Thursday, 19 March 2015

New 1994 Expos documentary is a spectacular piece of work

Has it really been 21 years since an outstanding Montreal Expos baseball team were robbed of what could have been their first and only World Series triumph? Yes, in 1994 they were indeed the best team in major league baseball and headed towards greatness. Boasting the best record through mid-August, everything came to a halt when the players went on strike and the season was ultimately wiped out.

The Expos left town for good in 2004, moving to Washington. In recent years a movement was established by former Expo Warren Cromartie and broadcaster Matthew Ross to build momentum and bring the team back via their MontrealBaseball Project and ExposNation groups respectively.

Four years ago I was part of the organizing committee of the Cummings Jewish Centrefor Seniors Foundation annual Sports Celebrity Breakfast which honoured the ’94 Expos. We had many of the greats on hand – Pedro Martinez, Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland, Felipe Alou, Cliff Floyd and Rondell White to name a few.  Last year Cromartie brought them all back, in much bigger numbers, for a tribute dinner and a very memorable appearance at Olympic Stadium prior to a sold out exhibition game between the Toronto Blue Jays and The New York Mets.

Enter Sean Menard, a former producer for TSN who had decided the time was right for him to go out on his own. Only 29 at the time, he had grown up as a Blue Jays fan. He felt that the 1994 Expos’ brush with greatness was a story that needed to be told. The end result is a stunning 23 minute documentary  called The Perfect Storm – The  Story of the 1994 Montreal Expos.Very naively I jumped into this project,” Menard explains. “I had to finance it myself and sell it to networks. I had no idea how hard it would be to get it approved by Major League Baseball for the licensing costs.”
Sean Menard

Menard eventually turned to Kickstarter, the world’s largest online funding program,  and 312 people stepped forward with cold hard cash to enable him to complete the project. The film premiered at a special screening recently at TSN 690, organized by  Matthew Ross of  ExposNation. It will make its  Canadian television debut prior to the Blue Jays –Cincinnati  Reds  two-game pre-season series April 3 and 4 at the Big Owe. Air times are as follows: March 30 (1 p.m. on TSN 5 and 11 p.m. on TSN4); March 31 (4:30 p.m. on TSN3 and 8:30 p.m. on TSN1) and  April 2 (11:30 p.m. on TSN4)

I had the good fortune of getting an advance preview of the film, courtesy of Menard and Chomedey native Rich Lenkov. The latter is now a successful Chicago attorney who is presently producing a much anticipated documentary on the 1985 NFL Bears and recently made a connection with Menard. To say I was glued to the screen is an understatement. This is a work of art that had me very emotional as the closing credits appeared. I was a working member  of the media back then, covering many of the Expos game for an all-sports network in Toronto called The Fan. I even took a brief holiday to South Florida and covered an Expos game versus the Marlins in Miami on the eve of the strike call. I got to know many of the players. Yet watching Menard’s film brought forward a wide array of anecdotes I was never aware of.
Felipe Alou
Menard had reached out to best-selling author Jonah Keri, a Montreal native noted for his exceptional;  book Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated But Unforgettable Montreal Expos. Keri’s first piece of advice was to ensure that Menard made his way to Montreal for the Blue Jays 2014 exhibition series where many of the ’94 Expos would be in town. He did so and the end result is a series of fabulous interviews with former skipper Felipe  Alou, outfielders  Moises Alou, Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom,  first baseman Cliff Floyd, catcher Darrin Fletcher, pitchers John Wetteland and Ken Hill, broadcaster  Dave Van Horne, talk show host Mitch Melnick,  former beat writer Jeff Blair and former president Claude Brochu.  He went and met with former GM  Dan Duquette in Baltimore and  also travelled for a one-on-one with Pedro Martinez.

“I could not do this film without Pedro,” Menard says. “His agent told me I had 10 minutes; he gave me 45.”
Pedro Martinez
The documentary includes some terrific archived footage, dramatic background music and wonderful clips of the ’94 players on the bus towards Olympic Stadium and their emotional appearances on the field.

“This is truly one of the greatest teams in major league history and they were only going to get better,” Melnick said. “That is the sad part of this. We didn’t know how great they would have been.”

Moises Alou was part of the 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins. He maintains the ’94 Expos were better. “We were like a family,” he says. “We saw in my dad a father figure.”
Moises Alou

Martinez, who went on to win a Cy Young Award with the Boston Red Sox,  left no doubt that it was Felipe Alou’s guidance that placed him on the road to stardom.

Duquette recalled being panned by the media for trading fan favorite Delino Deshields  to the LA Dodgers for Martinez. He had the last laugh. “I knew he could be  a good starting pitcher,” commented Felipe.  “LA did not believe that.”

Walker called himself, Alou and Grissom the best outfield in baseball. “It is too bad we did not play together for a decade,” he  said.

Brochu said he still cannot believe the ’94 season was cancelled. At the time he felt the strike would be short lived and the season would continue. “It never crossed my mind that we would not play the season out and that the post season would be cancelled,” he said. “I never once thought that was a possibility.”

Wetteland perhaps put it best this way:  “There is a vibe when we get together. It is almost as if we were champions.”

Menard's next task is to get the film broadcast on American television channels “to remind the rest of the baseball world just how good this ’94 team was, how big of a fan base there still is in Montreal and how great it would be to get a Major League Team back in the city.”
Menard’s current project is a documentary on anticipated number one NHL draft pick Connor McDavid.

Cromartie and company will be back in town for their annual  gala on Wednesday, April 1 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel featuring the likes of Rusty Staub, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson and Andres Galarraga as special guests. All of the details are here.

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