Baseball is a game dominated by numbers: match-ups between pitchers and batters, forgettable and memorable streaks, and win-loss records, especially during the dog days of August. But statistics are only one facet of the national pastime; they help frame and shape the game, but they don’t define it.
Though we’re caught between old-school stats and the sabermetric revolution - where there seems to be a number to explain everything, however convoluted the reasoning behind the figure - nothing replaces a well-told story. Back in the day before every pregame media availability with a manager was recorded and televised, reporters crammed into the skipper’s office for a session that was part question-and-answer and part storytelling. I’ve often related to young writers that I soaked up more about the game from these unscripted bull sessions than during any other part of my diamond education. Listen and learn, right?
Which brings me to a book that every Nationals fan should read: Jonah Keri’s “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.” Pardon me while I go grab a bottle of water from the fridge and check Twitter before continuing; I may have to shave, too. Man, that’s one long title - but one enjoyable book, which I consumed poolside last week during my summer vacation in Ocean City, Md.
History is as important to the game as all those numbers, crooked and otherwise, and “Up, Up, & Away” is Montreal-born Keri’s homage to the team he rooted for as a kid. While the Expos eventually became the property of Major League Baseball, ending up in Washington, D.C., for the 2005 season and rechristened as the Nationals, they boasted an engrossing history, even before entering the majors as part of expansion for the 1969 season. Let’s just say the political machinations north of the border have nothing on the backroom dealings in and around the D.C. Beltway.
While Keri is an admitted stats geek, he chose to go beneath and beyond the numbers in chronicling the history of Les Expos, both on the field and off. He relies on a more episodic approach - which works in an historical context - and weaves the remembrances and tales of former players, front office workers and fans. It’s a fun read, engrossing and informative, and shows both a fan’s heartfelt passion and a reporter’s meticulous approach to gathering and disseminating information.
Why should you care? The Nationals were once the Expos, and one current player - shortstop Ian Desmond - has roots in Montreal, having been chosen by the Expos in the 2004 draft. Livan Hernandez pitched for both incarnations, and has maintained a connection to the Nats since retiring (I’m still not convinced he won’t attempt a comeback). Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was the last manager of the Expos and the first manager of the Nationals. And there are plenty of interesting nuggets in Keri’s tome pertaining to how the Expos came to leave Montreal following the 2004 season, arrive at RFK Stadium in the nation’s capital the next season and eventually take up residence on the shores of the Anacostia River.
But there are also intriguing facts that should be of interest to those in D.C., including these:
* Current MASN analyst F.P. Santangelo was a fan favorite in Montreal, spending the first four of his seven major league seasons north of the border. But getting to Olympic Stadium was no easy task, and Santangelo spent pretty much of three full seasons at Triple-A Ottawa. When, in the spring of 1995, a players’ strike threatened baseball and owners countered with the possibility of using replacement players, Santangelo was a farm player called to the Expos’ minor league camp for a spring training meeting. But when given the chance, he was the only one of the team’s minor leaguers to put his equipment bag over his shoulder and walk out of camp, determined not to be a scab. “When I got to the majors, I wanted it to be the happiest time of my life,” Santangelo told Keri. “Getting a hit off a scab truck driver wouldn’t do anything.” People in the organization took notice, and for the right reasons. Santangelo found an ally in Expos manager Felipe Alou and in August 1995, after almost seven seasons in the minors, he made his major league debut.
* Before they’d even played a game, the soon-to-be Expos were already entertaining the possibility of a franchise name that would become theirs more than a quarter-century after their formation. One of the monikers discussed as an option after the team had been awarded to Montreal? The Nationals. The Montreal Nationals. Yep, it could have happened.
If you’re interested in baseball history, particularly if you want to learn about the team that became the Nationals, you should invest some time in “Up, Up, & Away.” It should be required reading for Nats fans.