A forgotten figure from Blue Monday

Once every year, and this is the week, baseball fans lament the loss of the Montreal Expos. Not losing the team to Washington in 2005…The Loss, as in the game that kept the Expos from reaching the World Series.

October 19th is the 42nd anniversary of the Expos’ day that will live in infamy — Blue Monday, because that was the day of the week, and because a journeyman named Rick Monday hit a solo home run to beat them in the ninth inning, 2-1. Their fans bled Expos blue. To this day, many believe those Expos would have beaten the Yankees (as the Dodgers did), to win Canada’s first World Series — before Toronto’s two titles.

That’s how the story is told, from generation to generation, every October. The home run by Monday on Monday came on a pitch thrown by Montreal’s Steve Rogers. However, the credit (blame) deserved to be shared, at least.

With Fernando Valenzuela.

He was the unsung hero for the Dodgers, the forgotten goat for the Expos. It was Valenzuela who set the stage for Monday’s home run. He pitched to 33 Montreal batters, retiring 26 before reliever Bob Welch got the final out. Valenzuela allowed three hits. He also drove in the other Dodgers’ run.

It was the culmination of an unimaginable season for the Mexican rookie. In April, he was the Opening Day starter only because Jerry Reuss had a bad calf. They say Manager Tommy Lasorda looked down the bench for a replacement and saw a pitcher who looked like Lasorda when he pitched — a paunchy, soft-throwing lefthander. Valenzuela started with a shutout, then reeled off eight wins in a row, including four more shutouts. Two victories were at Montreal’s expense, one at Olympic Stadium, my first live look at a player who launched a movement, Fernandomania (in the years after The Beatles, everything was a “mania”).

He didn’t throw hard, his screwballs (“lanzamientos de tornillo” in Spanish) were nominally hittable and when he threw every pitch his eyes looked to the heavens, as if requesting divine intervention. It was a season interrupted by a strike that was neither a fastball nor a curve, and Valenzuela won 16 games, including the post-season, also the Cy Young Award and — naturally — the Rookie of the Year. Had it been a full schedule, projections were he’d have won 19 before the playoffs. He never had another season like it.

They called him El Toro, because he resembled a bull and pitched with the tenacity of one. He doubled attendance wherever he started. In L.A., mariachi music filled the air. Hot tacos became hotter sellers. Valenzuela spoke only Spanish, but nobody cared because he was such a wonderful story. Mexico never had a baseball player like him, and still hasn’t.

Today, he broadcasts Dodgers’ games on Spanish TV. In August, they retired the number, 34, that nobody has worn since Fernandomania. In the year where it all began, the Championship Series MVP wasn’t Valenzuela, it was Burt Hooton, who beat the Expos twice. But without Valenzuela’s mastery on October 19th, perhaps there’d have been no Blue Monday. Had the rains again postponed Game Five, maybe it would have been Taco Tuesday.