EL PRESIDENTE, EL PERFECTO
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2023
EL PRESIDENTE, EL PERFECTO
The month of July, especially the second half of the month of July, can be a turbulent time in baseball. Teams that fancy themselves as contenders try to beef up their rosters as the trade deadline approaches and teams that figure they are out of the postseason chase begin to unload contracts of players that may be unwieldy or that they may not be able to re-sign. It can make baseball fans antsy, but it can make players downright stressed.
In 1991, the National League still consisted of just twelve teams and played in two divisions – East and West. (And, yes, the Atlanta Braves played in the ‘West’ but, hey, it was more than thirty years ago and I’m not about to argue with someone’s sense of geography, especially when that someone probably made a lot more money than I did at that time.)
When play ended on Saturday, July 27, 1991, the Pittsburgh Pirates sat in first place in the East with a record of 60-34 for an admirable winning percentage of .638. Over in the West, the Los Angeles Dodgers were at the top of the table, having just shredded the Montreal Expos by a score of 7-0 at Chavez Ravine. That win bumped their record to 56-40 and the Dodgers now sat six full games ahead of the second place (and aforementioned) Atlanta Braves.
That loss by the Expos saw them plummet to an ugly 42-55, and they sat in fifth place in their division, 19.5 games back of the Pirates and two games ahead of the last place Philadelphia Phillies. For Montreal, it was their 20th loss in their previous thirty games, going back to June 23. Tom Runnels was now managing Les Expos, having taken over from the popular Buck Rodgers at the beginning of June. Under Rodgers, the team had gotten off to a 20-29 start. That was enough for general manager Dave Dombrowski.
Rodgers had managed the club since the start of the 1985 season and had been hired by then-GM Murray Cook. Rodgers outlasted Cook and Bill Stoneman who occupied the GM’s chair after Cook. On June 2, 1991, the Expos were defeated by the Chicago Cubs. That loss marked a sweep by the Cubbies and it was the tenth loss by les Montrealais in their last eleven games. Speculation had been brewing for a while that Rodgers’ position at the helm of the club was perilously close to the end.
On June 3, at 6:30 am, the axe fell.
Rodgers had been a popular manager in Montreal. In fact, it could be argued that only Felipe Alou could match Rodgers in terms of his popularity among Montreal media and fans. Over the course of his six seasons and change, he compiled a record of 520-499 and in 1987, the Expos, under Rodgers, went 91-71 and finished in third place in the NL East.
In the June 4 edition of the Montreal Gazette, Pat Hickey asked the question of whether or not Rodgers was indeed to blame for the current state of the Expos. Hickey wrote, “Over the past several years, the Expos have allowed the pitching staff to deteriorate. It was Dombrowski who traded Randy Johnson, Brian Holman and Gene Harris for Mark Langston in a 1989 deal that was supposed to bring the Expos a pennant.”
It did not bring the team a pennant. The Expos finished at .500 – 81-81 – and Langston got out of Montreal as quickly as he could at the end of the regular season via free agency. Meanwhile, ‘The Big Unit’ went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks, with brief stops in Houston with the Astros, the New York Yankees and finishing his career in 2009 with the San Francisco Giants.
At the time that Johnson exited Montreal, Dombrowski made the claim that, even if Langston left at the end of the year, the team was in fine shape given the quality of the arms in the minors. But that statement proved to be only so much fools’ gold. None of the team’s pitchers had come close to matching the production of not only Johnson, but Brian Holman as well. The only Expos’ pitchers who performed well after the deal were Bill Sampen and Dennis Martinez. By this point in the 1991 season, only Martinez was a legitimate starter. Dennis ‘Oil Can’ Boyd was okay some days and a huge question mark on others. Mark Gardner was a decent pitcher as well.
That was about it.
According to many at the time, the big wedge issue between Dombrowski and Rodgers was the way the manager used his young players. Rodgers' main concern was winning ball games. Dombrowski’s wish was to develop the prospects. Given that, it was only a matter of time before the general manager would make his decision.
Tom Runnels came into Montreal having managed in the Expos’ minor league system. In his three years as a field boss, he posted winning records every year. But, where Rodgers was a players’ manager and a ‘father-figure’, Runnels had the reputation of being a no-nonsense, hard-nosed disciplinarian.
Hickey wrote of the two men, “It’s doubtful he’ll be as popular as Rodgers. As colleague Michael Farber noted (in the June 3 edition of the Gazette), ‘Do you think when they fire Tom Runnels, he’ll have his final press conference at Grumpy’s?’” Farber was referring to the old school Montreal tavern on Bishop Street.
Popular or not, the Expos looked like a new team under the new manager winning thirteen of Runnels’ first nineteen games. But then, the team reverted to form losing eleven straight and twelve of fourteen heading into the All-Star break. But then, they won five consecutive games after the summer classic. Then it was five losses in their next six and nine out of eleven as they headed into a Sunday afternoon game, July 28, at Dodgers’ Stadium.
Since Runnels took over, the Expos played slightly better than they had under Buck Rodgers. In their 48 games from his hiring through July 27, the club had gone 22-26. Over that span, two men showed that they were the rocks of the starting rotation – Mark Gardner and Dennis Martinez. Two other men held a somewhat regular turn – Dennis ‘Oil Can’ Boyd and Brian Barnes.
Under Runnels, Gardner made eleven starts, Martinez made ten, Boyd started nine games and Barnes opened eight. Gardner threw 74 innings and went 5-5. He could have been 6-5 but the bullpen coughed one game up late. In fact, the bullpen had shown some serious inconsistency. They went 6-9 as a group in that span and gave up leads numerous times.
37-year-old Dennis Martinez was the Expos’ best pitcher over the course of the season and in the 48 games since his new manager took the reins, ‘El Presidente’ tossed 75-and-a-third innings in his ten starts. On June 15, he fired a complete game and garnered the shutout in a 2-0 win over Atlanta. In his next start, on June 20, Martinez went eight shutout innings and Barry Jones was credited with the victory in a 1-0 blanking of the Reds in Cincinnati. In only one of those ten outings did he fail to pitch into the seventh inning.
Despite having some pop in their lineup (Marquis Grissom, Ivan Calderon, Tim Wallach, Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, Delino DeShields), the Expos seemed to go into some prolonged offensive slumps which surely didn’t help their pitchers. In their 48 games under Runnels, they scored zero or a single run an even dozen times. Eleven of those games ended in losses.
Gardner started the first game of the Dodgers’ series on Friday, July 26. After nine innings, he had a no-hitter. The only problem was that his team couldn’t score, and Runnels gave him the opportunity to continue in the game. In the tenth, he gave up a couple of hits that resulted in a Dodger run and his no-hitter, the shutout and the win were all gone in the blink of an eye.
That said, Gardner was the talk of baseball.
Going into that Sunday afternoon game in Los Angeles, the team had lost three in a row. In their previous two games at Chavez Ravine, they failed to score a run, going down to defeats of 1-0 Friday night and 7-0 on Saturday. On Sunday, July 28, it would be Martinez on the hill for Montreal going against Mike Morgan. Going into this one, the Expos’ starter was 10-6 while Morgan was 9-5.
Almost celebrating the Gardner pitching effort (and perhaps adding a little foreshadowing as well), the Quad City Times ran a little compilation of no-hitters on the Sunday morning of July 28. There was a list of no-hitters in 1991, which included Gardner’s performance on the Friday night. There was a list of the six times an Expos' pitcher had thrown a no-no. There was a listing of all the no-hitters tossed against the Dodgers, both when they played in Brooklyn and in Los Angeles. Numerous lists – almost as if they knew something special was going to happen on that day.
Morgan’s first pitch on that Sunday afternoon game was thrown to Delino DeShields at 1:08 pm Pacific Time. He got through that first inning on ten pitches. Then, it was Martinez’ turn to pitch. The mound was not to his liking though and he spent about four minutes using his cleats to rake the mound dirt the way he wanted it. “It was very wet and very slippery,” he told the Montreal Gazette’s Jeff Blair after it was all over. “Bruce (umpire crew chief Bruce Froemming) let me fix it. He said ‘Don’t worry. It will dry in an hour or so.’ I laughed and said ‘I don’t know if I’ll still be in the game!”
When he finally got to throw for real, Martinez struck Brett Butler out on four pitches, and he used a single pitch to retire each of Juan Samuel and Eddie Murray on ground balls. It then took Morgan thirteen throws to get Calderon, Wallach and Walker. It was the first time all season that Calderon batted fourth. That had mostly been Wallach’s spot. Martinez then got Darryl Strawberry, Kal Daniels and Lenny Harris on ten tosses.
Morgan started the third by striking out Expos’ catcher Ron Hassey. He finished the inning getting Martinez to swing at strike three. In between, Spike Owen lofted an easy fly ball to left. In the bottom of the third, the Expos’ stellar hurler got three straight ground ball outs from Mike Scioscia, Alfredo Griffin and Morgan.
In the top of the fourth, Morgan got DeShields and Grissom to ground out to Samuel at second. Dave Martinez hit the hardest ball of the game to that point by hammering the 2-1 pitch to deep right-centre field, but Strawberry managed to run it down for the third out of the inning. So, it was back over to Martinez. He was facing the top of the Dodgers’ order for the second time.
Butler took Martinez to a full count before fouling a pitch off. Then he, Samuel and Murray all grounded out. In the middle of Murray’s at-bat though, something happened that could have crushed this magical day. With the count 1-1, Martinez threw a pitch and then winced and squatted on the mound.
He had strained something in his side. Runnels, pitching coach Larry Bearnarth and trainer Ron McClain headed out to the mound to see what was going on. Home plate umpire Larry Poncino allowed Martinez to throw a bit from the mound to make sure he could continue. Martinez assured everyone that he could.
Each team had sent twelve men up to the plate and no one had been able to reach base yet. Both Morgan and Martinez were straight-up dealing! Out of the 24 batters in the game to this point, only Tim Wallach, Spike Owen and Dave Martinez – all Expos – had managed to get a ball out of the infield.
In the top of the fifth, Montreal sent Calderon, Wallach and Walker to the plate. Calderon and Walker hit balls deep, but all stayed in the park, and all were caught. Martinez looked at Strawberry, Daniels and Harris. The first two men grounded out, while Harris hit a fly ball down the left field line that was caught in foul territory by Calderon. The Expos’ right-hander used seven pitches to retire the Dodgers in the fifth.
Ron Hassey finally posted a base hit in this game when he slapped a 1-0 Morgan pitch up the middle in the top of the sixth. He was 31st batter in the game and the first to get on base! Spike Owen then reached on a fielder’s choice. After Martinez hit a ground ball to shortstop Alfredo Griffin that advanced Owen ninety feet, the top of the Montreal order came to the plate in Delino DeShields. He worked a four-pitch walk from Morgan. An unintentional intentional walk, if you will. But then Marquis Grissom hit a weak ground ball up the middle that Griffin snagged. He stepped on second for the force to end the Expos’ sixth.
That brought out the Dodgers’ 7-8-9 hitters in the bottom half of the inning. Scioscia and Griffin grounded out to DeShields at second before Morgan lofted a fly ball to Grissom in centre field. Griffin’s grounder to DeShields was played well enough by the Montreal second baseman. But his throw to Walker was low, and the big firstbaseman was forced to dig it out of the dirt.
After 38 men combined had come to the plate for these two teams, there was still no score. Only the Expos had a base hit in the game. This was just a spectacular pitching exhibition in a spectacular venue in late July of 1991. Morgan had thrown 63 pitches through six innings. Martinez had fired 56. Which pitcher…which team was going to crack first?
Dave Martinez was the first hitter of the seventh inning for Montreal. He worked the count to 2-2. On the next pitch he hit a ball to Alfredo Griffin at short. Griffin misplayed the ball, and the Expos had their leadoff man aboard. Next up was big Ivan Calderon. He laid a bunt down. Morgan picked it up. He had only one play and that was to first. Calderon executed and his teammate now stood in scoring position. Next up was Tim Wallach. He grounded out to Griffin and couldn’t advance the runner. Martinez was stuck at second with two outs in the inning.
That brought Larry Walker to the plate with two men down. Walker then controversially worked the count full. In the mind of Tommy Lasorda and many of the Dodgers, that 2-2 pitch that was called a ball was key. Lasorda was sure that it should have been strike three. “He had him struck out,” Lasorda opined. Morgan was sure he had ended the inning as well. “It was a fastball on the outside corner. I felt like I had him, and then I hung one.”
Walker then fouled off the next pitch. The pitch after that – the pitch Morgan ‘hung’ – was his 17th of the inning and his 80th of the game. Walker cranked it down the line. Martinez scored. It was the first run of the series and the first lead in the series for the Expos. The run was unearned, but it still counted. Ron Hassey then hit a grounder to Griffin that he couldn’t handle, and Walker scored. Hassey was able to make it to first base safely. The inning ended with Spike Owen at the plate and Hassey trying vainly to steal second.
The damage had been done though. It was 2-0 for Montreal. For the Dodgers, their hopes now hinged on catching a Dennis Martinez mistake. Maybe he would leave a pitch out over the plate that someone could tag. Maybe an Expo would misplay a ball that could lead to a rally. Something. Anything! Brett Butler echoed that thought of looking for a mistake after the game. “You look for him to hang a curve ball or something like that. Then you can beat him. But he didn’t make one today.”
For Martinez, the task at hand in the bottom of the seventh was the top of the Dodgers’ lineup -- Butler, Samuel and Murray. Butler hit a 2-2 Martinez pitch high to the left side of the infield, but Wallach was able to get under it in foul territory for the first out. Then Samuel tried to surprise the Expos with a bunt down the first base line. Martinez leapt off the mound and got the ball over to Walker at first for the out. It was now Eddie Murray’s turn. He worked the count full. Then he fouled a pitch off. Next pitch, he hit a sharp ground ball to DeShields at second. He made the easy throw, and the Dodgers were retired in the seventh.
With reporters after the game, Samuel said that he had talked to Martinez soon after the final out. “He told me it (the bunt play) was the toughest play of the game. I told him that he looked like a shortstop the way he sprinted off the mound for the ball. What can you say? They call him El Presidente, don’t they? Well, today, he should be elected president of Nicaragua!”
In their half of the eighth, the Expos got a couple of singles off Morgan and, after a wild pitch, had runners at second and third with one out. But Morgan got Grissom to swing and miss on strike three for the second out. He induced Dave Martinez to ground out weakly to Murray at first and the threat was extinguished.
Strawberry, Daniels and Harris were coming up for the Dodgers in their half of the eighth. Martinez got ‘Straw’ to hit a grounder to DeShields for the first out. Kal Daniels worked the count full before swinging and missing on the final strike. Lenny Harris then hit a comebacker to Martinez on a 1-1 pitch to end the inning. 24 up, 24 down.
Morgan was still out there in the ninth and he faced Calderon, Wallach and Walker. He got them out in order. Cue the drama. Through eight innings, Martinez had thrown 84 pitches. The first Dodger hitter of the ninth inning was Mike Scioscia. Martinez got the first pitch over for a strike. Next pitch, Scioscia hit a hard fly ball to Calderon in left for the first out.
Alfredo Griffin was scheduled to hit next. Tom Lasorda threw Stan Javier out to pinch hit for the shortstop. He worked the count to 2-2. He then fouled the next pitch off to stay alive. Then Martinez fooled him. Javier swung and missed for out number 26. The pitcher, Mike Morgan, was next up. Lasorda sent Chris Gwynn, brother of Tony, to hit for his pitcher. The count went to one ball and two strikes. One of those pitches was struck well down the third base line but it went just foul.
Next pitch was in the zone, but all Gwynn could do was hit it out to centre field. Marquis Grissom was shaking as the ball approached him. He caught it. The words of Expos’ play-by-play man Dave Van Horne still ring out on the interwebs everywhere. “El Presidente! El Perfecto!”
When the ball nestled into Grissom’s glove, Martinez allowed himself to raise his arms to the air in exultation. His teammates mobbed him on the mound. As he stood there being surrounded and embraced by his fellow Expos, he began crying. And he couldn’t stop.
After the game, he described an almost altered state of existing as he was performing so incredibly. “It was like I was dreaming. It was like it was somebody else down there instead of me.” After the game, he told a reporter through tears that “This game was for God, myself, my family, the people of Nicaragua and the Expos.”
After the final out of the game, Martinez admitted that the final out gave him some trepidation. “The last out was scary. But I saw the ball hang and I knew that Marquis had the speed to get to it.” The righty was happy not only for himself but deflected credit for the victory to everybody who played in it. “This is big for me but also for the team, for everyone who’s an Expo. This was a team win. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
For Ron Hassey, the 38-year-old veteran catcher, this was not his first taste of perfection. He also caught the 3-0 perfect gem that Len Barker tossed against the Toronto Blue Jays back in 1981. He pooh-poohed the superstition that you give your pitcher the silent treatment when he’s throwing such a game. “I don’t buy into that stuff about not talking to a guy in the middle of a no-hitter. In the seventh, I was walking up and down the dugout going ‘We got us a perfect one going, boys. Everybody stay sharp. Keep awake!’”
Hassey noted that Martinez was dominating the Dodgers with his curve ball. He called a bunch of fork balls as well. “From the seventh inning on, about all I called was breaking stuff.”
This game was like a moment of redemption for Martinez. In 1986, as a member of the Baltimore Orioles, he had been sent down to the minors with an injured shoulder. In 1984, he acknowledged that alcohol had become a serious problem for him, and he decided to quit drinking. He had stayed sober ever since. He talked about this as the team was about to head up the coast for the next leg of their western road trip.
“I have to be careful when I go to San Francisco tonight. I’m not always good with this kind of thing. But I haven’t had a drink in seven years, you know. I’ll battle.” It had to be a bit strange when, after the game, Dave Martinez and Larry Walker gave their perfect pitcher a beer shower. But Martinez met the moment with a grin and wiped the beer off with a towel.
The waning moments of the game fell quite differently on some of the various Montreal players. Delino DeShields stood beside second base and talked to himself as he waved his glove back and forth as Chris Gwynn stood in the box waiting for pitches from Martinez. He told at least one reporter that he wanted the ball hit to him every time. He was kind of busy, given that he had nine assists in the game.
Larry Walker was feeling very opposing emotions. He was in at first base in place of Andres Galarraga and he talked about wanting every ball to be hit to the left side of the diamond. “Pressure? Hell, ya. I felt a load of it.”
Much was made of the way that Mark Gardner had taken a no-hitter into the tenth inning back on Friday night and Martinez made sure to mention his rotation-mate in his post-game remarks. “This game is not always a fair one. Mark pitched well enough to get his no-hitter too.” According to the Gazette’s Jeff Blair, Gardner was the victim of some verbal shots, courtesy of bullpen coach, and former Expo player, Ken Macha. When Montreal had finally scored a couple of runs in the seventh, Macha walked past Gardner in the dugout and said “Some guys get all the offensive support.”
For his part, Gardner was as much of an anxious fan in watching Martinez’ incredible feat as anyone else! “I wasn’t thinking about what happened Friday, not even for a second. I was nervous, more than anything else. I was wiping my hands more than when I was pitching. They were getting so clammy. My heart came up to here, right in my throat, when Gwynn hit that foul ball. Hey, I saw a perfect game! I sat in the dugout and watched a perfect game! How many people can say that?”
The legendary Vin Scully was on the play-by-play call for this one and, obviously, it was not his first perfect game. He worked Don Larsen's perfecto in the 1956 World Series. He also called Sandy Koufax' perfect game in 1965. He was asked to compare this game to Larsen's game from way back when.
"The tension was unbelievable the day Larsen pitched his, because it was the World Series. I was scared to death! This one was pretty quiet until Scioscia flied out to start the ninth. Then the entire ballpark seemed to get behind Martinez. It wasn't a World Series or a home team guy pitching, but he was sooooo perfect."
You said it, Vin. You said it.
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