September 1, 2022
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Most baseball fans have probably forgotten that Jason Thompson spent nearly three months with the Montreal Expos at the start of the 1986 season.
And Thompson would likely prefer it that way.
A three-time All-Star with the Detroit Tigers, California Angels and Pittsburgh Pirates before being dealt to the Expos just prior to the 1986 regular season, the lumbering 6-foot-4 California native would bat just .196 (10-for-51) in 30 games for the Canadian club.
To be fair, he did draw 18 walks and post a .406 on-base percentage (OBP), but after the first month of the regular season, he was used infrequently by Expos manager Buck Rodgers.
“Fifty at bats in half a season, I wouldn’t call that a chance at all,” Thompson told the Montreal Gazette after the Expos released him on June 30, 1986. “They treated me very badly, showed me no respect at all.”
It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Thompson and the Expos, who acquired him from the Pirates on April 4, 1986 in a move Canadian general manager Murray Cook (Sackville, N.B.) trumpeted as a potential solution to the team’s offensive woes.
“Our overall run production wasn’t great last year, and this should help our offence,” Cook told the Montreal Gazette. “He’s a professional hitter.”
Thompson’s contract paid him $1 million a season (and extended through the 1987 season). Rodgers said he planned to use Thompson in a platoon role with the right-handed hitting rookie Andres Galarraga at first base.
“He’s not going to hit 40 home runs in Olympic Stadium,” Rodgers told the Montreal Gazette. “But he has a reputation as a clutch hitter. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t give us some big hits.”
Coming off a disappointing 84-77 season in 1985, the Expos were looking to improve their offence, which ranked near the bottom of the National League in most statistical categories, including batting average (.247) and runs per game (3.93).
Thompson was coming off a subpar season with the Pirates in which he batted just .241 with 12 home runs and 61 RBIs in 123 games, but he attributed that mostly to the dour atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium.
“I’m just glad to get out of Pittsburgh,” Thompson told the Montreal Gazette. “It was miserable there – bleak, unbearable. The fans were down on me. I was the scapegoat because I’d been there all through the team’s decline. We just enjoyed going on the road.”
Thompson doubled down on his comments about playing in Pittsburgh in 1985 when he spoke with Pittsburgh Press reporter Bob Hertzel a few days later.
“Last year was torture,” he told Hertzel. “The whole scene, I took a lot of unfair abuse.”
But Cook believed Thompson, who was 31, could rebound.
“Jason is a very hard worker and a proud guy, and the change of scenery will be a real big thing for him,” Cook told The Montreal Gazette.
Thompson had also had surgery on his right knee the previous fall, but he proclaimed himself healthy and he hit a robust .349 for the Pirates in spring training. He also boasted an impressive overall big league resume. In 10 major league seasons, he had five 20-home run seasons, recorded 70 or more walks in eight seasons and had three campaigns with an on-base percentage of .390 better. In Detroit, he belted two home runs over the right field roof at Tiger Stadium which earned him the nickname “Roof Top.”
But his numbers had consistently declined since his All-Star 1982 campaign that saw him sock 31 home runs for the Pirates. So, too, had his foot speed and his range at first base. Still, he seemed to be an upgrade at first base over a platoon of Galarraga and left-handed hitting veteran Scot Thompson, who had never hit more than two home runs in a major league season. The Expos had also released Terry Francona three days before acquiring Thompson.
Rodgers initially said Thompson would hit fifth against right-handers, but changed his mind and decided that the veteran would bat cleanup.
“I thought about it,” Rodgers told the Montreal Gazette. “I did a lot of soul-searching, I tried 414 different lineups, and this one just made more sense. I like the idea of having the lefty in there between Hawk (Andre Dawson) and (Hubie) Brooks.”
For his part, Thompson was excited to be with the Expos.
“This is a real good lineup,” Thompson told the Montreal Gazette. “I’m looking forward to watching Tim Raines and Andre Dawson every day, that’s two superstars right there.”
On Opening Day, Thompson started at first base and batted cleanup for the Expos and went 0-for-3 with a walk in the Expos’ 6-0 loss to the Braves. That performance was indicative of how things would go for him in Montreal.
Thompson’s best performance as an Expo came in the third game of the season when he went 3-for-4 with a double in the Expos’ 9-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. That would be the only multi-hit game Thompson would have with the Expos.
Overall, however, his first month didn’t go badly. In his initial 13 games with the Expos, Thompson batted .290 and had a strong .476 OBP. Unfortunately, he began to have throwing issues at first base and was benched beginning on May 5.
“Jason’s head’s all messed up right now,” Rodgers told the Montreal Gazette. “He’ll take some extra infield practice with (coach) Ron Hansen and we’ll get him straightened out.”
Thompson agreed that he needed to work on his defensive issues.
“Three bad throws and then you start thinking about it,” Thompson told the Montreal Gazette. “Then you . . . hope the ball’s not hit to you. But it’s easier to work on your mechanics, get into the flow, when you’re playing every day. I’m having to get used to being platooned here.”
Well, a month passed and Thompson only made two more starts at first base and was basically relegated to pinch-hitting duties. He went 0-for-15 in limited action between May 5 and June 22.
By mid-to-late June, Cook was attempting to trade Thompson. The veteran first baseman was not happy with his lack of playing time, but he didn’t grumble to the press about it.
“I have a lot of sympathy for his problem. He needs to play but it’s tough to get him into the lineup,” Cook told the Montreal Gazette.
On June 30, it was reported that Thompson had a flare up of a sciatic nerve problem, but it was not something that would sideline him for long.
The same day, he was released by the Expos, who would be on the hook for his contract for the rest of the season and for $1 million in 1987 as well.
Thompson didn’t mince words about his experience with the Expos, describing it as a “miserable situation.”
“The last three weeks were the worst. They called my agent and asked to buy out my contract. They told me I was just going to rot on the bench for two years if I didn’t agree,” Thompson told the Gazette.
“I didn’t even find out how much they offered,” added Thompson. “I told them ‘no way.’ I worked all my life for that money and I wasn’t about to give it up.”
Cook was candid in his assessment of Thompson.
“We think his bat had slowed up,” Cook told the Montreal Gazette. “He did a lot of work with weights and it changed his swing. We didn’t feel he showed an aptitude to get back to where he has been.”
Cook added, in hindsight, it was a mistake to acquire Thompson, calling the deal “a little bit of panic to be painfully honest . . . a bad choice on my part as it turned out.”
After the Expos released him, Thompson cleared waivers and any team could’ve signed him for the league minimum salary. But there weren’t any takers and he sat out the rest of the 1986 season.
In the off-season, Thompson got himself into excellent shape in hopes of landing a big league job in 1987, but no teams called.
“I would bargain for some team if you ask me,” Thompson told the Chicago Tribune in April 1987.
But Toronto Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick, whose team had been in the market for a veteran DH, offered this blunt critique of Thompson at the time.
“He’s a hard guy to play. The only thing you can do is DH him,” Gillick told the Chicago Tribune. “As far as his skills, he’s a tough guy to play at first base. He can’t move. You’ve got to pinch run for him. He can’t go from first to third. He can’t score on a sacrifice fly. He’s a very limited guy. Based on our reports, we felt the guy was finished.”
Unfortunately for Thompson, Gillick was right.
His major league career was finished. He completed his 11-year big league career with a .261 batting average, a .366 OBP and 208 home runs in 1,418 games.
In retirement, Thompson worked for a number of financial investment firms before opening a baseball academy called Jason Thompson Baseball in Auburn Hills, Mich.