'Up, Up, & Away' looks at Expos with clear eyes

Keri tackles inevitable move to Washington, but remembers franchise's joyful time

'Up, Up, & Away' looks at Expos with clear eyes

Jonah Keri grew up an Expos fan, attending as many games at Stade Olympique as he could. Which helps explain how he ended up writing a book about a team that played its last game a decade ago.

Fortunately, Keri is also an accomplished journalist and author, which definitely explains why "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" is such an enjoyable work.

Keri is no fanboy. But he admits to being one as a kid, and when he writes about those days with an endearing wonder at his youthful foolishness, it touches the inner child in all of us. The backbone of the story rests on dozens of interviews with former players, front-office members and media types that lend now-it-can-be-told perspective and help recreate the joyous atmosphere of a franchise that was unique in so many ways.

There are also several boxes, written asides, that address sidebar issues such as the real meaning behind the team logo, the antics of Pascual Perez, baseball lingo as it translated to French and the legendary Harrisburg Senators Triple-A farm team that add yet another dimension to the story.

All help make this a fun read. The real strength of the book, though, is the clear-eyed look it takes at all the factors that combined to finally make the 2005 relocation to Washington inevitable. While many assume there was a single explanation, Keri makes it clear that there were numerous intractable obstacles that were ultimately the Expos' undoing.

Perhaps the most oversimplified recollection involves the sell-off of the team's top players following the 1994 strike that canceled the remainder of the season. At the time, the Expos were a force. But before play resumed the following year, team president Claude Brochu ordered general manager Kevin Malone to trade four of the team's best and most popular players: Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland and Ken Hill.

Predictably, the Expos finished last. Attendance plunged. And soon the notion became widely accepted that if only Brochu had kept the roster together, it would have changed the entire course of the franchise's history. In this alternate reality, Les Expos come back to win the World Series in 1995, and the franchise not only survives, but prospers as a result.

There are several problems with that narrative beyond the obvious, which is that there is no guarantee that the team could have picked up where it had left off, even if all the same players had returned. And there were other deep-rooted problems as well.

While he doesn't completely absolve Brochu, Keri points out that the seeds for this course had been planted years before. In 1989, the Expos went for it by trading for Mark Langston. Not only did they not win, they gave up a young Randy Johnson in the deal. That left a lasting impression on the executive. The following year, when trying to recruit investors after Charles Bronfman decided to sell, Canada Bell agreed with the proviso that they would join the group but wouldn't put up one penny more. Others signed up with similar caveats.

In other words, an already risk-averse Brochu wasn't inclined to ask ownership to gamble on the possibility of future revenue that might not materialize.

All that played out in a corporate community that had been weakened when many businesses moved out of Montreal in the mid-1970s when it appeared that a province-wide referendum to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada might actually win.

A decade later, the Blue Jays moved to block the Expos from televising their games into the lucrative Southern Ontario market. Nothing personal. Just business. But it had a crippling impact on Montreal's revenue. So did the fact that the exchange rate heavily favored the U.S. dollar (which the team paid the players in) and Canadian currency (which accounted for much of the money they took in).

Those were all factors in preventing the team from getting a new downtown stadium, and eventually, the Expos were no more.

Keri pointedly dismisses the canard that the fans were somehow to blame or that Montreal was not a baseball city. He writes about the long history of the game in Quebec and notes that there were years in the early 1980s when the Expos outdrew the Yankees; that for awhile, they were even more popular in Montreal than the beloved NHL Canadiens.

Keri also offers an unblinking assessment of where the front office, including Brochu, came up short. But this is ultimately an upbeat book about a team that -- literally -- left almost nothing behind when it moved. Nothing, that is, but memories of players like Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Martinez and Rusty Staub. Memories of a team that fought an uphill fight its entire existence but for awhile defied the odds. Memories that, in the end, are likely to leave the reader smiling.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.