MONTREAL--They started coming Thursday night. French-speaking fanaties in crested hockey jackets waved Expos pennants up and down Rue Sherbrooke, having made the trip down from Trois Rivieres or Quebec City that afternoon. Distinguished-looking men in business suits stepped off the Air Canada non-stop from Toronto with Expos buttons on their lapels. Frustrated New Englanders arrived from Brattleboro and Bangor, wearing Red Sox jackets and Expos hats.
It is a rare treat when a pennant race is decided by head-to-head competition. Friday morning, the Philadelphia Phillies arrived in Montreal with precisely the same record as Les Expos for a three-game showdown to close the regular season.
By Friday evening, the city was filled. Seedy motels, some of which hadn't hosted a traveler since the Olympics, dusted off "No Vacancy" signs. Expos emblems jammed the streets, the bars, the restaurants; frenzied people acted out the fevered, pulsating madness only a pennant race can generate.
But Friday night was quiet. Fifty thousand fans filed out of Olympic Stadium, victims of a one-man wrecking crew named Mike Schmidt. The Philadelphia slugger had knocked home both runs of a 2-1 victory, one with a sacrifice fly and one with a homer. Frank Edwin "Tug" McGraw, an erratic, lefthanded screwballer who had singlehandedly willed the New York Mets to the National League pennant in 1973, came on to strike out five men in relief, and suddenly the Expos were one game en arriere and one game away from elimination.
Saturday dawned raw and cloudy, and by mid-morning a steady rain had begun to fall. Game time had been delayed from 1:35 to 2:15 p.m. to accomodate television, but by noon some 30,000 fans were milling in and around the stadium, braving the downpour. The starting pitchers, Steve Rogers of Montreal and Larry Christenson of Philadelphia, abandoned any attempts to warm up and kept dry in the dugout, watching the zamboni-like machines dart about the artificial turf sucking up water.
The rain continued. 2:15 passed, and then 3:15 and 4:15. The scoreboard amused the faithful with an Expos trivia quiz ("Non. c'est Mack Jones"). Rogers and Christenson sat.
Then, magically, the rain stopped. After a three-hour delay, the yellow tarpaulin was swept off the field and the game began. For television, faced with a disruption of its prime-time schedule, it was a nuisance. For Les Expos, the season.
The two sides traded stellar plays and ludicrous mistakes. The first two innings were scoreless as both teams wasted a handful of baserunners.
Montreal finally broke through with two in the third, and Philadelphia countered with one in the fifth. The Phillies went ahead on Greg Luzinski's two-out single in the seventh, but lost the opportunity to put the game away when two runners were caught off base on the very same play. And so it went.
You all know how the story ends, but what makes it worth retelling is the pure emotion of the moment. Schmidt, who deserves to be named the league's Most Valuable Player, homered in the tenth inning--eight hours after the original starting time--and McGraw came on again to record the save.
When he threw the last pitch past Expos third baseman Larry Parrish, McGraw leapt into the air and then fell to his knees and pounded the astroturf with both fists. He lifted his head, clambered to his feet, and headed for the dugout. Moments later, on the dugout steps, he threw up.
Meanwhile, the entire stadium fell silent. Quickly, the public address announcer mumbled his bilingual message, "Winner, McGraw; loser, Bahnsen," and then he, like everyone else, got the hell out of there.
On the way out, one fan--clad head-to-blue jeans in Expos regalia--spoke to himself as he shuffled down the ramp. "I spent over a thousand dollars to come here from Winnipeg," he said. "Now, I'm going home empty-handed." And with that, he bent over so the passing mob wouldn't see him cry.