A CANADA DAY FOR THE BOOKS - 1997

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Saturday, July 2, 2022


A CANADA DAY FOR THE BOOKS - 1997

Whenever Canada Day rolls around, many people in the Great White North like to look back on their sporting heroes or their favourite musical selections or perhaps even their Canadian swooner, dreamboat thespian-types.  The historian in me likes to look back on sporting events that have taken place on the summertime holiday in the past.  Today, we'll look back on Canada Day, 1997 -- the only time the Expos and Blue Jays met in a regular season inter-league play series that included a game on Canada Day.

Many may have forgotten that before the Toronto Blue Jays came into existence, the first Canadian major league team resided in La Belle Province – Montreal, specifically.  And it was truly beloved by many before the upstart Jays burst into prominence in 1985 by winning the American League East and almost moving on to the World Series.  (Damn you, Jim Sundberg....)

The Blue Jays did well again in 1987, and even held a 3 ½ game lead in the East over the Detroit Tigers with seven games remaining in the season, but a series of calamities and untimely injuries caused the Jays to watch that lead dissolve away and the Tigers stepped over the Toronto carnage to play in the American League Championship Series.

Odd numbered years seemed to be hospitable to the Blue Jays.  In 1989, Toronto made it to the post season but lost the best-of-seven ALCS to the Oakland Athletics in five games.  In 1991, the team finished first in their division but lost that ALCS to the Minnesota Twins in five.  But, of course, they were just getting warmed up for some greater things ahead.

The Blue Jays went into the 1989 season with Jimy (One M) Williams as their manager.  He had been their third base coach for six years and was named manager after the 1985 season when Bobby Cox left the team to take over the same job with the Atlanta Braves.  On May 14, 36 games into the campaign, with the team languishing with a 12-24 record, the team told Mr. Williams that his services were no longer required.  

They replaced him with Clarence ‘Cito’ Gaston.  Gaston had been the team’s batting coach since the 1982 season.  When the front office folks spoke to Gaston about the managing job on Williams’ ouster, he said he preferred not to take it.  He told Ebony magazine in 1994, “When I was offered the job as manager, I didn't want it. I was happy working as the team's hitting instructor”.  It was only through the intervention of his players that he reconsidered the offer.

Still, he had that dreaded ‘interim’ tag nailed to his job description.

We all know how that story played out.  Gaston finished the 1989 season, leading his Blue Jays to a 77-49 finish and the American League East crown.  He was tremendously adept at managing the many diverse and divergent personalities in his club house and making Toronto a perennial post-season contender.

It wasn’t long after Gaston was originally hired as the team’s skipper, interim or not, that they moved into their new digs at the SkyDome.  The team’s success and the novelty of the new stadium resulted in an attendance boom that lasted for a few years, allowing the team to spend money on much-sought-after free agents in order to bolster their ambitions to win a World Series.

In 1991, it was the Twins’ Jack Morris who stymied Blue Jays’ hitters to guide his team to the World Series.  In 1992, Morris was surprisingly and suddenly signed to a contract in Toronto!  He was joined by fellow Minnesotan Dave Winfield and expectations in Toronto became sky high.  Those expectations were met in the fall as the World Series trophy headed to Canada for the first time ever.

The following season, the team found the money to sign pitcher Dave Stewart and Brewers’ star Paul Molitor.  Their acquisitions helped create the ‘WAMCO’ batting order.  Devon White and Roberto Alomar were the first two batters in the lineup ahead of Molitor.  Batting clean-up was Joe Carter and following him was the sweet-swinging John Olerud.

The Blue Jays won the World Series again in 1993.  Gaston was the manager of not just the best team in baseball but the two-time champions to boot!  His players absolutely loved him.  Joe Carter told Ebony magazine his feelings on his manager in a 1994 article. 

“Cito knows how to work with each individual, treating everyone like a human being," said World Series hero Carter. "He knows exactly what to say, when to say it, what to do and how to go about doing it. When you have a manager like that, it makes you want to play for the guy. We'd go to war for him. What Cito has done for the Blue Jays can't be taken lightly.”

Gaston built a foundation in Toronto, but the team’s performance began to fall off.  In 1996, the team finished fourteen games under .500.  They had the same issues in 1997, despite acquiring standout pitcher, Roger Clemens.  When attendance began to dramatically dip, things began to hit the proverbial fan.  

With a week remaining in the 1997 season, Gaston let the team’s general manager, Gord Ash, know that he would not be taking part in the team’s exit interviews after the season.  Ash fired the popular manager and he was replaced by pitching coach Mel Queen to finish out the 1997 year.

Over on the Quebec side, the Montreal Expos, once the ‘kings of the hill’ among Canadian baseball fans, were now relegated to the second-fiddle club.  They had had a decent team over the decade of the 1980s under Buck Rodgers and Felipe Alou, but they were still seen across Canada as the lesser of the two baseball teams in Canada.

Rodgers had done a decent job with the Expos through the second half of the 1980s.  As the 1990s dawned though, the team was a shadow of its former self.  In 1990, Rodgers piloted the team to a third-place finish in the National League East.  They had Andres Galarraga, a 30-year-old Tim Raines, Delino DeShields and a 23-year-old Larry Walker.  Marquis Grissom was coming up, as was a young Moises Alou.

By the end of 1991, though, the team was at the bottom of the NL East and Rodgers time in Montreal was done.  Tom Runnels finished the season as the manager and he wasn’t much better.  He was still the manager as the team broke camp in 1992 as well.  But the players detested him and Runnels lasted 37 games.  He was succeeded by Felipe Alou, father of Moises.

Felipe finished that 1992 season with a record of 70-55.  He ensconced himself with the Expos’ fan base thereafter.  In 1993, with Felipe at the helm, the team won 94 games.  But the Phillies won 97 and Montreal was left watching another team go to the dance.  1994 would yield some fruit for the Expos’ starving faithful.

Felipe was very much like Cito Gaston in that he knew how to relate to his players as people.  He treated everyone with respect and his charges would run through walls for him.  

In 1994, the Expos started the season 4-9 but then rebounded to surge to the top of the NL East.  By the end of July, they were 65-38 and looking like the presumptive representative of the National League in the World Series.  In August, they started off the month winning nine games and losing two.  Then and there, the baseball world stopped.

Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement had ended on December 31, 1993.  On August 12, 1994, the players got their pay cheques for that period and they went on strike.  The Expos were 74-40 and in first place in their division.  They looked like they were on a collision course to face the New York Yankees in baseball’s championship showdown.  Unfortunately, that never took place.  

The season ended and no games were played again until May of 1995.  The Expos were a dried up husk of their former selves.  Without players like Larry Walker, Ken Hill, John Wetteland and many important others who left via free agency, the Expos fell from the top of the heap to the bottom of the pile just like that.

They finished last in the NL East in 1995.  But by 1996, they persevered and under Felipe’s tutelage, they won 88 games and finished second that year.  By the end of June, 1997, they were ten games above .500 and they found themselves playing an inter-league series against their Canadian relatives, the Toronto Blue Jays, for the very first time.

The two teams faced each other at the SkyDome on June 30.  The Expos came into the series having split a four-game set with the Florida Marlins down in Miami.  The Blue Jays had just swept a four-game series in Baltimore and were looking forward to some home cooking again.

On that last day of June, the Expos would send Pedro Martinez to the hill against Pat Hentgen.  Both men were brilliant in going all the way.  Hentgen gave up six hits and allowed two Expo runs, including a Vladimir Guerrero, Sr. homer in the second inning.  Pedro struck out ten and allowed only three Blue Jays hits in a 2-1 Montreal victory.

That set up the Canada Day matchup.  The temperature was high and the place was packed and rocking!  It was the first sellout since the day the stadium opened in 1995.  35-year-old Roger Clemens was on the mound for the Blue Jays against the 6-foot-7-inch Jeff Juden for the Expos. 

Hentgen had won the Cy Young Award as the American League’s best pitcher in 1996.  Clemens would eventually win it in 1997 and 1998.  When the 26-year-old Juden was growing up as a boy in Salem, Massachusetts, he idolized the then-Red Sox star.

“I’ve dreamed about pitching against Roger Clemens for a long time,” Juden told the media.  “I always remember the great matchups, seeing him battle the McGwires and the Cansecos.”  Juden came into the game with a record of 9-2.  Clemens was 12-2.  

More than 50,000 people jammed themselves into the building for this festive holiday contest.  The game was supposed to start at 1:07 pm but was delayed almost an hour by ceremonies honouring military personnel and first responders.

Present in the crowd were the mascots for both teams.  B.J. Birdy was there representing the home team and Youppi was also there for the Expos.  At times, they worked the crowd alone and at other times, they ambled the aisles together.  The crowd seemed to be split between fans of both Toronto and Montreal.  

In the top of the first inning, the Expos sent Mark Grudzielanek, Mike Lansing and F. P. Santangelo to the plate.  Grudzielanek worked the count full before grounding out to the Blue Jays second baseman Tilson Brito.  Lansing swung at the first Clemens delivery and lined out to Otis Nixon in centre field.

With two out, Santangelo (whose initials stood for Frank Paul, but an Ottawa kid once told me they stood for ‘Favourite Player’ at a Triple-AAA Lynx game earlier in his career) laced a single through the right side of the infield.  That brought firstbaseman David Segui to the plate. 

Segui lofted a fly ball to short left-centre that Shawn Green lost in the sun.  It dropped and happened to score Santangelo though who had been running at the crack of the bat.  That halted Clemens’ shutout streak at 17 innings.  That was all the scoring for Montreal in the first, but they had a lead.

The first batter Juden faced was Otis Nixon.  Nixon stood in until the count was full, then he took ball four to gain his walk.  Right fielder Orlando Merced was the next batter for the Blue Jays.  On the first pitch to Merced, Nixon took off and stole second.  On the next pitch, Merced hit a ground ball to Segui at first.  He snagged the ball and stepped on the bag for the first Toronto out of the inning.  Nixon moved over to third.

That forced Juden to go to work.  Joe Carter was the next batter.  He went down swinging.  Jays’ first baseman Carlos Delgado was up next.  Juden pitched around him and issued him a four-pitch walk.  Third baseman Ed Sprague was next.  Juden got behind Sprague, three balls and one strike, but he got him to pop up a ball into foul territory on the left side.  The third baseman, Santangelo, was able to track it down and the first inning was over.

In the top of the second, right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, Sr. was the Expos’ leadoff hitter.  Aggressive as always, he swung at the first Clemens offering and hit it on the ground to Sprague who gunned him out.  That brought designated hitter Ryan McGuire up.  He worked the count full before taking ball four and earning a base on balls off Clemens.

With the count 2-1 on centrefielder Rondell White, McGuire took off for second.  Blue Jays’ catcher Charlie O’Brien fired a strike to shortstop Alex Gonzalez and threw out the Expos’ runner.  A couple of pitches later, White hammered a ball to deep right-centre over the wall and the Expos’ lead was now 2-0.  Oh, if only McGuire had stayed at first.  Baseball is a game that lends itself to second-guessing though, isn’t it.

After that, it was a pitching battle and Juden was on cruise control.  He threw eight pitches to the Jays in the second.  He tossed six in the third.  In the fourth, Juden threw eleven and in the fifth, he threw ten.  He finally had to work a bit in the sixth.  The leadoff man Tilson Brito managed to get to a three ball count, Juden’s first since the bottom of the first inning, but he ended up going down swinging – as did Nixon and Merced in that inning.

Juden got Carter, Delgado and Sprague in the bottom of the seventh on thirteen pitches.  He had made just 89 throws through seven innings and had yet to give up a Toronto base hit.  The runs that Montreal had scored in the first and second were holding up against the mighty Clemens.  Could the student emerge victorious against the master?

Common sense would say “Hold on, Mister!”  Common sense would be correct.  In the top of the eighth, Grudzielanek led off with a single to right-centre.  Lansing followed him with a double down the left field line.  There were runners on second and third for Santangelo.  He hit a ground ball to Delgado at first that failed to score a run.  After Clemens got Segui on strikes, he induced Henry Rodriguez to ground out to Brito at second and the threat was averted.

Juden needed just six more outs to get this win.  His first batter in the bottom of the eighth was the left fielder Shawn Green.  Juden got ahead of Green by throwing his first two pitches for strikes.  But then Green deposited his next offering over the wall in right-centre breaking the no-no and the shutout at the same time.  Juden retired the Jays in order after that, but the home team was on the board (and, finally, in the hit column).

“I gave up a hit on an 0-2 curve to Shawn Green,” Juden later told Rocco Constantino of ballnine.com in November of 2021.  “I tried to trick him but I should have bounced the pitch.  It went inside and he smashed it out of the park, so there went the no-hitter and the shutout.”

In the Expos’ ninth, Guerrero led off with a single but was picked off trying to steal second.  Then, McGuire singled.  Cito Gaston had seen enough of his future Cy Young winner and called on Paul Quantrill to quell the Expos’ uprising.  Quantrill got Rondell White to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Now it was up to Juden.  He caught Nixon looking at a third strike to get the first out.  But when Merced singled to left, Felipe called upon Ugueth Urbina to try to close this one out.  As Juden was leaving the field, the SkyDome crowd graciously gave him a standing ovation.  Urbina did his job as well.  He got Carter on strikes and he kept Delgado in the park, albeit marginally.  Carlos hit a fly ball to deep right-centre that Guerrero was able to track down.  

The Expos had prevailed.  Jeff Juden had faced down his idol, Clemens, and lived to talk about it.  The Montreal pitcher ended up striking out 14 Blue Jays’ hitters.  He got Joe Carter out on strikes four times.  In baseball parlance, that is known as ‘The Golden Sombrero’ and it’s not something that any batter wants to wear.

“What can I say?  This was a thrill,” the awe-struck Juden told the assembled media throng.  “There was a little bit of everything – good defense, great pitching and some timely hitting.  Just a really special day for Canada.  I was glad to be a part of it.”

Juden told Rocco Constantino about one fan that had been needling him in the later parts of the game.  “From the sixth-inning on, I had this asshole heckler screaming at me ‘Hey, you got a no-hitter going!’  The only bum running down the aisle and it got to me.  Finally, in the ninth inning, I was like ‘F*** that guy!’  But I was very blessed to have such a great game against a great pitcher that I respect tremendously to this day.”

The post-game fireworks presentation must have felt somewhat subdued for the Toronto fans following the only Canada Day meeting ever for these two Canadian rivals.  Sadly, there would never be another.  We can only hope that someday, there might be another baseball team in Montreal.

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You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.  Howie also hosts Like Father, Like Son with his son, Reese here on the FiredUp Network and those same platforms as well.