June 30, 1997: Montreal-Toronto rivalry finds a new outlet in baseball

This article was written by Norm King

The old-timers still talk about the melee that broke out at the 1932 Canadian Tiddlywinks Championships between the Toronto Twinkers and the Montreal Squidgers.1 Fists, tiddlys, and winks were flying everywhere — even fans got involved. The cops had quite the time breaking things up.

That story is, of course, fictional. There is no known record of any Canadian tiddlywinks championship in 1932, but such is the rivalry between Montreal and Toronto that the idea of a brawl breaking out in any sporting endeavor between the two cities would not surprise the residents of either metropolis.

One would be hard pressed to find two cities in the same country as culturally and linguistically diverse as Montreal and Toronto. Montreal has its European air, Gallic flair and joie de vivre. Toronto has a reputation for being English in both language and outlook.

It was this nous against them mindset that permeated the country’s most heated sports rivalry, between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey teams. These teams had many great battles over the years, both with the pucks and the fists. On December 9, 1953, for example, all the players from both teams took part in a bench-clearing brawl that resulted in the referee ejecting everybody from each side except for three skaters and a goaltender. The brouhaha exploded at the 18:12 mark of the third period and became known as the War of 18:12.

Bench-clearing brawls and the enmity between the two cities were probably not on the minds of the Montreal Expo and Toronto Blue Jay players who took to the Skydome field for the first matchup between the two teams that affected the standings. After all, except for Jays’ Canadian relievers Paul Quantrill and Paul Spoljaric, all of the players for both teams were either from the United States or Latin America.

“For the people who live here, I guess it’s nice,” said Jays’ reliever Dan Plesac. “I don’t care who we’re playing.”2

“We only have to play one anthem,” added Jays’ manager Cito Gaston.3

But it was not the first time they faced each other during the regular season. From 1978 to 1986, the two teams played an exhibition game during the season to raise money for amateur baseball in Canada.4 Each team won three games and two ended in ties. No game was played in 1981 due to the players’ strike.

Fans would have looked forward to this game even if it didn’t have historical significance because it offered a mouth-watering pitching matchup between a reigning Cy Young Award winner (Toronto’s Pat Hentgen) and a Cy Young winner to be (Montreal’s Pedro Martinez). Martinez had a 9-3 record with a 1.58 ERA. He had gone nine innings in his previous start, against the Reds at Olympic Stadium, but wasn’t involved in the decision as Cincinnati won 2-1 in 11 innings. Martinez was the leader of a starting staff that pitched seven shutouts in June as the team went 17-11 for the month. Hentgen’s previous start was a disaster: He allowed 11 runs, all earned, over eight innings in a 13-12 loss to the Boston Red Sox at Skydome. Despite that debacle, he came into this game with an 8-4 record and a respectable 3.18 earned-run average.

The first inning looked as if the 37,430 in attendance would be in for a goose-egg convention on the scoreboard as both pitchers set the side down in order. In the second, Expos rookie Vladimir Guerrero took matters into his own bat as he smacked the first pitch he had ever seen from Hentgen for a home run to give the Expos a 1-0 lead.

Martinez, meanwhile, was showing the form that would win him the first of his three career Cy Young Awards. He retired the first 12 batters he faced, and broke that streak when he walked Carlos Delgado to start the bottom of the fifth. Martinez struck out the next two hitters and induced Benito Santiago to hit a groundball that forced Delgado at second and prevented any further damage.

Every pitcher likes to have more wiggle room than a 1-0 margin could give him, and the Expos padded their lead for Martinez in the top of the sixth. Mark Grudzielanek led off with a single and two outs later, David Segui hit a fly ball that Jays center fielder Otis Nixon misplayed into a triple that scored Grudzielanek, giving the Expos a 2-0 lead. The way Martinez was pitching, that appeared to be enough.

“This one might have gone the Jays’ way except that Montreal’s David Segui lifted a harmless-looking fly ball … that Otis Nixon lost in the twilight — or maybe it was the ozone — for a run-scoring triple,” wrote Jim Byers in the Toronto Star.5

The Jays missed an opportunity in the bottom of the sixth. Alex Gonzales ended Martinez’s no-hit bid when he singled to open the inning, but was forced at second on a double play ball hit by Carlos Garcia. This proved costly because the bases were empty when Nixon hit a line-drive single to right. Orlando Merced grounded out to prevent any further threat.

Toronto wasn’t ready to give up just yet. Delgado homered with one out in the bottom of the seventh to narrow the score to 2-1. Martinez decided enough was enough after that and shut the door the rest of the way for a complete-game win. Pedro gave up three hits and struck out 10. Hentgen also pitched a complete game, although he gave up six hits and struck out only one. Nonetheless he acquitted himself well and would have won on most nights, but such are the vagaries of baseball. Nixon’s squinting proved very costly.

Even though the players themselves didn’t feel the rivalry before the game, they knew that the fans were into it.

“You come here to play the Blue Jays and it feels like you’re playing in the World Series,” said the Expos’ Henry Rodriguez.6

“We felt the emotion out there,” said Gonzales. “There’s no question that affects the players.”7

The game sped by in 2 hours and 3 minutes and fans leaving the stadium could still see the sun setting. The players didn’t duke it out and no new lore was added to the history of Montreal-Toronto sports competition. But the game was a dandy.

 

This article appeared in “Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos” (SABR, 2016), edited by Norm King. To read more articles from this book, click here. 

 

 

Sources

In addition to the sources listed in the notes, the author consulted:

Tiddlywinks.org

baseballhalloffame.ca

Box scores for this game can be found on baseball-reference.com, and retrosheet.org at:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/TOR/TOR199706300.shtml

http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1997/B06300TOR1997.htm

 

Notes

1  The squidger is the big disk used to propel the smaller disks in tiddlywinks.

2 Dejan Kovacevic, “Baseball, eh,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 1, 1997.

3 Ibid.

4 The winner was awarded the Pearson Cup, named after Lester Pearson, prime minister of Canada between 1963-68. In addition to being a politician and a Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat, Pearson was a baseball fanatic and was the Expos’ honorary president between 1969 and 1972.

5 Jim Byers, “First Strike to the Expos,” Toronto Star, July 1, 1997.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.