Friday, 20 June 2014

Review: "Up, Up and Away" by Jonah Keri

The title of Jonah Keri's "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" should be the tip-off for readers.  This book will be inclusive.  It will be exhaustive.  It will be written not from a dispassionate observer's point of view, but rather from a tortured fan's perspective.  And for those who don't know this already, it will not end well.

I read this book with many memories of the Expos, having grown up loving our local team.  I was alive but not yet aware when the Expos were born.  For me, they always existed, were a part of the fabric of our culture.  I know that I attended a game at Jarry Park, but the only thing I remember is that before the game my Little League team got to walk in a procession on the field, I guess the Expos were honouring amateur baseball, setting down roots.  So around the infield we walked, I think the coaches had a banner in front, and some of the players from the visiting team said something to me as we walked by.  They seemed friendly enough, but I scowled at them and rolled my eyes.  

The thing is, we'd been read the riot act before the game about staying together as a group, not running around, and definitely not going to talk to the players.  I guess the organizers had done this before and seen mayhem, and told the coaches to keep their little guys in line, and our coaches put the fear of God in us.  So when those players lobbed a joke at me, never mind that I don't know what they said, since they probably spoke to me in English, and I didn't speak a word of it at the time, but yeah, I figured those guys were trying to get me in trouble.  I was no fool.  So I dismissed them as haughtily as I could, being all of six or seven years old, and kept marching with my flock, eyes locked straight ahead.

Jonah Keri's book does a great job of explaining how the Expos came into existence, how improvised the plan was, how incredible that a franchise could be started on a wing and a prayer like that.  Mr. Keri conducted exhaustive interviews with some of the major players of that era, and gets us an insider's account of the machinations that brought Nos Expos into existence, along with many rich anecdotes.  The first few seasons, of which I'm dimly aware of only through the fact that I knew the terribly exotic names of the players, heroes like John Bocabella and Rusty Staub and Coco Laboy.  We tried to pronounce the names with the same English inflections Jacques Doucet used.  For some reason, I really liked pitcher Carl Morton.  Whenever I played pitch and catch, I was Carl Morton.

Years passed, players came and went.  I listened on the radio at summer jobs, while doing chores around our house/hobby farm, or evenings, sometimes very late, trying to stay awake when they were on the West Coast, with my transistor radio turned down low so I wouldn't get caught by my parents.  Jacques Doucet and Claude Raymond's voices were part of my summers.  I watched them on TV when they were on, and when I could win over my parents and older sister and get to watch my preferred program for a change, no small task.  

Players came and went.  Proto-superstars like Gary Carter, André Dawson, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, and Larry Parish folded in the roster.  Wins became commonplace.  The Expos became aggressive.  Contenders.  We acquired star players, like Ron LeFlore, through trades now, not just content to wait for talent to graduate from the AAA Denver Bears and AA Memphis Chicks.

I fully believed we'd be World Series champions, it seemed inevitable.  The Canadiens won Stanley Cup routinely.  Our Alouettes won a few Grey Cups, when they weren't running into that juggernaut from Edmonton.  It was only a matter of time until we started racking up World Series, I felt.  We were the 'Team of the Eighties'.  And it wasn't just hype from Réjean Tremblay or Serge Touchette, I'd heard American play-by-play teams saying that, when I caught games coming from south of the border, on days when our roof-mounted TV antenna and atmospheric conditions allowed a reasonable picture, with not so much snow and static that I'd give up in frustration.

This is where Mr. Keri's narrative catches up with history of the Expos that I remember, the young core of Carter-Dawson-Cromartie-Valentine-Parrish maturing together.  He spends a lot of time diving into newspaper archives and speaking with the players, so we get a nice mix of what the situation was at the time, and some analysis with the benefit of hindsight.

On the story goes, telling the tale of a team full of promise, with talent on defence, on the pitcher's mound and at the plate, yet never quite able to get over the top.  Of course, we cover the 1981 NLCS loss against the Dodgers, the 'Blue Monday' game, which I caught the tail end of in the teachers' lounge at my high school, missing my bus home in the process, bringing me to a double-barreled "Now what?" at the end.

These fruitless chases were always disappointing, but as a fan I truly believed 'there's always next year'.  Jonah Keri does a great job of focusing in on the one or two things that went wrong each season, that could have been addressed by a player move or manager's decision.  It crystallizes how close we came, and how many opportunities were squandered, as I and John McHale sat back and waited for the championship to come to us, while our window closed.

As the chapters start to tackle the late eighties and the nineties, Jonah Keri comes into his own, as this marks the years he was a fanatic Expos, uhm, fan.  More dedicated to the 'Spos than the Canadiens, he spent countless games at Olympic Stadium, and draws on these experiences and backstory to flesh out the Expos of Buck Rogers and Felipe Alou, of Larry Walker and Vladimir Guerrero, of Dennis and Pedro.  Which comes in very handy for me, since I soured on the Expos a little bit at this point, on the fire sales and the poor results, and I eventually moved to the West Coast, which made it hard to stay current.

The end of the team, the protracted death throes, are almost too sad to get through, to relive.  Mr. Keri is to be commended for trying to remain even-handed, as he recounts the loss of his team.

So a very engrossing read, that will bring back many great memories for Montrealers and Expos fans, and can serve as a great introduction to their colourful history and unfulfilled promise for those who didn't get a chance to live through this era.  I highly recommend this book.

No comments:

Post a Comment