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Stephanie Myles writes about «Il était une fois les Expos»

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  • Stephanie Myles writes about «Il était une fois les Expos»

    Sent to me by the Montreal chapter of the SABR. Seems it's a fantastic book. I'm planning to buy it tomorrow. The article is long, but I think it's worth your time reading it.

    By STEPHANIE MYLES, The GazetteDecember 6, 2009

    Il était une fois les Expos, Volume 1, by Jacques Doucet and Marc Robitaille, Les Editions Hurtubise, 647 pages.

    "You go around Montreal, to Jarry Park, to Olympic Stadium, and there's not even a little plaque proving that the Expos once existed," Jacques Doucet said recently. "The only place is at the Bell Centre, because Youppi! is running around, and there's a blue banner among the 24 red Canadiens Stanley Cup banners. That's the only vestige of the Expos. We had a ball club for 36 years, and there's nothing in Montreal to remind us. It had to be done." As much as the longtime Expos French-language play-by-play man didn't want to be the one to write it, Doucet was equally convinced that the Expos' story needed to be written.

    And with the collaboration of screenwriter and baseball fanatic Marc Robitaille, he has put to paper what will go down as the definitive, historical record of those 36 seasons.

    It's definitive not only because it's hard to imagine someone else taking on such a monster task; it's definitive because it's all there - every high, every low, every player, every dramatic moment.

    Well, it's half there. There was so much material, the publisher agreed to split it into two volumes. Volume 1, weighing in at 647 pages with relatively few statistics, covers the years from 1969 to 1984. The second volume, which Doucet thinks may not be out until 2011, will take care of the rest of the journey.

    He also hopes there will be an English translation; he's working on it. This one is in French.

    But if you can handle the language, you'll be treated to an absolute treasure trove of stories, beginning with the battle to even get the franchise up and running in Montreal in 1968 with no stadium, original investors bailing out, and an abject lack of cash.

    That the Expos even saw the light of day came down to two things, really: the salesmanship of then-mayor Jean Drapeau and the willingness of Major League Baseball to work with the city and its fledgling franchise to make sure it happened.

    By 2004, we now know, neither of those two elements was in place. And so the Expos died.

    As someone who followed the team long before becoming The Gazette's beat writer in 1998, I was astonished by what I didn't know, or had long forgotten, about the team. On every page of the book, there's something else to discover.

    Doucet, who turns 70 in March, has an astonishing memory. Even as he and Robitaille began the painstaking effort of re-creating every season, the broadcaster's recollections would be proved right by the research, time after time.

    "Marc would come with a plan. He did research on the main events of (one) season, and started asking me questions, and off we went," Doucet said. "But when I start talking baseball, about something in 1973, then I'd remember something that happened in 1969." Robitaille somehow managed to put all that material into perfect order. And he did it without the book sounding like some dry, historical textbook.

    It's not only well-written, it's a story. It's a saga. And it is put into the larger context of all the major changes in baseball over the life of the team But mostly, through the first 15 years covered in this first volume, there are the players and their stories.

    There were two no-hitters by Bill Stoneman, who would go on to be the team's GM. There was the ill-fated career of pitching phenom Balor Moore. There was the enigmatic Willie Davis, who went to the team's downtown offices to borrow a typewriter to draft his own letter of resignation.

    There was the arrogance and incredible durability of Mike Marshall, who blossomed in Montreal because Gene Mauch, inexplicably, was the first manager who would let him throw his screwball.

    There was the gameness of Ron Hunt, who holds the record for getting hit by pitches. There was the rather contentious relationship between Mauch and the local hero, St. Jean's Claude Raymond.

    And, of course, there was Rusty Staub, the team's first superstar.

    You'd be hard-pressed to think of another Expos player who made such a
    supreme effort to integrate into his new community. Staub took French lessons; he earned lots of local endorsements. When they asked him to hit for average, he did. When they asked him to hit for more power, he did that, too.

    And those are just the early days.

    It's a book that's just too dense to even attempt to read all at once. It's the kind of book where you pick a chapter, meet the returning and new characters, and dive into the season.

    There are enough photos - but not too many - to put faces to the names you've forgotten, or never got the chance to know.

    The photos are from the McCord Museum collection, another forgotten treasure trove of Expos' memories.

    What's missing in the book is Doucet himself. That was by design.

    "I'm not important," he said. "It's not the Jacques Doucet story, it's
    the Expos' story. From 1969 to 1984, it's the childhood and adolescence of the Expos.

    "Then in the mid-1980s you fall into so many great things. There are obviously parts that are tougher to swallow, like Rick Monday's home run (in the 1981 playoffs).

    "I'm convinced the second (volume) will be more emotional," he added.

    "Obviously when you get to (Charles) Bronfman selling the team, (Claude) Brochu buying it and selling it to (Jeffrey) Loria, and Major League Baseball gets into the picture, there's a lot more emotion about it."

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