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Original Issue

A leg up on the league lead

Busy base stealers like Ron LeFlore (right) have helped Montreal gain a foothold on first place in the NL East

The other day in the Montreal clubhouse, Expo star Ron LeFlore suddenly grabbed fellow outfielder Rowland Office and stuffed him headfirst into a large, wheeled laundry basket used for dirty towels. LeFlore then launched Office through the dressing room, surprising teammates, who are not accustomed to seeing a driverless cart roll past them. After all, LeFlore usually makes the whole team go, not just one player.

This playful vignette speaks volumes about Montreal and the current standings in the competitive National League East. Led by LeFlore, the high-spirited Expos are striking like thieves in the night. With suddenness and at very high speed. They've stumbled a few times along the way, but they've still led their division since June 7.

The Expos are succeeding not so much with the conventional weapons—bats and gloves and arms—but with their legs, specifically the remarkably speedy legs belonging to a trio of players that should be known as The Burglars. At week's end LeFlore was tied with Pittsburgh's Omar Moreno for the major league lead in steals with 49, Second Baseman Rodney Scott was fourth with 30, and Centerfielder Andre Dawson had 21. Their success rate is an extraordinary 85.5%. But they are only three of the nine players whom Manager Dick Williams lets run at will. As a team the Expos already have 117 steals—tops in the majors—while the opposition has 69. "Speed makes up for a lot," says LeFlore.

Which is fortunate, because Montreal has a lot to make up for. After all, four of the best players from last year are gone, including First Baseman Tony Perez, who is hitting .303 in Boston and leading the American League in RBIs (64), and Pitcher Rudy May, who is 6-3 with the Yankees. This is a team with pitching that looks very average on paper, even on those rare occasions when everyone is healthy. This is a team with an undistinguished infield, except for Third Baseman Larry Parrish. This is a team that needs lefthanded power. This is a team that has had to struggle along with some of its best players—Parrish, Rightfielder Ellis Valentine, Pitcher Bill Lee—on the disabled list. And this is a team that got LeFlore from Detroit as its main man during the off-season, then watched in horror when its $300,000-per-year acquisition went 2 for 52 at the plate during one stretch and had one adventure after another in leftfield after a lifetime in center. "It's weird out there," LeFlore confesses.

"I don't know why they win, but they are pesky little devils," says Philadelphia Manager Dallas Green. Pesky enough to lead the Phillies by one game and the Pirates by 1½ games at the All-Star break, even though their record since June 13 is 9-14. Clearly, the Expos need all the stolen bases, extra bases and aggressive play they can get.

Club President John McHale says, "Good pitching will beat good hitting, but it will not beat speed. We can score without any hits." For his part, Williams takes great delight in describing what he calls a typical Expo run: "A guy walks, steals second, goes to third on a ground-out and scores on a sacrifice fly."

He may poor-mouth a little too much, but the examples of how speed kills are many. For instance, one day last month against St. Louis, LeFlore singled, stole second and scored when the pitcher made a bad throw trying to pick him off at second.

This kind of attack is very new to Montreal. Until 1974, the individual club record for steals in a season was 16. Then Larry Lintz stole 50 for the current mark, which LeFlore will surely surpass this week. "We've always been kind of a heavy-footed team that would occasionally hit a long ball," says one club official. Even last year, when Montreal won more than it lost (95-65) for the first time since it joined the league in 1969 and was in the pennant race to the end, it stole only 121 bases, sixth best in the National League.

But that was before LeFlore, who stole 78 bases last year for Detroit and who will steal 104 this season if he keeps his current pace. LeFlore's chance at Lou Brock's major league record of 118 will increase as his batting average goes higher. Despite his early slump, he was up to .262 at week's end, and there is no reason to believe he can't finish the year around his career mark of .297. But even as a .262 hitter he can be exceedingly dangerous.

In a recent game against Pittsburgh LeFlore led off with a single to right. The scoreboard was flashing "Go, go." The fans were hollering, "Go, go." The pitcher and catcher were thinking, "Go, go." And he did, making it easily, despite a good throw. LeFlore seemed to have stolen third also, but Dawson stroked a single up the middle to score him. Without the steal, Montreal doesn't score. In a game against the Mets last week LeFlore singled, stole second, went to third on Scott's bunt and continued on home when the third baseman threw the ball away in a hurried attempt to nab Scott.

LeFlore, who has been caught stealing only 10 times, considers himself "more controlled now than before, when I used to just go with reckless abandon." He studies pitchers and talks at length with them, liking nothing better than to get them gossiping about the foibles of other pitchers in the league.

Scott, who bats second behind LeFlore, says, "With pitching, a guy may be off. With defense, it just might not be your day. And hitting, who knows? But with speed, it's always there, will never fail and always gives you a chance. A home-run hitter has a pretty slim chance. Speed is for sure." Using that speed is no mystery to Scott, who stole 39 bases last year and could nearly double that this season. "The key to stealing is to get a good jump and hope the throw is off," he says. "My philosophy is: the closer you are to home, the better off you'll be."

No Expo has been better off than the No. 3 hitter, Dawson, who sees a lot of fastballs when LeFlore or Scott is on base. Hitting behind his two fast friends has enabled Andre to accumulate 42 RBIs, lead the club in on-base percentage (.379) and top the league in game-winning RBIs (nine). "I love to watch LeFlore steal on a pitchout," says Dawson. "I'd say a catcher has about one chance in 10 of getting him. Speed is a blessing, isn't it? And as the season goes on, all of us are going to steal more, and there is no doubt we will win because we will create more RBI situations."

In addition, the Expo merry-go-round will create more errors by the harassed opposition, more intentional walks and fewer double plays. And the effect on an opponent's psyche is incalculable. Expo Pitcher Steve Rogers says, "When one of these guys comes to bat, the pitcher thinks, 'Don't walk him, because if he gets on first, it's like walking a double.' And that's a negative thought that hurts."

Understandably, opponents have resorted to some sneaky tactics to slow down the Montreal relay team. In Philadelphia recently, Williams complained about all the soft dirt around first base. Some of it was removed, but he shrugged, "I'd do the same thing to our opponents if we didn't have speed."

Montreal has more than speed, of course. Warren Cromartie and Woodie Fryman, for instance, can't run a lick, but they've contributed, too. Cromartie has adjusted well to a switch from left-field to first base and is leading the team with a .323 average, and Fryman has nine saves, a 3-3 record and a 1.76 earned run average. But both of them realize where the team's true strength lies. "Those three guys make our offense devastating," says Cromartie. "If you don't keep the first two off base, you lose," says Fryman.

And so far this season that is exactly what the rest of the National League hasn't done.