YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Lessons Rodgers Learned : He Nearly Brought Title to Montreal

November 04, 1987|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

They were undermanned, under financed and under no illusions about their chances in the National League East.

The uphill road that the surprising Montreal Expos traveled in ultimately finishing third, only four games behind the victorious St. Louis Cardinals, was not unfamiliar to Manager Buck Rodgers.

Fired as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982, out of baseball in 1983, willing to manage at the Triple-A level in 1984 and given a second major league opportunity by the Expos in 1985, the upbeat Rodgers led the downtrodden Expos to a 91-71 record in '87.

It was a Canadian caper worthy of the Mounties and carried its own rewards:

--Already signed through 1989 via a self-perpetuating contract, Rodgers will soon sign a multi-year arrangement at a salary that "will allow me to eat in the same restaurants as my players."

--Deemed to have operated with more mirrors than Whitey Herzog and Roger Craig, managers of the division-winning Cardinals and San Francisco Giants, Rodgers was recently selected NL Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers Assn. of America.

Relaxing on the patio of the Yorba Linda home he has owned for 22 years, Rodgers reflected on the award and said:

"When you've been fired and get a second chance, this certifies for other people what I've always thought of myself, which is that I can manage in the major leagues. Now it's official. This is saying, 'you're good at your job.' It's a satisfying feeling."

Satisfaction? Rodgers and others had anticipated a season of frustration.

"If someone had said we would win 91 games, I'd have said they were a liar," Rodgers said. "If everything that could possibly happen happened for the good, I thought maybe we could finish .500 or a few games over. Then in our third game, in the midst of losing our first five, (shortstop) Hubie Brooks broke his wrist and I thought that to finish .500 would now take a miracle."

Brooks, who didn't return until May 25 and didn't hit his first home run until June 1, was one piece in this fractured jigsaw.

Right fielder Andre Dawson left via free agency. Relief ace Jeff Reardon was traded for economic reasons. Free-agent left fielder Tim Raines didn't return until May 1. The Expos went to spring training without that big three and with only Floyd Youmans, who reported 20 pounds overweight, and Neal Heaton, who had never produced a winning season in the majors, assured of berths in the pitching rotation.

Rodgers auditioned a cast of thousands.

"We looked at anybody who could throw the ball 60 feet 6 inches and who had a history of having won at least one game in the major leagues," Rodgers said.

The veterans grumbled. They talked about the missing Raines, Dawson and Reardon and said management was more interested in saving money than winning games.

Rodgers responded with a positive attitude and a persuasive plea.

"If I contributed anything," he said, "it was to keep the guys from giving up on themselves and the team.

"Any contribution I made was mental and motivational. I told the coaches in spring training that we had to be patient and keep an upbeat attitude.

"I probably used up my ration of talks before the season started. I got guys like Hubie and (Tim) Wallach and (Vance) Law together and said, 'look, before you bad-mouth us too much, before you count us out, give it a chance to see what we look like in a month.' I told them there's a good chance Tim will be back, that Bryn Smith (recovering from elbow surgery) was ahead of schedule and that we would probably be re-signing (free agent) Dennis Martinez.

"With very few exceptions, everyone gave me 100%. There was so much competition that just about everyone had to be more concerned about having a job than how the team would do. That created an intensity in itself."

The key to what followed, Rodgers said, is that the Expos survived the first 40 games, avoiding what could "easily have been" a Padre-like start.

They did it, for the most part, without Raines, Smith, Martinez, Brooks, and catcher Mike Fitzgerald, who opened the season in the minors on injury rehabilitation.

Their staggered returns, Rodgers said, provided elixirs.

The manager, in turn, nursed 50 saves and a 29-14 record from his bullpen by committee.

He got only nine wins from Youmans, who was on the disabled list three times and is now in drug rehabilitation, but his continued support helped accelerate the comebacks of Martinez and Pascual Perez, two former victims of chemical dependency who were a combined 18-4 in the second half.

The Expos, in fact, may have lost a pennant by adhering to Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's policy regarding players with multiple drug offenses.

Ueberroth requests that such players be kept in the minors for 60 to 90 days before returning to the majors. Perez was the pitcher of the month in the American Assn. for both June and July, but was not recalled until late August, after which he went 7-0. The Texas Rangers, meanwhile, ignored Ueberroth's policy in recalling Steve Howe and were fined $250,000.

Los Angeles Times Articles