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This month: Expos great TIM RAINES

Tim Raines is undeniably one of Montreal’s favorite adopted sons.  After breaking in with Major League Baseball’s Expos in 1979 at the tender age of 19, “Rock” proceeded to thrill fans at Olympic Stadium for over a decade with his incomparable eye at the plate and speed on the basepaths.  Though he went on to win a World Series with the Yankees as a player and White Sox as a coach, the seven-time All-Star maintains a special bond with the city where it all began.  We caught up with Raines as he prepared for a new season with a new team.

Spring Training is upon us.  Is this your favorite time of the year?

Tim Raines: Actually, not really (laughs).  As a player I preferred the start of the regular season.  I guess as a coach, though, Spring Training is good because I finally have the opportunity to meet and work with some of the rookie players I’ll be with all year.  I get the chance to see who I have and what I can do with them.

You were hired to serve as batting coach for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators by the evil Washington Nationals.  That was a collective groan you just heard from Montreal baseball fans.

TR: I know it’s kind of hard to accept, but I hope fans don’t think I’m working with the enemy.  It’s like an extended form of the Expos, but it’s not in Montreal.  I’m not a traitor! (laughs)

Your son, Tim Jr., was with Harrisburg last year.  Was he part of the reason you signed with the Washington organization?

TR: It was, but then he didn’t end up signing with the Nationals – he signed with the Houston Astros.  He threw me for a curve, there.  I got a job with his organization and then he took off somewhere else.

Is there any talent in particular in Harrisburg that you look forward to working with?

TR: I haven’t even seen their roster, yet, so I’m not sure what they have.  I’m just looking forward to working with all the kids, really.  I can’t single out one in particular.  A lot of times I actually like working with the underdog players, the guys who nobody will look at very closely.  I won’t give them special treatment, but a lot of the times they’ll look at a former big league player and they’ll be really motivated and say, “Teach me how to play.”

You were at a game at the Bell Centre back in November and got a great ovation from the crowd.  Is it still special to come back to the city and get that type of recognition?

TR: Oh, I love going to Montreal.  It’s always special to me because the fans have been so good over the years, and like you said, they continue to show their support and appreciation for what I did for the Expos.  I always try to make sure I get up to the city at least once a year, if not more.

You were busy winning a World Series as a coach with the White Sox when the Canadiens honored the Expos last season.  Did you get a kick out of seeing that Expos banner with your retired number 30 hanging up there from the rafters?

TR: It gave me goosebumps.  Like you said, I was unable to make it the night [Gary] Carter and [Andre] Dawson were there and they raised it, but I had read about it.  It’s an incredible honor because [the Bell Centre] is where all the fans go, now.  That’s the only major sports venue left in Montreal, and to be recognized in a hockey arena, that’s special.  I know Gary and Andre feel the same way I do – walking into a building where you never played and seeing your name up in the rafters is a humbling experience.

How was it seeing Youppi! in a Canadiens uniform – strange or cool?

TR: It was cool to me because I always had a lot of fun with Youppi!.  He was a big part of the Expos, and now he’s a big part of the Canadiens and of professional sports in Montreal.  The fans still love him; I mean, he was probably more popular than any player ever was with the Expos, but I don’t know if that’ll happen with the Canadiens.

Prior to arriving in Montreal in the late ‘70s, had you had any experience with professional hockey?

TR: Never.  I didn’t even see a Canadiens game until my third or fourth year in the city.  The first game I went to at the Forum, I was amazed at how fast the guys skated, but I had no idea what was going on.  A guy would take off on a breakaway and the referee would blow his whistle, and I didn’t know why.  They explained to me about offsides and two-line passes and all that and that cleared some things up.  It took me a while to understand everything, but after that I enjoyed the game, and enjoyed the fighting.  It was the first time I had ever seen fighting that was legal in sports.

You ever socialize with any of the hockey players back then?

TR: Not so much because we played every day, so it was hard.  [Chris] Chelios became a good friend of mine, and even after he got traded to Chicago we stayed friends.  To this day we still chat and reminisce about the old days.  He’s probably my closest friend who ever played for the Canadiens.

And he’s still going, too.

TR: Yeah. (laughs)  He might stick around ‘till he’s 70.

You actually tried playing hockey once, correct?

TR:  I tried it once, yeah.  I was invited to a kids’ camp or a kiddie league or something where like 9-year-old kids were playing, and before the game they asked me to try scoring a goal on this 7- or 8-year-old kid.  I had never put on skates before.  So I get out there on the ice and try to control my balance, try not to fall with this stick in my hand.  They give me a puck to shoot on this kid – and I should have thought about it before I tried it – but as soon as I brought my stick back to shoot, my feet went out from underneath me and I fell back on my head and knocked myself out for five minutes.

Are you serious?  What was worse – falling on the ice or diving on the old turf at the Big O?

TR: Falling on the ice was worse than anything I had ever experienced.  When I finally came to after being out for five minutes, I told them to take my skates off and that was the end of my hockey career. (laughs)

Did Expos players ever get exasperated with the attention paid to the Canadiens?  Baseball coverage around Montreal only really seemed to kick in come mid-June.

TR: I think that at times we did, but after a while – after you were in the city for a couple of years – you understood what it was all about.  At first, for me, I didn’t understand, but once I came to learn how good the Canadiens had been over the years, and what they meant to the city and what hockey meant to the country, I realized that we were never going to be the headliners.  I remember one year we were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates, and we were a half-game back of them for first place.  We beat them that night and moved into first for the first time all season, but we woke up the next morning and the headlines were all about Chelios being traded to Chicago.  That summed it all up for what it was like playing for the Expos.

Last October 19 marked the 25th anniversary of “Blue Monday”.  Does it seem like a quarter-century has already passed?

TR: No, it seems like it was just yesterday.  I still have dreams about it and about what might have been.  We honestly thought we had the best team in baseball that year, and unfortunately we couldn’t prove it because we couldn’t get to the World Series.

Who are you still in touch with from those great Expos teams?  Andre, obviously, for one…

 

TR: Andre, and I still stay in touch with Gary Carter and Warren Cromartie.  Those three guys are the ones I’m closest to, but I still speak with Timmy Wallach from time to time.  I actually spoke to Hubie Brooks last year, and I hadn’t spoken with him in a long, long time.

Who do you think will go down in history as the greatest Expos player ever?

TR: It’ll probably be Gary Carter, because he’s the team’s lone Hall-of-Famer.  But I’d like to think that the three of us – Carter, myself, and Andre – will be up there.  Vladimir Guerrero has to be near the top, too.

Do you think Major League Baseball could ever work in Montreal again?

TR: I think it could, but obviously you need people with money running the team along with a stadium downtown.  It can work with the right people and the right amount of money.  They need to have money that they’ll put into the team, not their pocket.  When Charles Bronfman owned the team, the Expos played the most exciting baseball Montreal had ever seen.  After he left, everything kind of went down the tubes.  Maybe we can get him involved in getting a new franchise going. (laughs)


Who’s wilder: The kids you’re coaching today or yourself circa 1982?

TR: Hm… Kids are wilder today, I think. (laughs)  Back in ’82 I was just a young kid in a partying city, and I got caught up in it.  Today it doesn’t matter where you are, kids are getting caught up in stuff.  It taught me a lesson, though: I’ll never forget that Montreal is probably the biggest party city in all of sports, and that includes New York.  There’s so much temptation, so much trouble you can get into… You go out and you don’t realize what you’re getting into until you’re into it.

Should Mark McGwire be in the Hall of Fame?

TR: I think so.  I mean, they don’t really have anything on him apart from what he said he took as over-the-counter supplements.  I don’t think he did anything wrong, and there certainly isn’t any proof he did anything wrong.  The guy took stuff that made him bigger, but it was legal at the time.  He deserves to get in for the stuff he did in baseball, unless it’s proven that he cheated.

What about Andre Dawson?

TR: Definitely.  Andre definitely deserves to be in.  He, to me, typified what a baseball player should be.  He played hard, he played hurt, he was always there, and I think he’s the reason why I became the player I did.

Who was the toughest pitcher you ever faced?

TR: A lot of people are surprised when I tell them this, but I actually have to say Kirk McCaskill.  He was a slow-throwing lefthander who threw a cut fastball, and he always threw it in on my hands as a lefthanded hitter.  Whenever I looked for his fastball, it would cut in on my hands, and when I moved off the plate to hit the cutter, he’d throw me a curveball.  He was the only pitcher who I can say was really tough on me.

What current ballplayer would you pay to watch play?

TR: [Albert] Pujols would be one, and Vladimir Guerrero would be another.  That was special to play with Vladimir for one year [in 2001], just to see him play day-in, day-out.  Anyone can see all the highlights, but to actually watch him and be around him every day, you get to know he’s a special player.  There are so many good players it’s hard to single out just one.  That [Ryan] Howard kid in Philadelphia looks like he’s going to be something, too.

Who’s the team to beat in 2007?  And don’t tell us the Yankees.

TR: Wow, that’s a tough one.  It’s hard to say… A lot of these teams are good.  Boston and New York are always good because their pitching staffs can get you in trouble and get them to a championship.  Minnesota has a good young ballclub, and they’re very underrated.  They proved last year that they could come close to getting to a World Series.  I guess I’d say they could be the ones to beat this year.

Revisit Tim’s career and other moments in Expos history at (we know, it kills us, too) http://washington.nationals.mlb.com/was/history/index.jsp, or follow how his young charges are doing at www.senatorsbaseball.com.

J.S. Trzcienski is a special contributor to canadiens.com.

This article was published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 21 No. 5. See table of contents

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