This is a new feature that will shine the spotlight on relatively famous major leaguers that played briefly with the Montreal Expos or Toronto Blue Jays. In fact, their stint with one of the Canadian big league clubs may have been so short that you may have forgotten that they played with them at all.
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Graig Nettles: Two-time World Series champion, six-time major league all-star, two-time Gold Glove Award-winning third baseman, witty New York Yankees captain and former Montreal Expo?
Nettles – the borderline Hall of Famer who socked 390 big league home runs and was the 1981 American League Championship Series MVP – played for the Expos?
Yes, he did.
In fact, he suited up for his final 80 major league games with the Expos in 1988, serving as the club’s primary left-handed pinch-hitter and a back-up to third baseman Tim Wallach and first baseman Andres Galarraga.
You can be forgiven, however, if you don’t remember the then 44-year-old Nettles manning the hot corner at Olympic Stadium. After all, he batted just .172 with one home run and 14 RBIs with them. But in examining his game logs from that campaign, he did have some memorable late-game moments with the club.
Nettles arrived with the Expos as a grizzled veteran of 21 big league seasons with the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Yankees, San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves. Over the years, he had established himself as an elite third baseman at the plate and in the field. And if he hadn’t competed in the same era and league as Brooks Robinson, he definitely would’ve garnered more than two Gold Gloves.
The veteran infielder was also the author of the controversial 1984 book, “Balls,” that included some sharp criticism of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, as well as Nettles’ most famous quote.
“When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a baseball player and join the circus. With the Yankees, I’ve accomplished both,” wrote Nettles.
The book upset Steinbrenner and likely expedited the trade of Nettles to the Padres in 1984.
By 1987, Nettles was in the twilight of his long and successful career, but he had proved with the Braves that he could still contribute by topping the National League with 23 pinch-hit RBIs.
In the off-season, the Braves had re-signed him to a minor league deal with an agreement that if he wasn’t going to make their roster that they would let him know with a week left in spring training.
Coming off a solid 91-71 season in 1987 in which they finished just four games back of the National League pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals, the Expos, led by manager Buck Rodgers, headed into the spring of 1988 as contenders. But they were missing a strong left-handed bat off the bench and an infielder that could back up Wallach and Galarraga.
In 1988, the Expos were sharing spring training facilities with the Braves in West Palm Peach, Fla,, and when the Braves let it be known that Nettles was available, the Expos purchased the veteran for what Atlanta Constitution reporter Gerry Fraley reported to be “a small sum believed to be less than $20,000.”
Rodgers was thrilled to have Nettles, whose 1988 contract would reportedly pay him $200,000, on his team.
“Here’s a guy who can give both Wallach and Galarraga a rest without weakening ourselves defensively,” Rodgers told the Montreal Gazette about Nettles. “And he gives us some pop as well. I’m ecstatic about this move. If he pans out like we think, he will make us a much better ball club.”
For his part, Nettles told the Montreal media that he was glad to land with a contending team.
“I only know the members of this ball club by their reputation, but I’m looking forward to getting to know them better,” Nettles told reporters shortly after he was acquired.
The Expos also believed that Nettles, who with two World Series rings had a reputation as a winner, could provide valuable leadership in a pennant race.
And the Expos couldn’t have been more thrilled with Nettles’ first regular season plate appearance. With the Expos trailing the Philadelphia Phillies 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth inning in a game at Olympic Stadium on April 16, Nettles was sent up to pinch hit for reliever Jeff Parrett. Phillies starter Kevin Gross had been cruising along, but after he threw two balls to Nettles, the veteran slugger deposited his third pitch over the centre field wall to tie the game. The Expos eventually won 2-1 in 10 innings.
“He threw me two pitches away and then a fastball,” Nettles told reporters of his at bat against Gross. “He might do that to me and get me out 90 times out of 100. I’m just glad I could reward this team for showing faith in me.”
That home run would prove to be the 390th and final round-tripper of Nettles’ career.
That’s not to say, however, that Nettles didn’t continue to contribute in the clutch for the Expos that season. Though he hit only .172 in total, he batted .286 as a pinch-hitter. And among his other highlights in an Expos uniform was hitting a walk-off single in the 10th inning at The Big O off right-hander John Costello on July 28 to give his club a 4-3 win over the Cardinals.
His best game as a starter came the following day when he batted fifth and manned third base in place of Wallach and went 2-for-4 with a double.
On August 13, the Expos boasted a 63-52 record and were in second place in the National League East, trailing only the Mets, when they went into a tailspin and lost nine straight games, which all but eliminated them from the playoff race. And by the start of September, there was talk that the Expos would be open to dealing Nettles to a contender.
“After what he’s done for us, we wouldn’t stand in his way, if he wanted to go to a contending team,” Expos GM Dave Dombrowski told the Montreal Gazette in an article published on September 2.
Nettles told the Gazette that he would be open to a trade.
“It would be nice to go to a contender, but I haven’t heard if anyone is interested,” he said.
It turns out that there wasn’t much interest and Nettles finished the campaign – his last in the big leagues – with the Expos.
Fittingly, his final major league hit was a clutch, game-tying double in the top of the ninth inning against his longtime teammate Goose Gossage, then with the Chicago Cubs, on September 21 at Wrigley Field. The Expos had been trailing 5-1 heading into the eighth, but rallied to win 8-5.
On October 1, the second last day of the season, with the club’s record at 80-80, the Expos reportedly told the 44-year-old Nettles that they would not be offering him a contract for the following season.
Though he reportedly wanted to continue his MLB career, Nettles couldn’t find a big league club interested in his services and he retired after 22 major league seasons.