Jonah Keri has completed the keystone work of his young life with Up, Up, & Away: The Kid, The Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, The Crazy Business of Baseball, & the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos. While Keri surely will continue to be one of the top baseball writers of this generation, he was born to write this book about his dearest baseball love.
The book tells the full story of the Expos franchise, beginning with pre-Expos baseball in Montreal, which included the minor league Montreal Royals, a team that counted Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente among its alumni, through the bitter end and the franchise’s departure to Washington, D.C. Readers learn about Montreal and the men who brought Major League Baseball to that city (and Canada) and administered it while it was there, but Up, Up, & Away really is a fan’s story of the talented characters who wore the red, white, and powder blue.
The Expos generally had two peaks in their thirty-five-year history. The first came in the early 1980s, with the strike-altered 1981 season being the high-water mark. That team included Andre “The Hawk” Dawson, Larry Parrish, Gary “The Kid” Carter (Montreal’s long-time most popular player), and Ellis Valentine (loads of raw potential, never realized due to substance abuse problems), future managers Terry Francona (left field) and Jerry Manuel (second base), rookies Tim “Rock” Raines and Tim Wallach, and pitchers Steve Rogers, Bill Gullickson, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and Jeff Reardon. Raines and the Expos came out of the gates firing on all cylinders, but the team’s record averaged out to 30-25 by the time the strike hit. The middle of the season was lost, but an abridged second half, the playoffs, and the World Series were salvaged. When Montreal started slow (14-12) in the second half, they fired their manager on September 8. While that change didn’t immediately improve the team’s fortunes, the Expos eventually caught fire thanks in large part to Gullickson’s pitching and Dawson’s all-around MVP-caliber performance, and they made the playoffs for the only time in their existence. After a spirited showing in the NLDS, they beat the Phillies and advanced to face the Dodgers in the NLCS. Despite an epic battle– Keri devotes an entire interlude chapter, styled as an oral history, to the deciding game, known as Blue Monday– Montreal could not overcome Los Angeles.
Montreal contended for most of the remainder of the early 80s, even adding an agéd Pete Rose who, a day before his forty-third birthday, hit his 4,000th hit while wearing an Expos uniform. That turned out to be the highlight of the ’84 season, though, and after it was over, a lowlight for fans came when the team traded Carter within the division to the Mets.
The second peak, of course, was the famous 1994 team, World Series favorites but for a strike that ended the season completely, resulting in the cancellation of the postseason entirely. Twenty years later, this strike continues to be seen as a criminal event largely because of the opportunity it denied Montreal. The Expos were 74-40 when the season ended after 114 games, and like their predecessors a decade earlier, this team was stacked. The starting lineup included Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, and Larry Walker, and the pitching staff featured reliever Mel Rojas and a young starter named Pedro Martinez. Montreal’s leadership in the early 90s was solid too. Felipe Alou finally received the manager position he deserved, and Dan Duquette took over the GM position from Dave Dombrowski during that period. The cancellation of the season was understandably devastating for the Expos players and fans. Keri writes of himself:
I cried like a damn baby the day they cancelled the season. I even did something I never thought possible: I gave up on baseball. If this was how the game I loved was going to treat fans– especially Expos fans– then screw it, this wasn’t worth the heartache.
1995 began the period Keri dubs “Expos University.” With the team’s stingy new ownership consortium refusing to spend money on the club, Montreal essentially became a way station, a training ground for some of baseball’s finest talent, who were destined to depart just as soon as it was time for them to be paid. These years also roughly coincide with the rise of the Atlanta Braves, now playing in Montreal’s division.
During the remainder of the 1990s, Montreal essentially gave up on baseball. A second Canadian team, the Toronto Blue Jays, had good years, including a World Series championship, that decade, and they began to pull eyes, ears, and sponsors away from Montreal, where the business community’s lukewarm treatment of the baseball team rolled over into outright abandonment. Major League Baseball eventually took over the team, placing Omar Minaya in charge while the owners contemplated contraction. The team actually put up a fight on the field in an attempt to stave off contraction. In 2002, the Expos won eighty-three games with Frank Robinson as manager and the incomparable Vladimir Guerrero in right. In a desperate effort to win, Minaya sent a package of prospects that included Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore to Cleveland for Bartolo Colon. It didn’t really work, and Guerrero missed fifty games due to injuries, but contraction was avoided.
Guerrero deserves special mention, and Keri dedicates a full five-page remembrance of the legendary player in this section. There’s little I can do to summarize Guerrero’s accomplishments or abilities. If you’re unfamiliar with him, your research will be worthwhile and enjoyable.
Keri ultimately pins the Expos’ demise on the ownership consortium and the broader Montreal business community, which utterly failed to support the team in its times of need. If there’s one gap in this thorough work, it’s an explanation of why leaders in Quebec did not want to support baseball in Montreal. From my read of the book, it seems like support from those quarters was never especially strong. Keri notes that the Canadiens, Montreal’s NHL team, were struggling for support in that period too, as were broader provincial needs, such as hospitals and social services. Undertaking a regional socioeconomic analysis certainly would be beyond the scope of a fun baseball book.
And really, for how easy and fun it is to read, Up, Up, & Away— love that serial comma– is brimming with information, the lid of Keri’s conversational and accessible writing voice deftly keeping gory, boring details from boiling over raw onto the pages. Keri wrote for Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs before earning his current job at Grantland. His sabermetric bona fides are not in question. What I like about this book is that Keri shows us why a player was more valuable in a given season, or more likely to break out in a future season through his easygoing narrative style, rather than telling us by blandly citing strings of statistics. Keri’s text fluidly weaves from snapshots of key games to vignettes that illuminate the colorful characters occupying the Expos clubhouse and front office to his own memories of growing up as a young fan of a young, hometown team.
The sentences certainly shimmer a little brighter when the book moves into the period in which Keri himself was tracking the team and attending games as a fan. Today, Keri is known as the leading proponent of Raines’ hall of fame inclusion. (It’s a credit to his professional restraint that Raines’ name doesn’t make its first appearance until page eighty-eight.) Keri sets aside about two pages to directly and coherently make the case that Raines belongs in Cooperstown. It’s probably good that he’s written it out in this manner; when asked in person and on the spot to make his argument, his emotions can take over a little bit.
These integrated asides, along with nice drawings of the various key players by artist Aislin, all add to the charm of Up, Up, & Away, a good spring read for any baseball fan. Even though we all know the Titanic sinks, there’s plenty to enjoy in learning the details of its construction and the stories of its brightest (and dimmest) days.