The Expos’ Superfan

Last night, MLB Network showed a great program called “Triumph & Tragedy: The 1994 Montreal Expos”. Besides being the perfect vehicle for our good friend Jonah Keri to talk about the biggest travesty in the history of Montreal sports – not only can you see Jonah in the film itself, but you can also read his thoughts on the hour-long piece over here – the program did a really good job of showing just how great of a franchise the Montreal Expos really were and highlighting the long-lasting effects the 1994 strike had on baseball up north. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s replaying on MLB Network on Friday.

About halfway though the program, as the narrator was telling the story of the 1981 Expos (a team that was one heartbreaking home run from Rick Monday away from reaching the World Series after going on a tear to end the second half of the season) they showed a brief video clip of the celebration in the clubhouse after the ‘Spos had clinched a playoff berth. It was October 3, and Montreal had just beat the Mets to clinch the best record in the second half and a spot in the NLDS against the Phillies. Champagne was popping, players were celebrating, and actor Donald Sutherland was walking through the clubhouse with his arm in a sling and champagne getting poured on his head.

Donald Sutherland?

Yes, Donald Sutherland. Canadian actor, star of MASH, horror-movie superstar, and father to soon-to-be terrorist-butt-kicker Keifer, Donald Sutherland was a fixture at early-’80s Expos games. As surprising as it may be to us 30 years later, Sutherland was the Jack Nicholson of Expos baseball and Montrealers apparently loved him. Not just anyone gets playoff-celebration clubhouse access, after all.

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Sadly, I wasn’t able to find too much about Sutherland’s time in les Expos limelight – not even in the newspapers of the time. I guess that wasn’t the kind of thing that found it’s way into news at the time (at least not the kind of news that can be found on the internet today). I did find this interesting story, though. From the January 9, 1982, edition of the Nashua Telegraph:

“I don’t do any work during the baseball season,” says Sutherland, who goes to every Expos home game. “I prefer to go to the ballpark. I tell everyone to leave me alone, especially my agent.”

Even a call from Robert Redford had to wait while Sutherland attended one game several years ago. “Tell Bob I’ll call him back after the game,” he told his agent.

“But it’s Robert Redford,” the agent pleaded.

After the game, Sutherland finally returned the call. Redford wanted him for a role in a movie he was directing called “Ordinary People”.

Ordinary People, of course, would go on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It’s a cute story.

So cute, in fact, that it showed up all over the place, with slightly different details each time. From the November 1, 1980, Star-News:

An avid baseball fan, Sutherland said the outcome of a Montreal Expos game last year played a role in his decision to do Ordinary People. He had read the script and liked it well enough, but he had just finished a film with Suzanne Somers called Nothing Personal and needed a rest.

Watching baseball is one of his favorite forms of relaxation, he said, so it was not unusual for him to be sitting in Olympic Stadium in Montreal when a message flashed across the scoreboard that Donald Sutherland had a phone call. It was his agent.

“The game was at the end of the season, and Montreal was kind of bolting around first place,” Sutherland recalled. “My agent said, ‘You have to settle it now. Bob (Redford) wants to do the picture with you.’ Well, it was the third inning and Montreal was losing so I said ‘I cannot talk on the telephone now.’ I hung up and returned to my seat.

“By the seventh inning, Montreal had done wonderfully well and was leading like 8 to 3, so I went back down and in a mood of real elation phoned my agent and said, ‘I don’t care what the deal is, I’ll do the film.’ Thank God for me they won.”

You have to love the world of yesterday when movie stars were paged on the scoreboard for phone calls from their agents.

Seeing as how this story was from November 1980 and Ordinary People was first released in February 1981, it’s pretty safe to say that this little tidbit came from the 1979 season when the Expos finished the season 34-16 to come within two games of the eventual World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. The Februrary 26, 1982, edition of the Palm Beach Post tried to offer some more details:

Ordinary fan. Donald Sutherland is a Montreal Expos’ fan. He is a very emotional Expos’ fan. In Chicago to witness a game between the Cubs and Expos, Sutherland was reached by his agent midway in the game with Montreal trailing, 4-0, with an offer for a movie. Angered at how the team was performing, he said a quick no and went back to the game. The Expos rallied to win the game, 6-4, and so bouyed, Sutherland agreed to the movie part when his agent called him again. The movie was Ordinary People.

The first story says Sutherland was in Montreal when his agent called, but the second says Chicago. Someone’s wrong here (or both). It strikes me that the Chicago detail is awfully precise, so maybe that’s the correct story. Looking at the 1979 schedule, though, the Expos never beat the Cubs by a score of 6-4 that season. They did play two games in Chicago in September, but neither of those games had the Expos coming back from an early deficit.

There is a possible match on September 12. Montreal was playing Chicago, but the game was in Montreal. The Expos had won 13 of their last 14 games, but the Cubs took an early 3-0 lead. With a few runs each in the bottom of the seventh and eighth innings, though, Montreal came back late and won the game 6-3. Many of the details are pretty close to the story told in the Palm Beach Post; if there’s any one game that could be it, it’s this one.

Regardless of whether the “Donald Sutherland ignores a phone call from Robert Redford to watch the Expos play”-game is identifiable or not (or whether it even exists to begin with), the fact remains that, in the early 1980s, Donald Sutherland was the best known Expos fan in the country. A Montreal superfan, if you will. Sadly, that’s not really something you see too much of today, Montreal or not. I’m just glad the producers of “Triumph & Tragedy: The 1994 Montreal Expos” saw fit to include those five seconds of footage so we could be reminded of it.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.