Franchises at Birth:  The Expos and the Padres (Part Three:  1975-1980)

Through their first half-dozen seasons, the Montreal Expos had slowly, incrementally pulled themselves up to a level of middle-of-the-pack respectability, while the San Diego Padres hadn’t yet gotten a foot on the bottom of the basement stairs.

The Expos: Years Seven and Eight

One might have seen 1974 as another season consistent with the Expos’ pattern of gradual, steady improvement. They had now finished sixth, sixth, fifth, fifth, fourth and fourth, with winning percentages of .321, .451, .441, .449, .488, and .491. However, this slow creep toward success was evidently trying the patience of Montreal fans: the rank of Expos’ attendance within the 12-team National League had been seventh, sixth, eighth, ninth, ninth, and ninth. Their attendance in 1974, at barely over a million, had been the lowest in their six-year history, and for the first time trailed that of the lowly Padres. The annual article in The Sporting News Baseball Guide summarizing the 1974 Montreal season was headlined, “Expos Disappoint Their Fans.”

General manager Jim Fanning evidently concluded it was time to shake things up. In December of 1974 he made four trades:

Whatever one’s assessment of this value exchange (and it can certainly be questioned), the strategic intent of the parlay is what’s most puzzling. The Expos gutted their outfield, expending three of their best hitters, as well as two of their key pitchers, in exchange for two veteran starters and several prospects of uncertain ability. It wasn’t clear whether the purpose was to bring in the pair of old-school pitchers for the purpose of “winning now,” or whether it was to tear the team apart and initiate a rebuilding process with young talent.

Whatever the plan was, the result was a 1975 Expos team that featured four rookie regulars, and overall a starting eight with an average age of 23.75 years, paired with a staff that included five pitchers aged 30 and over. And although a couple of the rookies were quite impressive (right fielder-catcher Gary Carter and third baseman Larry Parrish, both just 21), overall the Expos’ offense struggled, producing a team OPS+ of just 86. Neither were the pitching and defense quite as proficient as they had been in 1974 (McNally was a particular disappointment), as the ball club’s run prevention dropped from seventh in the league to eighth. Thus the Expos meaningfully declined for their first time, dropping to 75-87, tied for fifth place in the NL East. Montreal fans were clearly not amused: attendance fell by more than 100,000. Three days after the final game of the season, Gene Mauch, their manager since day one, was fired.

But dreary as all that was, 1976 made ’75 look like a huge success. Starting the season with almost exactly the same roster, the Expos in 1976 utterly collapsed, crashing to 55-107, dead last. They scored the fewest runs in the league, and allowed the most. Thirty-eight-year-old rookie manager Karl Kuehl, Mauch’s replacement, failed to last out the season. Fan support in quirky little Parc Jarry, for so many years a feature of particular pride for the franchise, nosedived: Montreal attendance in ’76 was 23rd among the 24 major league teams. The National League’s successful expansion team had fallen completely apart.

The Padres: Years Seven and Eight

Having never gotten out of last place, indeed never having been close to getting out of last place, and moreover in their sixth season fielding the stinkiest team since their first, one thing could be said with certainty about the Padres entering 1975: there was no where to go but up.

And lo and behold, in 1975 and ’76 the Padres at last found a small degree of buoyancy. They weren’t a good team, but they were, for the first time, not a patsy: the ’75 team finished fourth in the NL West, with a record of 71-91, and in ’76 they came in fifth, at 73-89.

The best players on those San Diego teams were two young stars, signed and developed by the Padres:

  • Randy Jones, a soft-tossing southpaw with exquisite control, was brilliant in both seasons, winning 20 and 22 games, leading the league in ERA in ’75 and capturing the Cy Young Award in ’76.
  • Dave Winfield, a 6’6” three-sport megajock from the University of Minnesota, was drafted by the Padres in the first round in June of 1973 and brought directly to the major league roster. By 1975, he’d settled in as the full-time right fielder, still developing, but already displaying graceful, exceptional ability in every phase of the game.

Though they weren’t quite as good as Jones and Winfield, outstanding young players (such as Clay Kirby and Nate Colbert) had performed for earlier Padres teams, yet those earlier teams had remained chained to the basement floor. Thus the difference between these San Diego rosters and their predecessors wasn’t so much the presence of Jones and Winfield as it was the presence of a reasonably competent supporting cast. The ’75-‘76 Padres’ teams still had weaknesses, but they weren’t riddled with the bottomless holes of yore. General manager Peter Bavasi remained in charge under the Ray Kroc ownership, but his approach was more assertive than before, and through a steady stream of trades, he shored up the roster with veterans who handled regular jobs with competent performance (joining first baseman Willie McCovey were second baseman Tito Fuentes, third baseman Doug Rader, and center fielder Willie Davis), as well as journeymen who capably served as role players.

All in all the Padres in this period resembled the Expos of a few years earlier: not good yet, but not a doormat either; a patchwork quilt of developing youngsters and make-do veterans that gave opponents a battle. San Diego fans, who could be considered starved for mediocrity, handsomely supported this ball club, setting franchise attendance records in both years, placing fourth in the league with a total of nearly 1.5 million in 1976.

The Expos: Years Nine and Ten

Dusting himself off amid the smoking wreckage of the disastrous 1976 season, team president John McHale demoted Fanning to VP of Player Development, and hired former Giants’ manager Charlie Fox (who had replaced Kuehl as interim field manager in September of ’76) as his new general manager. Fox immediately took bold action. In that offseason, the Expos:

  • Waded into the first-ever free agent market, and signed 3-time All-Star second baseman Dave Cash.
  • Traded two of their best pitchers, Woodie Fryman and reliever Dale Murray) to the Reds for reliever Will McEnaney and veteran star first baseman Tony Perez.
  • Signed high-profile, hard-nosed Dick Williams as manager.

It was highly questionable whether the trade for Perez, and his supplanting the platoon of Mike Jorgensen and Andre Thornton at first base, represented a talent upgrade for the Expos. But both Perez and Cash brought a big-name stature to the Expos, and sent an unmistakable message to their players, fans, and opponents that the organization was in no mood to be patient, and was not interested in undertaking a long-term rebuilding project.

The hiring of Williams echoed this: a pennant-winner in Boston and Oakland, Williams was famously (or perhaps infamously) impatient, perhaps even intolerant, while highly intelligent and ferociously competitive. Whatever else they would be following their 1976 debacle, the Expos weren’t going to be laid-back. This was a team expecting immediate and significant improvement.

They achieved immediate and significant improvement. In 1977, the Expos won 75 games (20 more than in ’76), and escaped the cellar, finishing in fifth, 26 games out of first place. In ’78, they improved by just one win, to 76-86, but moved up to fourth place, only 14 games out of first, and their Pythagorean record was 84-78. They were unmistakably a team on the rise.

Williams’ imprint was stark. He was a bold and firm decision-maker, and among his decisions was to fully commit to a starting lineup, a varsity team. Right or wrong, suddenly in 1977 the Expos presented a solidly regular eight to a degree rarely seen in history. Three of the names in this carved-in-stone lineup were those of exceptionally talented young players, all with superstar potential:

  • Gary Carter, who had previously rotated between right field and catcher, was installed by Williams as the full-time catcher, and blossomed as an offensive and defensive standout.
  • Ellis Valentine, big, strong, and with an astounding arm, had emerged as a regular at the age of 21 over the second half of ’76, mostly in center field. Affixed in right field by Williams, he was one of the most robustly impressive young players in baseball in ’77 and ’78.
  • Andre Dawson, given the center field job at the age of 22 in 1977, was raw and unrefined, but displayed amazing power, speed, and defensive tools.

The Montreal pitching staffs were more of a work-in-progress, but they were strongly anchored by the smooth, dependable Steve Rogers, emerging in his late 20s as one of the better starters in the major leagues.

As though to symbolize their new beginning, the Expos bade adieu to Parc Jarry, and starting in ’77 occupied the huge, ultramodern (though severely flawed) Stade Olympique. The fanbase that had deteriorated over the previous few years returned: the Expos were back in the middle of the NL pack in attendance, drawing more in both 1977 and ’78 than they ever had in Parc Jarry.

The Padres: Years Nine and Ten

Free agency at long last arrived in major league baseball for the 1976-77 off-season, and few teams were more eager to leap into the new reality than Kroc’s money-is-no-object Padres. Peter Bavasi was out as general manager, replaced by Bob Fontaine, and he lavished multi-year contracts on two of that historic market’s biggest prizes: ace reliever Rollie Fingers, and power-hitting catcher Gene Tenace, both late of the fallen champion Oakland A’s. With these stars on board, as well as slugging center fielder George Hendrick, fleeced from the ever-gullible Cleveland Indians in a trade, the Padres went into 1977 with high hopes.

They were met with major disappointment. Fingers, Tenace, and Hendrick all performed very well, but Jones hurt his arm and had a bad year, and the pitching staff in general was a shambles. This in combination with a weak infield doomed the Padres to a setback of a season: 69-93, in fifth place again.

But Kroc and Fontaine were undeterred, and again strode into the off-season with free-spending confidence. Home run-hitting outfielder Oscar Gamble was signed as a big-contract free agent, and veteran ace starter Gaylord Perry was acquired from Texas in exchange for a reliever and $125,000 cash.

And again, everything didn’t go as hoped. Gamble, playing his home games in spacious San Diego Stadium, hit well but didn’t deliver anything close to his (probably unrealistically) expected home run production. Hendrick got off to a slow start and was unwisely traded in May for a journeyman pitcher.

But other things went splendidly. Jones was healthy, and although not quite back to his Cy Young form of 1976, was a dependable workhorse starter. Winfield, at 26, was emerging as a superstar. A 23-year-old rookie shortstop named Ozzie Smith displayed a light (but not feeble) bat, but great speed, and astounding defensive aptitude. Perry, at 39, was in his best form in several years, going 21-6 and being named the National League’s Cy Young Award winner. Along with continued strong contributions from Fingers and Tenace, the 1978 Padres under rookie manager Roger Craig were, at last, a genuinely competitive team: they finished at 84-78 (their first winning season), in fourth place, just 11 games out of first.

Attendance boomed to 1.67 million, a new franchise record, and over 200,000 more than the Expos had ever drawn. The ne’er-do-well Padres appeared to have finally gotten it together.

The Expos: Years Eleven and Twelve

In 1977 and ’78, the Expos had been an impressive young team, but not yet a good team; they were still losing more often than they won. In 1979, big-time success suddenly arrived. This wasn’t just a good team: this was an outstanding team, a top contender. They started out strong, and stayed strong all season; they were in first place for most of the first half, and then engaged in a furious battle with the Pittsburgh Pirates all the way down the stretch, and weren’t finally vanquished until the season’s final week. They finished at 95-65, in second place (with the third-best winning percentage in the majors), just two games behind the Pirates.

The ’79 Expos were a well-balanced ball club, sound in every phase of the game. Their pitching staff, though still something of a hodge-podge beyond Rogers, performed exceptionally well, leading the league in ERA and ERA+. The starting eight lineup, rigidly stable in ’77 and ’78, featured one change in ’79: Williams, in a move that confounded the press (and reportedly also aggravated McHale, who had assumed general manager duties), benched high-salaried incumbent second baseman Dave Cash in favor of obscure 25-year-old Rodney Scott, who had tremendous speed and range but few other discernible skills. But in the wake of the team’s huge leap forward in the standings, Williams’ critics were silenced.

For 1980, McHale, reluctantly or not, dealt away Cash. He also let the veteran first baseman Perez go to free agency, and traded for speed merchant outfielder Ron LeFlore to replace him, shifting left fielder Warren Cromartie to first base. Beyond that the roster was essentially unchanged, and once again the Expos were an excellent ball club. They were embroiled in a dogfight for the division lead all season long, and were in first place by 2.5 games as late as September 16, and by a half a game as late as October 1. But on October 3rd and 4, they lost two excruciatingly close decisions to the Phillies, and had to settle for second place again, this time by a margin of a single game.

Back-to-back seasons of close championship misses were frustrating, but there was no question that the Expos were now a premier franchise. They were hugely popular in Montreal, drawing well over 2 million in both 1979 and 1980. In Carter, Dawson, and Rogers, they had three elite stars, all home-grown talents, who were surrounded by a very capable supporting cast. At the age of twelve, the Expos were all grown up.

The Padres: Years Eleven and Twelve

Baseball franchises, toiling in the quest for improvement, must sometimes be tempted to curse the wicked force of gravity, much in the manner this writer was prone to do in his younger days of trekking high-altitude mountain peaks: each arduous step upward has a way of being quickly followed by a two-step slide downward. So it must have been for the Padres in 1979.

Their first winning season (indeed, their first season of being fewer than 16 games below .500) was not followed up by another. Instead, in 1979 the Padres fell apart, back to their familiar dingy surroundings: 68-93, fifth place. 1.46 million San Diego fans groaned in frustration. Perhaps most frustrating was that there wasn’t any one big thing that caused their 15.5 game decline; rather it was a whole bunch of little things, among them:

  • In October of 1978, Gamble, the big-bucks free agent outfielder, was traded (along with $300,000 and a utility player) to Texas for high-average-hitting first baseman Mike Hargrove (and two utility players). Hargrove proceeded to hit poorly, and in June 1979 was rashly traded for a journeyman (Paul Dade) who delivered journeyman-level play.
  • Young outfielder Jerry Turner had hit well in a utility role in 1976 thru ’78, and was promoted to a starting job (replacing Gamble), but proceeded to struggle.
  • Twenty-five-year-old speedster Gene Richards, taking on regular center field duties, proved to be weak defensively, and his offense regressed as well.
  • Fingers missed several weeks with injuries, and had the worst year of his career.
  • Sophomore shortstop Ozzie Smith’s hitting severely regressed.
  • Gaylord Perry had a solid year, but jumped the team in September in a dispute with management.

At season’s end, manager Roger Craig was fired, and (startlingly) replaced by radio broadcaster Jerry Coleman, who had no managerial experience at any level. Perry was traded back to the Texas Rangers, in exchange for first baseman Willie Montanez. Veteran second baseman Dave Cash was acquired from the Expos.

Coleman had the Padres aggressively running in 1980: they stole 239 bases (at a 76% success rate), most in the majors, a franchise record to this day. But the lineup lacked power, the pitching staff was mediocre, and overall the Padres’ results were weak: 73-89, last place in the division. Attendance dropped to 1.1 million, their lowest since 1974. In October, Coleman was fired (and returned to the broadcasting booth, where he has amiably mangled the English language ever since), and Dave Winfield, their marquee player, left the organization for free agency. At the age of twelve, the Padres had made little progress, and were heading back to the drawing board for yet another rebuilding project.

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