By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Tim Raines was raised in Florida, but grew to love Canada, and specifically Montreal.
Raines spent 12 of his 23 years in the major leagues as an outfielder for the Montreal Expos, earning seven All-Star game appearances, while being part of one of the best teams in baseball during that era, including Hall of Fame outfielder Andre Dawson and catcher Gary Carter.
In fact, Raines, who was in recently in Bluefield as part of his role as an outfield and base-running coordinator for the Toronto Blue Jays, feels like the 1981 version of the Expos could have been Canada’s first World Series champions, not the Blue Jays of 1992-93.
Montreal, which had compiled the best record in the National League in a strike-shortened season, led the Los Angeles Dodgers 2 games to 1, and needed just one more win to advance to the World Series.
It didn’t happen, but Raines still thinks the Expos were the better team.
“Even though we didn’t get there, that doesn’t mean we didn’t have the best team,” Raines said. “We had the bases loaded and two outs, get a base hit there and we go to the World Series and probably win it because I felt like we had a better team than the Dodgers that year and we actually proved it, but we just didn’t get that last win.”
Unfortunately, Montreal fell twice in a row, with Rick Monday homering in the top of the ninth in Game 5 to beat the Expos 2-1 and send the Dodgers to the World Series.
“I still think about that as if it was just yesterday,” Raines said. “We had a great team, we were a game away, all we had to do was win one out of two games at home and we wasn’t able to pull that off.
“I actually felt we had the best team in baseball that year, player for player, I don’t think there was another team that could play with us.”
Montreal has long played a role in professional baseball, with it best known for Jackie Robinson making his debut in 1946 with the Montreal Royals. One year later, Robinson broke the major league color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Admittedly, Raines knew little of the Montreal Expos — which was in existence from 1969 to 2004 — while growing up in Sanford, Fla., prior to being drafted in the fifth round by the Expos in 1977.
Raines had attended spring training games as a youth in Florida, but normally followed the Minnesota Twins in Orlando.
“I didn’t really know much about the Expos because even though they had spring training in Daytona Beach, we had the Twins in Orlando so when it came to baseball I was more leaning toward the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins in Orlando,” Raines said.
“I remember as a high school senior going to a spring training game, again I went to see the Twins because the Twins were playing the Expos.
“I didn’t really know that history and (Gary) Carter and (Ellis) Valentine and all those guys were there, not knowing a couple of years after that I was going to be playing with those guys. It is weird in a way, but it was kind of something that I didn’t really know about and the next thing I know I was a Montreal Expo.”
It wasn’t until he reached Montreal in 1979 and stuck as runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year in ‘81 that Raines first learned of Montreal’s connection with Robinson breaking the color barrier.
“I learned about it there, as a matter of fact when I was there they had a day for Jackie, his wife was there, and they had a big ceremony for them,” Raines said. “I think at that time that is when I kind of clued in. I really didn’t know that much about baseball history at the time because I was more of a big football fan than I was baseball.”
Robinson and Raines had connections. Robinson attended spring training with the Dodgers in Sanford in 1946 before going to Montreal, while Raines was born in the same Florida town.
“I was from Sanford and he played there, I did not know that until I really started playing professional baseball,” Raines said. “I learned a lot more about it once I really got into baseball, but he came through Sanford first before he went anywhere else.
“He went to Sanford, went to Jacksonville and that his how he ended up in Montreal because that was the only league that would let him play.”
After Montreal lost out on its lone shot at the World Series in 1981, the Expos had another chance in 1994. However, a strike canceled the remainder of the season, with Montreal boasting the best record in baseball at the time at 74-40.
Raines was then part of the American League Central-leading Chicago White Sox with a mark of 67-46.
Baseball had been popular in Canada for most of its time there, but the decision to cancel the biggest event in the sport eventually played a role in baseball leaving Montreal and moving to Washington in 2005.
“I don’t think that was the main reason, but I think it played a big role,” Raines said. “I was in Chicago at the time, but I think at that time, we probably had the (second) best record in the American League and the Expos had the best record in the National League.
“It was an opportunity, if it could have happened, to go back and if we had both got into the World Series. It would have been a happy moment for me, not only getting to the World Series, but getting an opportunity to go back to Montreal and play even though it would have been on opposite sides of the field.
“It would have been great for the fans there to see something like that.”
It never happened, and baseball was never the same in Canada. Eventually the team was moved to Washington and is now the Nationals.
That last game in Canada in ‘94 was tough to take for Raines. The Expos lost 9-1 to Florida at Olympic Stadium on Sept. 29, the final major league game played in Montreal.
“Oh, most definitely, that is where it all started for me, that is where I grew up as a player,” Raines said. “I was a 19-year-old kid when I was first called up to Montreal and they had adopted me as one of their big-name players is Montreal and I still go there now and they know who I am.”
Raines spent 12 years with the Expos in the major leagues, along four seasons in the minors and a brief time as a managerial role.
“I felt for it, I was there that last game, I was part of the organization,” said Raines, who was inducted earlier this year into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. “I was a manager in A-ball and was there the last week of that season and it was probably one of the worst days in baseball of my career, even though there was some bad days.
“To know that a place that I grew up and played and heard all the cheers and to know they loved the game there and to know they were no longer going to have a team was really saddening for me.”
No wonder Raines still ponders on 1981, and what may have been the best — and worst — of times for baseball in Montreal.
“I think about it, I remember the last out that was made and just getting on the bench and just pondering what could have happened and what did happen, we felt like we had a good team,” said Raines, whose teammates in ‘81 included Carter, Dawson, Steve Rogers, Warren Cromartie, Larry Parrish, Tim Wallach, Scott Sanderson, Bill Lee, Jeff Reardon and Woodie Fryman. “Losing our closer was a big part in maybe not getting where we wanted to get, but that is baseball.
“I just know that one team was probably one of the finest teams that was ever assembled.”
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