With a possible work stoppage on the horizon, there was even less baseball news than usual this winter. Then this week, Dave Van Horne retired.
It’s 21 years since he was the Montreal Expos’ play-by-play broadcaster, a position that made him (and probably still does) the voice of Canadian baseball. As somebody who spent several seasons riding team buses with Dave, also talking baseball, dining in many American restaurants, listening to Eagles LPs to analyze the real meaning of Hotel California’s lyrics, and sitting in press boxes, I have long thought there was nobody better at his craft. Ever. Not Tom Cheek. Not Bob Costas. Not even Vin Scully. As good as, but not better.
The way Brooklyn remembers Scully is how Montreal should remember Van Horne. He was their first and their best. Rightly, his name will forever be in both baseball halls of fame, in Cooperstown and St. Marys, Ont.
For 53 years, Van Horne was blessed with a pleasing, smooth, strong voice; an astonishing work ethic; and credibility most broadcasters wish they had. For 32 seasons, he was the voice of the Expos. He called 13 no-hitters, including all four in Expos history, one of them Dennis Martinez’s perfect game which he punctuated by saying: “El Presidente, El Perfecto!”
He left for Miami as the Expos were dying their slow death, then ironically returned to the city where he raised a family for Montreal’s final home game ever — as the Marlins’ announcer. Today, a generation of fans won’t know him, but he was the heart of Expos’ broadcasts, especially during the best of times, and arguably the best of teams: 1979-1980-1981. That’s when they became Canada’s team and only a home run on a rainy Monday afternoon kept them from being the first Canadian team in a World Series.
With all his stories, a few years ago I asked when he was writing a book.
“I’m not,” he said, emphatically.
Instead, he graciously bequeathed his signature home-run call “Up, Up and Away” for somebody else’s book title. There were no royalties, probably because Dave admitted he “stole” the line from The Fifth Dimension song title.
It would take a book to tell his stories. My favourite was when he told me about his introduction to baseball play-by-play, sitting on a hill under a tree in Richmond, Virginia. He’d been hired to do Triple A games the next season and, since he’d only broadcast basketball and football, his new boss sent him to practice doing American Legion games into a tape recorder.
In those days we were good friends. Careers and family took us in different directions and it was decades until we re-connected, in 2014. My most personal story has nothing to do with baseball. The day my father was killed in a car accident, Dave was the first person through our front door. He didn’t say a word, because he didn’t have to…just being there was enough.