Jack Todd: Expos' Felipe Alou deserves a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame

He was a pioneer at every step: as a player, one of the first star Latin-American players in baseball, as the first Dominican manager in MLB and the first Latino to be named Manager of the Year.

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There was a bittersweet feeling after Larry Walker’s better-late-than-never election to the Baseball Hall of Fame last week.

Sweet, because Walker was in at last, although, if my esteemed former colleagues in the BBWAA were doing their jobs, he would have made it on the third or fourth try.

Doubly sweet because Walker is both a former Expo and a Canadian — the one and only Hall of Famer who checks both boxes as he joins the great Chicago Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins in Cooperstown.

Bitter because Walker represents the end of it. There will be no more players with direct links to the late lamented Expos voted into the Hall.

Worse, Walker’s election is painful because he, as much as anyone, represents the way Major League Baseball’s indifference and Claude Brochu’s incompetence led to the 1994 baseball strike and the series of body-blow fire sales that would finish off the team.

Felipe Alou signs the Golden Book as a group of former Montreal Expos visit city hall in Montreal on March 25, 2019. Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

Then again, there is one more individual associated with the Expos who belongs in the Hall: Walker’s great manager, Felipe Alou. There have been intermittent efforts to get the ball rolling for Alou, who, despite leading the National League in hits with 218 in 1966 and 210 in 1968, does not quite have the career numbers to measure up: a .286 batting average, 206 home runs and 852 RBIs in 2,082 games.

Alou belongs in the Hall of Fame because of his total body of work: the long years riding the buses as a minor-league manager in the Expos system, when he was passed over again and again for the manager’s job in Montreal. (Imagine Alou running the club instead of the inert Bill Virdon.)

Alou, of course, finally got the job when he replaced the pathetically unsuited Tom Runnells in 1992 and quickly proved his worth, leading the team to photo finishes in the pennant race in 1992 and 1993 before managing the best-in baseball club that was 74-40 when the strike closed it down in 1994.

Alou was a pioneer at every step: as a player, one of the first star Latin-American players in baseball, as the first Dominican manager in MLB and the first Latino to be named Manager of the Year. He is one of only three men with at least 200 home runs as a player and 1,000 wins as a manager, an elite bunch that includes Frank Robinson, Dusty Baker and Joe Torre. He is already a member of both the Caribbean and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

All that deserves recognition. The consensus, however, seems to be the strike that cost Alou, Walker and the Expos a shot at a World Series in 1994 probably also cost Alou a berth in Cooperstown.

The strike probably delayed Walker’s entry into the Hall of Fame as well. An embarrassing number of veteran baseball writers opposed Walker’s election because they simply did not look closely enough at the real effect Denver’s altitude had on the numbers he put up with the Colorado Rockies.

Credit where credit is due: it took the analytics folk to put the numbers in perspective and to show the rarified air in Colorado had virtually no effect on Walker’s statistics. Like Tim Raines, Walker owes his election in part to the number crunchers who were unwilling to dismiss players based on a superficial glance at their achievements.

Alou himself had a good week. The Expos (now 15 years defunct and counting) made the news twice: first with Walker’s election, then with Felipe Alou’s son Luis Rojas named to replace Carlos Beltran as manager of the New York Mets after Beltran was implicated in the sign-stealing scandal in Houston.

(Because of confusion over Spanish surnames, Felipe was signed by the Giants as “Alou” instead of Rojas. He and his brothers, Matty and Jesus, and his oldest son Moises were all known as Alou in baseball, while cousin Mel Rojas and son Luis kept the Rojas name.)

At 38, Rojas may be young to take over a big-league club, but no son of Felipe’s would be a party to the garbage that went on in Houston and Boston and elsewhere. He’s in tough, however, with an ownership change coming for the perennially under-achieving Mets.

If it doesn’t work out in New York, perhaps Rojas will be in line to manage the reborn Expos down the line. It would be a fairy-tale new beginning for a franchise that has always had to take the bitter with the sweet.

Even as he enters Cooperstown, Larry Walker will have long-suffering Expos fans thinking back to the 1994 strike, to the short-lived and disastrous replacement players experiment in the spring of 1995 and the subsequent Claude Brochu fire sale that saw All-Star centre fielder Marquis Grissom traded to Atlanta, staff ace Ken Hill dealt to St. Louis, closer John Wetteland traded to the Yankees and Walker allowed to go to the Rockies as a free agent.

The only thing that can make it all right would be the return of the Expos to a downtown ballpark in Montreal, with Walker, Alou and all the Expos Hall of Famers on hand for Opening Day.