Jonah Keri. 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. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2014
There are numerous connections I could cite to persuade you that reading a book review that addresses the Montreal Expos on a Colorado Rockies site is natural. Both the Expos and the Rockies were expansion teams. Both played their first game in franchise history against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. The Rockies first win would come in their third game and first at home—against the Montreal Expos. Both teams experienced playoffs for the first time in seasons shortened by a strike. Two of the ten greatest Rockies of all time, Andres Galarraga and Larry Walker, were signed as amateur free agents and developed by the Expos. But the real reason you’re reading about the Expos here, and the reason you should read this book, is because it engages with anyone interested in baseball and its business.
In Up, Up, and Away, Grantland author, Denver resident, and Tim Raines evangelist Jonah Keri offers a biography of the Montreal Expos. The book is not the story of the Expos told through the history of Montreal, nor is it a history of Montreal told through the lens of its baseball team. Instead, Keri highlights the relationship between the city and team enough to demonstrate their concomitant evolution. Fans of any team can relate to this. Whether organic or contrived, all baseball teams carry an identity that binds them to the people and place that they call home: the Montreal Expos were baseball’s utopian team. The Expos were conceived in a time when Montreal made claims as a global city, after it hosted the World Expo in 1967, and a few years before it welcomed the Olympics in 1976. It was also a local venture. In the face of separatist movements in French Canada, initial owner Charles Bronfman envisioned a professional baseball team that could work as an agent of integration between Quebec and English-speaking Canada. The Expos ended up vacating the city and Canada 35 years after its first season, leaving behind more indifference than disillusionment. This book traces the Expos from utopian ideal to unceremonious departure. Along the way, Keri emphasizes the particularities of the Expos, while at the same time he shows the universality of the team’s story, which was a benefactor of the business side of baseball before it was the victim of it.
Keri structures the book chronologically. The Prologue and Epilogue provide nice bookends that tell of two moments in Montreal history when the city did not have professional baseball: 1960-1969, and then again after 2004. When the Expos began playing in 1969, they filled the void left by an array of minor league and independent teams. Montreal lacks professional baseball again, but initiatives such as the Montreal Baseball Project, founded by former Expo Warren Comartie, aim to correct this. Beginning and ending the book with the absence of baseball serves to highlight the Expos run in Montreal. Each chapter covers anywhere from one to five years of Expos history. But the most compelling part of each chapter isn’t the process of getting from point A to point B, it’s the way Keri interweaves the stories of players, personnel, collective enthusiasm of fans, as well as the travails of Olympic Stadium and the challenges that one team faced in a particular moment in time. The bulk of the narrative is drawn from interviews that Keri conducted over the course of about three years. He complements these individual accounts nicely by using newspapers and his own memories.
The book’s greatest strength is the way it situates the team’s decline in developments dating back to the early 1980s. Jeffrey Loria, one-time Montreal Expos owner and current proprietor of the Miami Marlins, is an easy man to dislike, and not just for Expos and Marlins fans. It would be easy to blame Loria for the team’s demise, especially after he profited by selling the team to Major League Baseball—the entity keen on eliminating the organization entirely. While demonizing Loria might be cathartic, it would also be inaccurate, as it distorts the big picture. In one of the most illuminating leitmotifs of the book, Keri demonstrates that the wheels started turning on the franchise’s decline nearly twenty years prior to Loria’s involvement with the Expos. It was in the early 1980s that the team traded Gary Carter and original owner Charles Bronfman became listless and sold the team. Most damaging, however, was a struggle with the Toronto Blue Jays over broadcasting rights in the lucrative market of southern Ontario. The league favored the Blue Jays, ultimately limiting the Expos appeal in Canada, let alone the markets south of the border. The commonality among these contributing factors is money. Indeed, the 1994 strike, when the Expos played like world-beaters, can be read as the culmination of the lingering money problems the team experienced for over a decade. When baseball returned, the mass-alienation that was felt throughout baseball was particularly acute in Montreal, but in addition to that, pre-Loria ownership, in a fit of incredible short-sightedness, thought it a better decision to discard their star players rather than invest in them for the team’s future. Indeed, their decision to avoid salary arbitration with their star right-fielder for fear that he would agree to the terms is how the Rockies ended up with Larry Walker.
There are a variety of voices in Up, Up, and Away—from writers, broadcasters, former players, and front office personnel—but fans are underrepresented. Katie Hynes, who Keri describes as a “super-fan,” makes a handful of appearances. Other than Hynes’s vivid memories, and the fact that the dominant color-scheme in the author’s home probably remains powder blue, the voice of the fans is largely absent. Keri repeatedly references fluctuating attendance numbers at Olympic Stadium, which peaked at around 50 thousand at various points but that fell as low as 8 thousand. I would have liked to hear more about the push and pull of enthusiasm and apathy for a fan-base over time—what pushed them away, what brought them back, and the manner in which they remember both. This would also provide an optimal point of departure to further explore resurgent Expos nostalgia in Montreal starting around 2012. These are minor quibbles about an otherwise outstanding book.
The most frequently cited critique of Keri’s first book, The Extra 2%, is that it was too derivative of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. There will be no such criticisms for his second book, as Up, Up, and Away will set the standard not just for works about the Montreal Expos, but for team biographies in general. Read the book to see its elongated subtitle fleshed out into compelling stories; read it to learn who Dane Iorg is; read it to be forever convinced that Tim Raines is a Hall of Famer (tip: go straight to page 262 and read the argument for Raines’s enshrinement, then begin the book comfortable in the knowledge that three Expos Hall of Famers started the All-Star game at Olympic Stadium in 1982); read it to remember just how astoundingly good the Expos were at identifying and developing young players; read it to sympathize with the team’s unbreakable union with the albatross that was the Big O, but also to appreciate the stadium’s idiosyncrasies, which will be on full display for two exhibition games three days from now. Finally, read it because it’s about a moment in the evolving sport and business of baseball, and because we don’t know what the future holds for the institution that oversaw the fall of baseball’s utopian team.
Be sure to check jonahkeri.com for information regarding book signings and readings around the Denver metro area.
Editor’s Note: Jonah Keri will be at Falling Rock Tap House on Saturday April 5th, 2014 from 3pm to 5:30pm with Denver Post columnist Benjamin Hochman and Denver Post Rockies beat writer Nick Groke. Books will be provided by Tattered Cover.