October 30, 2020

I Now Root For Jim Tracy

May 26, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Since the Expos left Montreal after the 2004 season, many friends have asked me whether I miss them or if I root for another team. To the first question, I don’t miss the Expos of their latter days, as everybody knew they were on life support and on their way out. The disconnect with the fans went back way before the 2004 season and indifference had taken hold among what was the baseball fan base in Montreal. What I miss most, though, is the sports diversity that Montrealers and Quebecers were able to witness in the early 1980s. Quebec has become basically not a one-sports place (once the Canadiens are out of the play-offs, TV ratings takes a beating!) but a one-team province.

As for another team, like a lot of friends, I root for whomever is taking on the Yankees! More seriously, I enjoy well-run organizations. I enjoyed watching the Oakland A’s defy all odds from 2000 to 2003, as I do now with the Twins, the Cards and the Red Sox. In case you don’t know, the Red Sox and the Dodgers were next to the Expos in terms of popularity. The Dodgers for obvious reasons, as Montreal was their main farm team for many years in the International League up until the early 1960s. As for the Red Sox, one could watch them on TV in the 1970s as often as the Expos. I grew up in a little town of 2000 people, about 25 miles south of Montreal and 15 minutes from the border. At home, we could easily catch ABC, NBC and CBS from either Plattsburgh, NY or Burlington, VT.

My fondest memories of the Expos are those from 1977 to 1981. My passion for that team led me to write a book about this spectacular team, how they went through some growing pains in 1977 and 1978 before getting to be a force in the NL East for three years. Up until 1984, specialized publications would be in awe of all the talent on the team. For me, it really began in 1977 when I was in my second year of high school. We had a written exercise to do in grammar and I chose to write about the Expos’ good start (after a disastrous 1976 season when they lost over 100 games and being last in almost every important single category in hitting, pitching and defence).

I began listening more regularly to the radio broadcast, with Jacques Doucet and Claude Raymond. Both were very professional and passionate, with a great deal of respect for the game, and if Claude could have a short fuse over people who pretended, he had a very keen sense of humour that one could sense through his rendition of the game. When 1979 came, at last, people had a baseball team to cheer for. Not only were they good, but they were also spectacular, cocky, young, a group of players really suited for Montrealers and Quebecers. To this day, the fans of that period would talk about Carter, Dawson, Valentine, Cromartie, Rogers, Parrish, Gullickson, Wallach, Raines, and all the characters that defined that period.

Many of the players who were part of the Expos during that period went on to have careers in baseball. Terry Francona won a couple of World Series. His buddy Brad Mills is now leading the Houston Astros. Jerry Manuel is with the Mets and the list goes on and on. Ironically, the one guy I’m rooting for is someone who never played with the Expos but rather coached with that team: Jim Tracy.

I don’t remember exactly when I saw his name for the first time, but it must have been in the late 1970s. In 1979, I bought my first Sporting News Baseball Guide and I just went through every single league more than once. I have a good memory (my theatre colleagues can attest to that!), so I knew pretty much the players in both the minors and the majors (I still can’t get over the guy named Ronald MacDonald in the Mets’ system or Keefe Cato for that matter. His name showed as Keefet, Cato in the guide. Translated in French literally, that would mean: “Four O’Keefe!,” O’Keefe being then a popular brand of beer!!

Back now to Jim Tracy! In the 1980 Guide, he was shown as the batting champion of the Texas League. During that season, the Cubs called him up a couple of times and he played his first game against the Expos on May 28th, an 0-for-2 performance. Not that I remember that but his place in my memory would come in September when he played regularly. On September 10th, he was the last man Bill Gullickson faced when the big righthander broke the then rookie record with 18 strikeouts. Jim Tracy was his victim three times, including, of course, the last out, which is one that is showed almost every single September 10th in the “This date in history” portion of sports news in Montreal.

Tracy, of course, was not the only one who suffered that night but he was the last and his final swing is still the one that is on my mind when I think of that game. Nineteen days later, the Cubs were playing the Phillies in the last game of a four-game series. The Phillies were battling the Expos for the top spot in the NL East. The Expos were idle and held a half-game lead over Philadelphia and the last three games would oppose these two teams at the Big O, where the Expos had won over two out of three games in 1979 and 1980. It was an important game and one that I could listen to because we could catch the flaship station in the evening in Montreal.

Not that the quality was crystal clear but I could hear what was happening, even with my then limited English. What helped me was that the vocabulary is much the same in both languages: umpires call balls and strikes… well, “balls” and “strikes” in Quebec! So I knew that leading to the seventh inning it was tied at 2. Jim Tracy then hit a triple to lead off! He was my hero for the time being, the one who would put an end to the Phillies march to the title! Unfortunately, Bob Walk escaped that inning unhurt, the Phillies won the game and eventually the World Series!

Some 15 years later, I had become a sports broadcaster in Montreal and Jim Tracy was in a Montreal uniform, as a coach under Felipe Alou. I wanted to do something with Jim Tracy about that period and how he lived that pressure-packed series against the Phillies in September 1980. I asked him if he would be available to discuss it and he offered to sit with me after he finished some of his duties. I asked him of that particular time, but we also talked about his path to coaching in the majors. About his playing career, he is very proud of his accomplishments: “I did the best of my capacities.”

He played in Japan for a couple of years before embracing a coaching career in the minors. In fact, one can live his 1987 season with the Peoria Chiefs in the Midwest League in the book “The boys who would be Cubs,” a very good book, according to Jim Tracy. After the interview, he asked me if he could see the interview and unfortunately, I never was able to see it published, even though I did talk about my encounter on air.

In an era where professional athletes show less and less interest in talking to the media, the time and attention that Jim Tracy brought in that interview made me a fan, notwithstanding his qualifications as a very good baseball man!!

Alain Usereau has been a member of SABR since 1991. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics (University of Sherbrooke, 1986) and a Certificate’s degree in Journalism (Laval University, Quebec City, 1987). He’s been a broadcaster since 1989, mainly in sports. He is the author of a book about the heydays of the Montreal Expos, “L’époque glorieuse des Expos” (The golden years of the Expos), which depicts how they became not only a force in the late 1970s and early 1980s but became also the toast of a whole country. Alain is passionate about baseball and rock music.

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