Blue Monday: Remembering Montreal’s new order

Eric Rosenhek
February 13, 2012

For fans of the former Montreal Expos, “Blue Monday” is an agonizing expression.

It references the deciding game of the 1981 National League Championship Series, when Rick Monday of the Los Angeles Dodgers hit a game-winning home run with two outs in the 9th inning off Expo ace Steve Rogers. It gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead and eventually, the pennant and a trip to the World Series. Ironically, the match was also played on a Monday.

More importantly, it was a disappointing end to Montreal’s memorable season.

2011 marked the 30th anniversary of the Expos’ first and only postseason appearance and the first time the MLB playoffs occurred on international soil; an anniversary that quietly passed.

The 1981 Expos encountered many ups and downs. Then again, the entire 1981 regular season could be given a similar description given the two-month players’ strike.

Because of the large gap created by the work stoppage, MLB decided to use a split-season format. The division leaders before the strike automatically qualified for the playoffs and would play the division winners from the second half to determine the entrants for the League Championship Series. 

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The first half of the split-season had the Expos in third place with a record of 30-25; four games behind the first place (and playoff bound) Philadelphia Phillies. The second half yielded a 30-23 record and Montreal’s first postseason berth. However, it wasn’t an easy road for the Expos.

The team was hovering around the .500 mark at the beginning of September and appeared to be crumbling. This prompted a managerial change with Jim Fanning replacing the fired Dick Williams. Fanning’s tenure got off to a rough start with three straight losses, but the Expos managed to turn things around, thanks in large part to two winning streaks of seven and four games, respectively.

According to Kevin Glew, baseball writer and publisher of Cooperstowners in Canada, the Expos benefited from having the ’81 season split into two halves.

“As exciting as that Expos team was, they wouldn’t have won the second half division title if the other teams in their division weren’t so mediocre,” says Glew. “The [St. Louis] Cardinals were the only other team to finish above .500 in the National League East in the second half. So I don’t think the 1981 Expos were any better than the 1979 and 1980 clubs that were in contention until the last weekend of their respective seasons.”

Still, Glew points to many strengths on that roster which included two future Hall of Famers in catcher Gary Carter and outfielder Andre Dawson, a young and very talented Tim Raines, a strong starting rotation that included Steve Rogers and the late Charlie Lea, who threw a no-hitter against San Francisco that season, and a bullpen with two outstanding closing options: left-hander Woodie Fryman and the right-hander Jeff Reardon, who was traded to the Expos by the New York Mets earlier in the year.

Montreal captured the first two games of the best-of-five division series against Philadelphia, only to watch the Phillies tie the series. But on October 11 – led by a complete game, six-hit shutout from Rogers – the Expos won the NL East title with a 3-0 victory.

Many Canadians were captivated by the Expos’ success, including actor Donald Sutherland.

“Sutherland is an avid Expo fan,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Steve Wulf in an October, 1981 article. “So avid that he hasn’t missed a game, home or away, since Sept. 12. It was then that Montreal went on a spree that carried it to the division title.”

Sutherland told Wulf he was afraid to change his clothes.

The excitement was certainly felt inside and outside of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

“Even in the late ’90s and early 2000s when the Expos were slowly dying, I always told people that the 10,000 fans at ‘The Big O’ were louder than the 35,000 at the [Toronto] SkyDome,” Glew explains. “There weren’t many of them left at the end, but Expos fans were very passionate. So you can imagine how loud it was with crowds regularly numbering 30,000 to 40,000 and more than 50,000 in the playoffs in 1981.

“If you can recall the national fervor around the Toronto Blue Jays in the early ’90s, that’s what it was like for the Montreal Expos in the early ’80s.”

The best-of-five NLCS would also go the distance. Montreal had a 2-1 series lead. But the Dodgers would come back to win the series, culminating with the infamous Blue Monday game on October 19. Just as noteworthy as Monday’s home run was Jim Fanning’s decision to bring in Rogers in the 9th inning. It was Rogers’ first relief appearance since 1978. Although the move was costly, Glew feels Fanning made the right choice.

“To this day, I still support Fanning’s decision to bring in Rogers over Reardon,” says Glew. “In the deciding game of a playoff series, I want my ace on the mound if he’s available.”

The 1981 Expos were certainly memorable, especially with such a talented roster. Yet the anniversary of the team’s most significant accomplishment passed last year with little fanfare. However, it wasn’t ignored completely.

The Montreal Gazette posted a short article about the Blue Monday game on its website. A handful of bloggers also marked the anniversary, including Montreal Author Mark Patterson.

“Blue Monday was so devastating that it has, deplorably, come to symbolize almost everything about 1981 Montreal Expos,” Patterson wrote on his blog on Oct. 19, 2011. “The loss on Blue Monday was so bad, so ruinous, that apart from the image of [Expo First baseman] Warren Cromartie waving the Canadian flag in Philadelphia, we tend to forget all the games the Expos won in the 1981 playoffs.”

Perhaps the result of the match and its mythic status could explain why there wasn’t any significant coverage of the anniversary. Glew had heard of a possible reunion being organized by Cromartie, but those plans never materialized. He also recognizes why the anniversary of Canada’s first MLB playoff team was – as he puts it – virtually ignored.

“[First] the Expos didn’t win the NLCS and advance to the World Series and [second] the Expos don’t exist anymore,” says Glew. “There is still a relatively small, but hardcore group of Expos fans out there, but many of the team’s fans gave up on the club long before the team left in 2004.

 “Another factor is that there is no real champion for the ’81 club among the players that are still around from that time. Sure, Cromartie sometimes talks about the Expos, but he’s not Dawson or Carter.”

The Montreal Expos may have had a turbulent existence during their final years. However, 1981 and the surrounding baseball seasons were a period when “Nos Amours” were one of the top teams in baseball.

Thanks to the 1994 players’ strike, which derailed what might have been a celebrated playoff run, the 1981 NL East Division championship was Montreal’s biggest on-field achievement in its history. It was also significant for baseball fans in Canada. For the first time, a Canadian team (location-wise, that is) was vying to win the World Series.

It’s a shame there wasn’t more coverage of the 30th anniversary in the mainstream media, but thanks to the memories created by the ’81 team, it wasn’t forgotten.

Unfortunately for Glew, his most vivid memory of the ’81 Expos is Monday’s fatal blow.

“I remember watching that game on TV as an eight-year-old and I felt sick to my stomach when I saw Dawson running after that ball in center field and then running out of room,” Glew recalls. “I remember the camera shots of the Expos dugout after the game. Players had their heads buried in their hands. I wanted to cry.”

And so goes the legend of Blue Monday.

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The Author:

Eric Rosenhek