He literally didn't know how to tie his shoes. Jim Fanning had the intricacies of the bowknot down pat, but on his first day as manager of the Montreal Expos he had to ask his coaches whether the bow went over or under the flap that extends from the tongue of baseball shoes. Fanning, the former backup catcher to Joe Garagiola, hadn't been in uniform since he managed the Eau Claire (Wis.) Braves to a third-place finish and the postseason championship in the Class C Northern League in 1962.
Until last week Fanning was the vice-president for player development of the Expos, and Dick Williams, who in his 14-year career had guided the Red Sox and A's into three World Series, was the manager. But Montreal was floundering, and John McHale, the chief executive officer, wanted to avoid another season of disappointment after losing the division title on the last weekend two years in a row. So on Labor Day he asked Fanning, his friend of 20 years, to take over the team. The call came while Fanning was typing a four-page, single-spaced report on the Denver Bears' playoff victory in the American Association.
Twenty-four hours later the Expos suffered a 10-5 defeat by the Philadelphia Phillies. The next night Montreal squandered two leads and lost 11-8 to the Phillies, and one of the Philadelphia papers referred to Fanning as "Alice in Blunderland." In Chicago on Friday the Expos failed to score the tying run with runners on first and third and none out in the ninth, and the manager was again hung out to dry.
What did Fanning do to deserve this? He certainly didn't ask for the job. He was the quintessential organization man. He was loyal, trustworthy and smart. First as general manager and then as farm director, he had provided the Expos with their considerable talent. When McHale decided that Williams had to go, he thought of Fanning. "I wanted somebody who would come in for the month without rocking the boat, who knew the players. Jim was a natural choice."
Not everybody thought so. Harry Caray, after reading the Cubs' score during the first inning of Friday night's White Sox telecast, editorialized: "The Expos haven't won since replacing Dick Williams as manager. Nice going, John McHale. With an intellect like that, you could graduate from Notre Dame." John McHale did graduate from Notre Dame.
Some of the players weren't too happy, either. "For the first time in five years, I sit down," said Outfielder Warren Cromartie, who was benched by Fanning. "Another goddamn General Patton. We needed a change, but not this change. We're a game and a half out, everybody's future's on the line, and we've got a guy coming down from the booth."
Pitcher Bill Lee, who always puts it another way, put it another way: "We've changed horses in mid-torrent. And we haven't even got on the horse, and now we're tumbling over and over down the river of despair."
Things brightened considerably on Saturday when the Expos won 2-0 on a combined three-hitter by Steve Rogers, Woodie Fryman and Jeff Reardon. Ironically, Rogers and Reardon were commonly cited as two of the reasons Williams was fired.
Rogers was making his first start since Aug. 28. On Aug. 30, Williams had sent him in to pinch-run in the 11th inning against the Atlanta Braves. Rogers tried to break up a double play and ended up breaking the sixth rib on his left side. Even Rogers, a sometime critic of Williams, defended the move, but as far as the Expo fans were concerned, that broke the camel's back, not to mention Rogers' rib. The callers on sports phone-in shows in Montreal were outraged, and when the Expos returned home on Sept. 3 the fans were singing, "Dick Must Go." The front office was listening.
McHale also didn't think Williams was using Reardon enough. The Expos had acquired the bearded reliever a couple of weeks before the strike from the Mets for troubled but talented Outfielder Ellis Valentine. "Maybe Dick wasn't used to having that one big guy in the bullpen," McHale says. Reardon had made only 12 appearances in six weeks under Williams. "I don't like to complain," Reardon says, "but I do like a lot of work." It wasn't as if he had been ineffective: As of last week he had given up just four earned runs in his last 43 innings. One of the first things that Fanning did was to tell Reardon he was his stopper.
But Reardon and Rogers were hardly the only reasons Williams was fired. McHale cited a lack of discipline and communication. In five years in Montreal Williams had closed himself off from virtually everyone in the organization. "His style ranged from extreme noninterference," Rogers says, "to biting, caustic remarks. The result was lackadaisical play."
Third Baseman Larry Parrish, a Florida rancher in the off-season, doesn't recall Williams all that fondly: "Some-where along the line he stung everybody. I remember him telling me after I popped up with a runner on third and less than two out, 'That's not the first time you've done that, Parrish.' I was feeling bad enough as it was. I know from the work on my ranch that when you use the hotshot [cattle prod], some bulls will go right into the pen. Others will just lay down and sulk. Others will turn on you. People are like that, too."
At one point this season Williams even got down on Andre Dawson, who is only the best centerfielder in baseball. Dawson, whose word is as good as his stats (.323, 22 homers, 55 RBIs), had told a reporter, "The whole team is in a slump, from the manager on down." Says McHale, "Dick was a throwback. His idea of solving a problem was to have two guys in a fistfight." The Montreal players say that lately Williams had become, if anything, even more withdrawn. "He would sit in his corner of the dugout, writing things in his little charts, playing ticktacktoe with himself," Lee says.
Williams didn't endear himself to management by making noise about his contract, even though he was among the highest-paid managers in baseball. He had reportedly told people that the Expos wouldn't renew his contract this year even if he won. The reports early last week that Williams was headed for the New York Yankees had nothing to do with McHale's decision. "But they confirmed it," McHale says.
Williams was also wrongly criticized for sticking with Parrish and Second Baseman Rodney Scott. Parrish carried the team in the second half of 1979 and seems to be breaking out of a slump that had plagued him all this year. Scott, whom Williams hailed as the most valuable .224 hitter in baseball last year, is the most valuable .204 hitter this year. "The little guy has karma," Lee says.
But the real reason Williams was wearing golf shoes "and sipping Scotch" was that the Expos have played flat and uninspired baseball. They've done so despite Dawson's magnificent season, Tim Raines's undreamed-of running (69 stolen bases in 81 games), Gary Carter's 56 runs batted in and better pitching than they had last year. Last week the Expos were treading water with the Mets and Cubs, of all people, and unable to catch the Cardinals, who were on a five-game losing streak. "I would've thought we'd be seven or eight games up by now," says Fryman.
McHale made a change after the Expos lost three of four to the Astros. "I felt we had no choice. We just weren't going to win with Dick. It's tough to motivate a club after five years," McHale said. The rumors had been in the air for weeks, and the supposed successors were Coach Steve Boros, Denver Manager Felipe Alou, Broadcaster Duke Snider, former Manager and General Manager Charlie Fox and the equally unlikely Youppi, the team mascot. Nobody but nobody thought of Fanning.
"It wouldn't have been fair to hire somebody for just a month," says McHale. "Besides, what this club needed was a custodian, not an advocate."
As a player Fanning had such an undistinguished career that the first edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia listed him as Bill Fanning (his full name is William James Fanning), even though he says nobody in baseball ever called him Bill. Between 1954 and 1957 he spent a little time with the Cubs, backing up Garagiola, and Walker Cooper and Clyde McCullough, who were then themselves backups. He was a player-coach in the Cubs' system after that, and then a manager, but after his Dallas team finished last in 1960 he knew he was out of a job. So he went to the winter meetings, hooked up with McHale, then a Milwaukee Braves executive, and got the managing job at Eau Claire. He moved into the Milwaukee front office after a few years. In 1966 McHale briefly considered him as a replacement for Braves Manager Bobby Bragan. In 1967 Paul Richards, who took over for McHale as Braves general manager, also talked to him about managing. Fanning actually agreed to be a coach after the '67 season, but then changed his mind when he took the job of starting the Major League Central Scouting Bureau. After a year McHale, who had joined the Expos in 1968. named him Montreal general manager.
Fanning, who looks sort of like a distinguished pixie, is a very pleasant and amiable man and has a master's degree in physical education from the University of Illinois. "As nice as he is, he can be very tough," says McHale. "One spring in West Palm Beach, we were coming out of a restaurant on Worth Avenue when four guys started being very abusive to us. Clint Courtney and Jim started getting into it with them—it was like one of those TV fights, with guys flying over cars. They gave those four more than they could handle."
Fanning's career as the Montreal general manager was marred by the trade of stars Ken Singleton and Mike Torrez to the Baltimore Orioles for a washed-up Dave McNally, Bill Kirkpatrick and Rich Coggins. Shortly thereafter, by mutual agreement, he became VP for player development. Dawson, Cromartie, Carter, Parrish, Raines and four of the Expos' top five starting pitchers came up through his system. One year Fanning participated in the Expos' Instructional League as a coach. Three years ago he managed Montreal's St. Petersburg club for a week. Little did he know the experience would come in handy.
When he got McHale's call on Sept. 7 Fanning, too, was surprised, but he accepted without hesitation. Williams also handled the news with class, saying, "The team could go all the way this year. I'm only disappointed I won't be there." McHale said, "Dick was much easier on us than we were on him. I hate to do that to a guy. I prefer the Japanese way. When a manager knows his days are numbered over there, he just stops showing up at the ball park."
Fanning flew into Philadelphia on Tuesday morning and met with the press at 12:30. He talked with his coaches at 1:15. Besides not knowing whether to lace his shoes above or below the flap, he didn't have a numbered uniform. "I did remember how to put a jockstrap on," he said. He met with the players en masse for 10 minutes. "I told them they had 27 tough and difficult days ahead, and that we could get through it by working together, playing hard and trying to win every game by hustling. It wasn't so much a peptalk as a statement of fact." A rain delay enabled him to talk to most of the players one-on-one. Then the Expos went out and stunk up Veterans Stadium. Fanning used 19 players, some of whose numbers seemed to indicate they had escaped from the Montreal Alouettes' offensive line.
On Wednesday night Fanning all but cleared his bench again, using 18 Expos. "He just needed to get his feet on the ground," says McHale. "He wanted to know his best lineup, and he just became terribly involved." The "terribly" was an unfortunate choice of words. In the eighth inning Wednesday, Fanning had Parrish bunting with two strikes, and Parrish fouled the ball off for a third strike. In the eighth, he kept the infield in when perhaps he shouldn't have, and the Phillies got an important single out of it. He also had Charlie Lea, who had a tender elbow, up and throwing in the bullpen several times before he was brought in. Lea gave up a three-run homer.
But Fanning patiently explained each of his moves to the press and to the players involved. "Dick would never have done that," said Parrish. Fanning doesn't quite know where to sit and stand in the dugout, and he can often be seen talking to the hitters in the on-deck circle. "Just like in the Instructional League," Dawson says. "I think it's kind of refreshing having a manager who tries to communicate with you," Rogers says.
When the team was boarding the flight to Chicago that night, Fanning asked someone, "First seat, right?" Before Friday's game, he held another clubhouse meeting, just to go over the Cubs. In four days he had held two more clubhouse meetings than anyone could remember Williams' holding in five years.
The Expos quickly fell behind 5-0 on Friday, and going into the eighth, they trailed 6-2. They scored twice in the eighth and would have got more had Dawson not hit into a bases-loaded double play with none out. In the meantime Fanning antsily strolled the dugout, at one point going out on the field to retrieve a ball that had strayed from the bullpen. Managers are not supposed to do that. In the ninth the Expos snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. With runners on first and third and no one out, Cromartie struck out against Willie Hernandez. On a 3-2 count the next batter, Raines, swung and missed while Wallace Johnson was running. Johnson was thrown out by Jody Davis to end the game. If you've never heard of Wallace Johnson (No. 62), you've probably never heard of Bryn Smith (No. 66) either. He pitched two very good innings. Fanning employed 21 players and gave Jerry Manuel his first start, at second base, since April 29 and Jerry White his first start, in right, since June 4, benching Scott and Cromartie, neither of whom took it very well.
"You could write a short story about that game," said Fanning.
There was much griping and snickering among the players about Fanning's gung-hoism and tactics. But Dawson said, "You can't blame the man for trying." Said Fryman, "The club was dead-ass until he started using all these players." Rogers said, "If we had won those games, everybody would be saying, 'He's really into the game.' When he loses, we'll be saying, 'Why doesn't he sit down?' Winning takes care of a lot of problems."
There were few problems on Saturday, when the Expos won 2-0. Rogers pitched valiantly until he aggravated his rib injury batting in the seventh, Fryman held the fort for one inning, and Reardon came on to throw his fastball for his fourth save as an Expo. On Sunday, Montreal had it easy, winning 10-6 on three RBIs apiece by Dawson and Parrish, to remain 2½ games behind St. Louis. There was no snickering when Fanning came around to pat his players on the back. Having conquered his shoelaces, he now has only a pennant race to worry about.
Set afloat by the Expos, Williams savors temporary retirement in Tampa with a brew and wife Norma.
Fanning, who hadn't worn a uniform in 19 years, had to be given a lesson in tying his baseball shoes.
Chairman Lee: "We're tumbling over and down the river of despair."
Sparing use of Reliever Jeff Reardon hastened the relief of Williams.
Gary Carter bobbled the ball, and Cub Jerry Morales scored to keep the Expos sliding in Chicago.
Oh those Expos! John Milner deftly puts the tag on Ivan DeJesus, but the pick-off throw is way off.