5 for Friday: Warren Cromartie, Montreal’s next best baseball savior
There were other more famous Montreal Expos than Warren Cromartie during the franchise’s 36-year run in the city — Andre Dawson, Rusty Staub, Tim Raines and the late Gary Carter, to name some — but few athletes have remained as active and interested in the Montreal community after retirement as the one called "Cro."
And in 2012, Cromartie made it part of his life’s work to see to it that Montreal is once again bestowed a professional baseball team, launching the Montreal Baseball Project. Its clearly stated, unambiguous promise: "Bring baseball back to Montreal."
Twenty years removed from the 1994 strike that derailed the Expos’ best team ever and probably contributed to the club leaving for Washington 10 years ago, Cromartie is the second subject of our 5 for Friday series, which each week will feature five questions with a timely subject.
Always shuttling back and forth between Quebec and his home in Miami, the 60-year-old founder and president of the MBP took a few minutes to speak with FOXSports.com by phone this week about his own eclectic baseball path — from Montreal to Japan to Kansas City — and his hopes for bringing Les Expos back for good this time.
1. MALINOWSKI: Tell me a little about how the Montreal Baseball Project got started and where you are with that these days.
CROMARTIE: Well, we’re moving along, my group and myself. We’re in a position right now where we’re just waiting for a team to become available, and we got some traction with fans and the media around the country. I know it’s a journey. We haven’t had (the Expos) in 10 years, and lots of things have changed since 10 years ago, of course. There are things we have now — more Internet use, revenue sharing, an extra playoff team, even the Canadian dollar is a lot better compared to the U.S. dollar — so I know it’s an ambitious journey.
We’ve been on this thing four and a half years now, and we’re pretty much at the point now where we have a really solid group behind us, local politicians and local businesses. Right now, we’re doing things behind the scenes as much as we can do to continue the journey.
2. MALINOWSKI: The two-game exhibition that the Mets and Blue Jays played at Olympic Stadium earlier this year, by all accounts, was an extraordinary success. There was a lot of momentum that certainly came out of that series. Going forward, how important do you think that series was, and how optimistic are you that this might actually happen one day, with baseball back in Montreal?
CROMARTIE: Once we got those games, I worked to get the word out to the city of Montreal about how important it was for everyone to show up — because the whole world would be watching to see exactly what the fan base is like, because there were some questions with regards to the fan base, which I never thought was the problem in Montreal. It was never about the fans in Montreal. It was about bad ownership. It was about not having the stadium up to par. It was about how, during that era, there were talks about contraction.
But those two games were critical for us to show the world — to show Major League Baseball — that we are a major league city. We’ve had pro baseball there since 1969, and even before that Jackie Robinson played in Montreal. We’re one of the largest cities in North America without a professional baseball team, and we have a lot of history to go along with that. So things are going well right now. Those two games were very critical. We had no idea the attendance would be so large. It was an opportunity to show the grassroots support that exists. To have close to 100,000 people show up for two exhibition games meant a lot.
3. MALINOWSKI: The second half of your career was basically spent playing over in Japan, with the Yomiuri Giants. It was sort of an up-and-down experience, but you were playing over there before it became popular for major league ballplayers to do so. What was that like?
CROMARTIE: I was the youngest to ever go over there, at the age of 31. At that time, I left the Expos and thought I was going to be headed to the San Francisco Giants but Tokyo’s Giants came along and asked, ‘What would it take for you to play for us?’ Next thing you know, I was over there playing for one of the world’s most famous teams and playing for one of the greatest home run hitters ever. Sadaharu Oh was my manager for five years.
I wrote a book on it, and it was all a great experience. Me and Sadaharu Oh developed this real close bond throughout that time. I wound up giving my second son, Cody, the middle name of Oh. We’re very close to this day, and I wouldn’t have been successful without him. Playing for one of the most prestigious teams over there was like playing for the Dodgers and Yankees all at once. I go back from time to time to do TV and other things.
4. MALINOWSKI: After you graduated from high school, you actually ended up getting drafted by several teams before you started your professional career. What was that experience like for a ballplayer and, at that point in time, how did you see your major league career playing out?
CROMARTIE: I was born to do what I was doing. My dad played in the Negro Leagues, and he taught me everything. I even knew as a little kid that I had something special. I could’ve signed with the Minnesota Twins out of high school, but I wanted to go to Miami Dade North, where there was a very prestigious junior college. Steve Carlton, Kurt Bevacqua, Bucky Dent, Mickey Rivers all went there. As a kid, I used to watch some of the games there and always wanted to go play for them. I used it pretty much as a strategy base, so instead of going to a four-year school, I wanted to go to a two-year school. One, I get the chance to stay home. Two, I get to play at a great facility for a great program and get watched every day and get a chance to drafted after each year.
So I got drafted eventually in the first round. I was going to go to Arizona State; I signed a letter of intent. But the Montreal Expos and Mel Didier signed me, and he signed Andre Dawson. We’re both from Miami. He’s from South Miami, I’m from North Miami. He’s my big brother; we played together for so long.
5. MALINOWSKI: We are coming up on the 20th anniversary of the 1994 strike, and who knows what might have happened had that season actually continued. What are your memories of that 1994 season, and what do you think would have happened?
CROMARTIE: They had the best team in baseball. They were, what, 74-40? It was phenomenal, with Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Pedro Martinez, and Felipe (Alou) was managing. But that pretty much doomed Montreal because that hurt the team and Montreal fans pretty much gave up on showing up again, showing their displeasure. And they never thought that MLB would take the team away from them, and that was a big mistake, for the fans not showing up.
But that was part of that whole mess with ownership and contraction, and it was just a big mess.