Book Review: Ecstasy to Agony: The 1994 Montreal Expos

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The 1994 Montreal Expos seemed unbeatable.

With an offence propelled by Larry Walker, Moises Alou and Marquis Grissom and a pitching staff anchored by Ken Hill, Pedro Martinez and John Wetteland, the Expos owned the best record in baseball and led the National League East by six games on August 12 when a players’ strike wiped out the remainder of the season.

Over the past 20 years, Canadian baseball fans have lamented what could’ve been. Would the Expos have won the World Series that year? Would a post-season appearance have helped the club keep their talent young nucleus together? Would their success have saved baseball in Montreal?

All of these questions are addressed in Danny Gallagher and Bill Young’s excellent new book “Ecstasy to Agony: The 1994 Montreal Expos.” This meticulously researched, 379-page book offers extensive insight into the players and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of that elite squad.

The authors, who previously penned the superb “Remembering the Montreal Expos” in 2005, interviewed close to 100 people – including 26 of the 32 players – for this project. Their tireless research enabled them to unearth a number of revelations about the players and front office personnel.

Divided into 66 short chapters, this book begins by providing details on how the 1994 club was constructed and, in the process, offers up some interesting trivia that even the most diehard Expos fan may not know. For example, the Expos selected catcher Charles Johnson 10th overall in the 1989 draft, but a candid Gary Hughes, the Expos scouting director at the time, admits in the book that he botched that signing (likely over a measly $25,000). Johnson re-entered the draft three years later and was the Marlins’ first pick. In Miami, he evolved into an all-star and earned a World Series ring in 1997.

The authors also tracked down former scouting director (and later general manager), Kevin Malone, to find out why the club passed on Derek Jeter with their third overall pick in the 1992 amateur draft.

“There’s no question Jeter was available to us that year, but we had [Wil] Cordero at shortstop and thought the world of him,” Malone told the authors. “We felt we were great at that position so we decided on B.J. Wallace, a left-handed pitcher with a wicked fastball instead.”

Malone further reveals that when he went to evaluate Jeter in person, it was raining and the future Yankees great had a badly sprained ankle. The tenacious authors even tracked down Jeter, who confirmed that he would’ve signed with the Expos had they drafted him.

Over the past two decades, the 1994 team is referred to with such reverence that Expos fans tend to forget that the 1993 Expos won 94 games. The performances of pitcher Dennis Martinez and second baseman Delino DeShields were two major reasons for the club’s success in 1993, so you can understand why fans were angered when the team allowed Martinez to sign with the Indians and then traded DeShields to the Dodgers for a little-known, right-handed reliever named Pedro Martinez.

The chapters devoted to Pedro Martinez and the deal that brought him to Montreal are among the most fascinating in this book. Gallagher and Young recount the criticism that the fans and some local media directed at the Expos front office after they dealt DeShields. In their eyes, this trade was another salary dump. When contacted by the authors, former Expos GM Dan Duquette didn’t deny that financial considerations were a factor in the transaction, but he recalls that Felipe Alou, coach Tim Johnson and scout Eddie Haas all believed that the frail-looking Martinez could be a big league starter.

On the other hand, it’s revealed that the Dodgers weren’t convinced that Martinez had the physique or stamina to hold up as a starter. Dr. Frank Jobe, their team doctor, had previously operated on Martinez’s non-throwing shoulder and he feared the thin right-hander’s shoulder would break down again, and he shared this opinion with Dodgers GM Fred Claire. The deal, of course, turned out to be one of the best in Expos’ history and one of the worst in Dodgers’ lore.

Prior to the 1994 season, talks about a contract extension with Walker, who was eligible for free agency after the campaign, broke down and trade rumors began to swirl around the Canadian slugger. Montreal radio sportscaster Mitch Melnick tells the authors that in April a deal was in place to ship Walker to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Armando Benitez and outfielder Alex Ochoa, before O’s owner Peter Angelos vetoed it.

So at the start of the 1994 season, Expos fans were generally discouraged about the direction of the club and season-ticket sales were down. But skipper Felipe Alou managed to inspire this promising group of players to compete at an elite level and they evolved into arguably the greatest team in Expos’ history.

“We had a good chance to win every game,” Grissom told the authors of the 1994 Expos. “Team chemistry was outstanding, the most amazing I ever saw. Even though I won a World Series the next year with Atlanta and went to the World Series with Cleveland in 1997, the chemistry was never the same as in Montreal that year.”

And though the Expos had all-stars like Grissom, they received contributions from almost every player on their roster – a fact that the authors highlight thoroughly in the book. The 1994 Expos could beat their opponents in many ways: their offence was potent, their starting rotation – led by Hill, Martinez, Jeff Fassero and Butch Henry – exceeded expectations and their bullpen – which boasted Wetteland, Gil Heredia, Tim Scott, Mel Rojas and Jeff Shaw – was reliable.

By July and August, the city and its sports fans were starting to embrace the club. On August 4, the Expos’ last home game before the strike, 39,044 fans assembled at Olympic Stadium to watch the club battle the St. Louis Cardinals.

So what could’ve been for the 1994 Montreal Expos? Would they have won the World Series?

“I thought then we were going to win it all and that’s the same way I feel now,” Rondell White told the authors.

And many of those associated with the club would agree, but would the Expos’ post-season success have saved baseball in Montreal?

“If they keep the [1994] team intact, the Expos would still be in Montreal,” Butch Henry tells the authors matter-of-factly. “I was hoping they would keep the pieces of the puzzle together but I’m not going to second-guess the business side of the game.”

Manager Felipe Alou shared similar thoughts.

“The club had all the elements of a dynasty: speed, power, hitting for average, defence, incredible bullpen – a young club that could have been good for five or six years,” he said. “Why, 1995 would have been even better than the 1994 team if we’d been able to keep them together.”

But as we know, when the strike ended in the spring of 1995, the Expos couldn’t keep their team together. Walker signed with the Rockies without so much as an offer from the Expos. The Expos then traded away Hill, Grissom and Wetteland in a heartbreaking fire sale. And 20 years later, these transactions still don’t sit right with Canadian baseball fans who have been left to ponder what could’ve been.

All in all, “Ecstasy to Agony: The 1994 Montreal Expos” is an entertaining, educational and painstakingly researched book about the greatest “what if” team in Canadian baseball history. Through their industrious research and in-depth interviews, the authors shed new light on a team that had the potential to save baseball in Montreal.

With this work, Gallagher and Young have proven once again that when it comes to Montreal Expos history – like the 1994 Expos team itself – they’re at the top of the division.

To purchase “Ecstasy to Agony: 1994 Montreal Expos”, you can e-mail expos94book@yahoo.ca. 

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