There will be no baseball today but, shoot, I have seen bleaker Opening Days — one in particular out of which almost emerged a fairy-tale season. An Opening Day cut short by the death of home plate umpire John McSherry right in front of my — our — eyes. An Opening Day that was the first thread in one of the most remarkable seasons in the history of the Montreal Expos.
I missed the glory days of the ’80s Expos. I was working at the Winnipeg Free Press and then the Calgary Herald and it was mostly all hockey and football, with a dash of curling. I did, however, cover the 1994 Expos, who had the best record in baseball at the time of a strike by players. I also covered the 1993 team that made a spirited run and finished three games back of the Philadelphia Phillies despite winning five of their last six. They posted a record of 94–66 and didn’t get a sniff of the playoffs, because the wild-card format had not yet been adopted.
But the 1996 team? Man, they’ll always be a special group. They will always be my guys, you know?
The ’96 Expos just missed the wild card, finishing with an 88–74 record, eight games back of the Atlanta Braves and two back of the Los Angeles Dodgers. That was a team of Pedro, Mo, Fletch, Cliffy, Rondell, F.P. – manning six different positions, playing 152 games at the age of 28, and finishing fourth in National League Rookie of the Year balloting. “G-Man,” Mike Lansing, David Segui, “Oogie” Urbina and Mel Rojas. “Big Country” Tim Scott. Kirk Rueter, who was almost zen-like when he pitched. Jeff Fassero was National League pitcher of the month in June and July. It was “Oh, Henry” Rodriguez belting 36 home runs, sending fans at the Big O into chocolate bar-throwing fits whenever he went deep and making the All-Star Team. In September, manager Felipe Alou decided to blood a rookie phenom named Vladimir Guerrero and throw him into the heat of a playoff race that was finally snuffed out on the penultimate day of the regular season. It was a wonderful stew of egos and personalities and quirks, which made them alternately fun and a challenge to cover as a travelling reporter.
But all that had yet to play out on April 1, when the Expos opened the regular season in Cincinnati against the Reds. It was a chilly afternoon with McSherry, a 320-plus-pound, much-beloved umpire working the plate.
It was early in the game — seven pitches in — and with Rondell White at the plate, McSherry called time, motioned to second base umpire Steve Rippley and started toward the exit into the umpires’ room behind home plate. He collapsed, and was declared dead at University Hospital after feverish on-field attempts to revive him by paramedics, attending medical staff and trainers from both teams. “Our first priority was to try to tilt his head back and forward to get him an airway,” Ron McClain, the Expos head trainer, said. “It was obvious he wasn’t breathing because his lips were rose-colored. It was hard, because his neck was so thick, but we had an airway three times. I never did get a pulse, though.”
For some reason I remember White crouching down the third-base line, his chin resting on the knob of his bat. I remember Tim Scott and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan walking over to join him, so he wouldn’t be alone trying to make sense of what had happened. Moises Alou had by then moved out of the on-deck circle. In the clubhouses later, the story was McSherry told his crew members he was going to see a specialist the next day because he thought he had an arrhythmia. It had been suggested he skip the opener; he said he’d pushed the test back because this was Opening Day after all.
Some of us in the pressbox remembered later how during the national anthems, McSherry had started to put on his mask after the playing of “O Canada” — forgetting it was a two-anthem game until another umpire, Tom Hallion, grabbed him. Even more odd, McSherry, pooched the first pitch of the game, an obvious strike that he called a ball. He didn’t often do that. “On the first pitch of the game … there was not a great response,” said Alou, the Expos manager. Just before that pitch, McSherry joked with Reds catcher Eddie Taubensee. “Way I feel, I might let you call the first two innings, Eddie,” he said,
McSherry was a lovely, gregarious, commanding man. A “supportive umpire” in the words of Reds manager Ray Knight, a well-respected Major Leaguer who was managing his first-ever Opening Day. McSherry was declared to have suffered “sudden cardiac death” 53 minutes after he was taken off the field. Reds owner Marge Schott — to her eternal disgrace — wanted the game to continue. But two Reds veterans, Barry Larkin and Eric Davis, would have none of it and told the remaining umpires — one of them had gone with McSherry in the ambulance — that they weren’t having it. “Go back to your hotel,” Davis told them. “We’re not playing today.”
A handful of Reds players had already received the same message from their opponents. In fact, Darrin Fletcher and Mark Grudzielanek quietly walked back to the team hotel even before McSherry’s death was made official. Schott called the National League office — the two leagues had separate offices then — and berated an official for what she said was a “screwy decision.” The teams played the next day, instead. An Opening Day, unlike any I’ve seen or ever want to see again.
Look, this right here, right now, this pandemic, is not John McSherry dying, and John McSherry dying is not this. But every Opening Day, I find myself thinking about him, about the optimism of the day and how it begins a journey unlike any other in sports — games every day; one hundred and sixty-bloody-two of them. Baseball’s ability to titillate and frustrate and confuse and anger and bring quiet, specific moments of joy in a swing or a pitch or a play or a throw… that never changes.
I don’t know where we go from today, as a society or a sport. But I do know that we will once again be excited, angered and frustrated by the game we love. So, yes, as I have for a quarter century, I will take a second to think about John McSherry on this day when, as was famously written by Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell, time begins.
For me, time really does begin on Opening Day. I’m waiting, and I know a lot of you are, too.