Meanwhile, the problems in 1991 weren’t restricted to the field: the stadium itself literally fell apart.
First, a portion of the always cranky orange roof tore open in June. Repair crews managed to fix that problem quickly. They could do no such thing with the next mishap: a 55-ton beam fell from the facade of the stadium and crashed onto a walkway near one of the outside entrances. Luckily, no one got hurt. But the Expos were forced to play their final 26 games of the year on the road, as 13 home dates were cancelled. With fewer than 14,000 fans per game filing into the Big O that year, the cold, cavernous, terribly located stadium’s reputation already under fire, and the team swooning, this latest calamity seemed likely to strangle future attendance.
About the only highlights in ’91 came from the pitchers. And really, you could boil down all the good tidings to one weekend in L.A.
On July 26, 1991, Mark Gardner took the mound against the Dodgers. He’d been decent to that point, posting a 3.30 ERA even though he sometimes struggled with control. He was certainly sharp that night in Dodger Stadium. Through the first seven innings, Gardner didn’t allow a single hit, with a two-out walk to Eddie Murray as his only blemish.
In the bottom of the eighth, the Dodgers got a leadoff walk from Kal Daniels, but a botched bunt attempt and a double play quickly squelched that potential rally. Gardner breezed through the first two hitters in the ninth, getting Alfredo Griffin on an infield popout, then striking out Chris Gwynn on three pitches. On his fifth pitch against leadoff hitter Brett Butler, the Expos’ starter induced a ground out to second base. Gardner had thrown a no-hitter.
Well, sort of. True, Gardner had fired nine no-hit innings. But the record books only count that as a no-no when your team actually scores. The Expos didn’t do that. They managed just a single hit through the first eight innings, advancing just one runner into scoring position but failing to cash him in. They got a walk and a single in the top of the ninth, but again failed to score, as a Calderon flyball sailed to the warning track before dying in Darryl Strawberry’s glove.
You knew what was coming next. Dodger Lenny Harris opened the bottom of the 10th with a high chopper over Gardner’s head. Spike Owen charged, tried to field the ball … and dropped it. A frustrating misplay, but with the ball hit that slowly, Owen would’ve had no chance to get Harris either way – it was an infield hit, busting the no-hitter. At least there was still a chance for the win. But two batters later, Strawberry slapped a game-winning single, giving the Dodgers a 1-0 victory, and leaving Gardner with nothing. (Freaking Strawberry never failed to drive us crazy. The fact that about 15 of us spent most of that game in the Orange Julep parking lot – refusing to move with a no-hitter on – didn’t help.)
“I had a great game, but I don’t feel good about it,” Gardner said later that night. “It’s still a loss. It was a great accomplishment but it’s still a loss.”
Not just a loss: no-hitters don’t come around that often, and the Expos had only three, despite Bill Stoneman bagging two in the team’s first four seasons. Somehow, only two days later, the Expos found redemption.
When Dennis Martinez took the mound for the final game of the series, it was a scorching 95-degree afternoon at Chavez Ravine. Though he couldn’t explain why, Martinez said he came out feeling a little different than usual – a little more confident. Odd, since the Dodgers led the NL West by six games at the time and were riding a five-game winning streak. They’d shut out Montreal in each of the first two games of the series. And through the first five innings of Sunday’s game, Dodgers starter Mike Morgan didn’t allow a single baserunner.
Like Gardner, Martinez plowed through the Dodgers with ease. But while Martinez didn’t allow any hits, he didn’t allow any baserunners, either. Through five, six, seven, and eight innings, not a single Dodger reached base. Martinez said he didn’t even feel a sweat until the ninth, given how quickly he and Morgan were mowing down hitters – heat be damned. Though there weren’t advanced pitch-tracking systems back then to break down every Martinez offering that day, you’d swear he threw 50 of those trademark knee-buckling curveballs. He was so unhittable, only five Dodgers even got the ball out of the infield. And unlike Gardner’s start, the Expos actually scored in the seventh, with a pair of runs against Morgan.
Then, the ninth.
“I ran back out to the mound, I could hear the crowd applauding me,” Martinez recalled. “That’s when it hit me, and my legs all of a sudden got real heavy, like I could barely move.”
Mike Scioscia went down quietly with a weak flyout to left, then Stan Javier struck out swinging. That brought up the Dodgers’ best pinch-hitter, Chris Gwynn.
“I got ahead 1 and 2, then tried to go inside and tie him up. The ball came back toward the middle of the plate. The good thing was it was a little high. He got the barrel of the bat on it – if he could have extended his arms, it would have been out of the stadium. But he didn’t. I knew he hit it well, then I looked to Marquis Grissom. I’m watching the ball, I see Grissom running, then I see him separate his arms and yell ‘I got it.’ The whole time I’m yelling, ‘Come on Grissom! Come on Grissom! Come on Grissom!’”
The Expos’ centre fielder squeezed the final out, and Dennis Martinez had done it. For just the 13th time in major league history, a pitcher had thrown a perfect game.
The reactions were unforgettable. Martinez raised his arms in triumph, pounded his glove, then got swarmed on the mound – with the longest-tenured Expo, [Tim] Wallach, the first to embrace him. The kid who’d grown up in a broken, poverty-stricken home in Nicaragua, who nearly pissed away his career and his life with booze only to return with a flourish in Montreal, had just done what only a dozen men before him ever had. Overcome with emotion, Martinez cried in Wallach’s arms, his shoulders shaking. A huge Sunday crowd of 45,560 rained cheers down on the man who’d just turned their team’s hitters into rubble.
In the clubhouse afterwards, [Larry] Walker showered Martinez with beer, and the conquering hero carefully wiped it off his face. Later that night, teammates and friends toasted him with champagne; Martinez raised his glass, then set it down without taking a sip.
For many Expos fans, Dave Van Horne’s reaction to that final out remains the enduring memory from that day. Channelling Martinez’s nickname, the Expos’ play-by-play man had the perfect call for the moment, one that remains the most famous call in Expos history.
“El Presidente, El Perfecto!”
Excerpted from Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos. Copyright © 2014 Jonah Keri. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.