a radio analyst with the Memphis Redbirds (St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate), was interviewed for a story on this blog last September.
In that interview, he vividly recalled his no-hitter.
“I walked four guys, so it wasn’t like it was a perfect game,” he reflected modestly. “It wasn’t the best game I threw in my life.”
The affable ex-hurler, who spoke with a friendly Tennessee drawl, had pitched out of the bullpen in his previous two appearances leading up to his historic start.
“I was kind of a swing guy for Dick Williams,” recalled Lea. “I was the fifth-starter-if-you-need-him guy. I really hadn’t cemented myself in the rotation yet.”
That would change, however, after his performance against the San Francisco Giants on May 10, 1981.
“It just started happening one inning at a time,” said Lea. “Next thing you know I had pitched four innings and I hadn’t given up a hit.”
The only time that he feared he’d lose his no-hitter was when Giants catcher Milt May hit a line drive in the fifth inning.
“Milt May, a left-handed hitter for the Giants, hit a very hard, one-hop line drive, maybe a step to the side of Rodney Scott at second base. That ball was hit on the nose, but Rodney picked it very easily,” recalled Lea.
When Enos Cabell flied out to centre fielder Andre Dawson to end the game, Lea rejoiced in his eight-strikeout, no-hit performance.
Throwing a no-hitter in the big leagues was something that Lea dreamed about as a youngster. Born in France while his father was serving in the U.S. military, Lea returned to Memphis, Tenn., when he was just a few months old and started playing organized baseball when he was eight.
By his teens, his talents began attracting the attention of scouts. While attending Kingsbury High School in Memphis, he was drafted by the Mets in 1975, but he opted to go to college rather than sign. During his tenure at Shelby State Community College, he was drafted by the Cardinals in 1976 and the White Sox in 1977, before he was eventually selected and signed by the Expos in 1978.
The Expos assigned him to their Double-A club in Memphis, where he registered .500 records as a starting pitcher in 1978 and 1979.
“In 1978 and 1979, I didn’t know how to pitch. I had no clue about how to pitch inside, and really was just using a good arm and whatever had worked for me in the past and it made me a .500 pitcher,” said Lea. “So I went to the instructional league down in Florida in 1979. I begged the Expos to let me go, because I needed to learn something. I begged Bob Gebhard to take me down there and he did.”
During that stint, Gebhard, former Expo Bob Bailey and coach Larry Bearnarth would teach Lea the fundamentals that would make him a successful pitcher for years to come.
“They taught me a changeup and how to pitch inside and those two things certainly changed my career,” said Lea.
The young right-hander would reel off nine wins in nine starts with Memphis and post a miniscule 0.84 ERA to start the 1980 campaign, earning himself a promotion to Triple-A Denver where he made two starts, before he was called up by the Expos in June.
“I knew absolutely nothing about Montreal before I got to the city,” said Lea. “There was an issue of Sports Illustrated when I was in junior college that had an article about Warren Cromartie, Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine. The article talked about them as the best young outfield in the National League. And of course, being the baseball nut that I was, I was reading Sports Illustrated articles wishing that I would be there one day. But that was all I knew about Montreal.”
But Lea quickly fell in love with the city.
“I’m a Southern guy and yes, it was a different culture for me,” he said. “There were some different things there and French was the preferred language, if you will. But I never had any trouble communicating with anybody and everybody worked hard to make it a nice place to be and I enjoyed every bit of my time there.”
He would make his big league debut on June 12, 1980 at Olympic Stadium against the San Diego Padres. He would hold the Padres to one run over eight innings to record his first big league win. It was the first of seven victories for Lea in his rookie season.
In his sophomore campaign, he would follow up his no-hitter with another four-hit shutout against the Giants the following week. In all in May 1981, Lea went 4-0 with a 0.25 ERA. Unfortunately, the players’ strike that year would derail much of his momentum and shortly after work stoppage ended, Lea was sidelined with elbow woes. He wasn’t able to participate in the Expos’ post-season run.
He would rebound, however, to record 12 wins and post a 3.24 ERA in 177-2/3 innings in 1982, and by 1983, Lea, Steve Rogers and Bill Gullickson were considered one of the best starting pitching trios in baseball.
With 13 wins at the all-star break in 1984, Lea was named the National League’s starting pitcher for the midsummer classic at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The Expos right-hander would pitch two innings and record the win over Jays hurler Dave Stieb, who started for the American League.
“Every game I ever pitched I had some kind of butterflies, but that game they were 100 times more,” recalled Lea. “But once I got in the game and threw a few pitches and got my first out, I kind of settled in.”
Unfortunately, in September 1984, Lea was experiencing back pain and was shut down. The injury was later deemed to be a shoulder problem and it would keep him out of action for nearly three years. He wouldn’t return to the Expos until September 16, 1987 and would pitch just one inning for the club that campaign.
In 1988, he signed with the Minnesota Twins and recorded seven wins, but the pain in his shoulder returned in the spring of 1989. Having already rehabbed the shoulder for nearly three years, Lea opted to hang up the spikes.
After his playing career, Lea moved back to Tennessee and completed his degree in business administration at Memphis State University.
He was disappointed when the Expos left for Washington after the 2004 season.
“Baseball fans in Montreal were tremendous,” he said. “Montreal was a great place to play. I had great friends there and they came to the ballpark and filled the place up and enjoyed watching us play. I always remember Montreal as a place that supported the team very, very well.”
Lea kept in touch with a few of his former Expos teammates, including Steve Rogers, Warren Cromartie and Jeff Reardon, and had returned to Montreal three times since he last pitched for the Expos in 1987.
“I love the city,” said Lea during my September 2010 interview with him. “My wife and I would love to come back and vacation in Montreal.”