For 33 years of the tumultuous existence of the Montreal Expos, nobody had a front row seat like broadcaster Jacques Doucet.
Wherever you go in Quebec, many have lived the history of Nos Amours through this sympathetic man, including me. His presence in the Montreal Expos Hall of Fame, Baseball Quebec Hall of Fame and now Baseball Canada Hall of Fame can only testify to the impact his voice has had on the sport in the Province of Quebec.
He was even featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal in June 2005, in a story about the French words used to describe baseball in Montreal. The Journal cited a column first published in La Presse to showcase the impact Doucet had on the game in La Belle Province: broadcasters over the years.
For some people, summer is a Carlos Jobim song, the singing of birds or the murmur of streams; for me, summer is the voice of Jacques Doucet… "I won't miss millionaire players or owners," he wrote. "But I'll miss the voice of Jacques Doucet for a long time."
Now that the big league club is gone, the former sports journalist now works as the play-by-play man for the Quebec City franchise of the independent Can-Am League, whose Commissioner is Miles Wolff.
I had the pleasure of talking at length with Jacques Doucet on many topics, including his experience as a broadcaster and the history of the Montreal Expos. The following interview includes his experience as a broadcaster, his preparation, his time as the official scorer at Jarry Park, Montreal baseball fans, John McHale, the two perfect games and the San Francisco earthquake he covered, the Expos' demise, the negative media coverage by the French press, his dream team, the Blue Jays and much, much more. - Dave Rouleau
(Select Read More to see the Jacques Doucet interview)
Dave Rouleau for the Business of Sports Network: Can you describe your first experience as the play-by-play man for the Montreal Expos games in 1969?
Jacques Doucet: It happened out of nowhere, when the Expos were looking for someone to replace Jean-Pierre Roy, once a week, and work with Jean-Paul Sarault at CKLM. With my work at La Presse, which was published in the afternoon at that time not restraining my ability to do both, my boss gave me the permission.
At first, I was not used to a game description, so Jean-Paul would do the entire game and I would comment on the happenings of the game. After five or six games, I got my introduction as a play-by-play man when Sarault, out of nowhere and without a warning, announced at the beginning of the fourth inning: “And now, for the description of the next three innings, here’s Jacques Doucet.” This part-time job lasted until the 1972 season, when the club wanted to have a play-by-play announcer dedicated to baseball only (Sarault also worked at the Montreal Matin), but Sarault chose the newspaper assignment. I was then offered the job, but I asked for a short two-year contract to see whether the experience would be satisfying for me and the fans listening to the games.
Bizball: Would you tell me the difference between working for an independent radio station and working for the club itself?
Doucet: From the start, I had asked the Expos President of the time, John McHale, carte blanche and that if I was to stumble while doing this job, it would be with my own ideas and not anybody else’s. McHale had agreed to that proposition.
Bizball: Did you enjoy your time as the official scorer for the home games of the Montreal Expos at the Jarry Park?
Doucet: Yes, because it gave me a chance to learn the rules correctly. I received a piece of advice from a former Chicago Tribune reporter, James Enright: "Be sure that the first hit of the game really is one." The thinking behind that was that if, for example, a fielder made an error at shortstop, you could always change your ruling later in the game and give a hit if you thought the runner was really fast. But if you give a hit and then change it midway through the game for an error and it had been the only hit, the pitcher would then have a no-hitter and your credibility would then be seriously questioned.
There are also occasions where some people complain about the decisions of the official scorer and the phone rings in the scorer’s booth. These people sometimes are the managers or players themselves or even the PR people for a certain team, coming after a game to see if the scoring could be altered in their favor.
Bizball: Was there a time when pressure made you change your ruling?
Doucet: Well, there are instances where the plays can be confusing. For example, let’s say a guy is trying to steal second, the catcher makes a perfect throw at second base, but nobody’s there to catch the ball. Who should be given the error? The catcher? With experience, I learned to make a judgment based on who was the plate -- righty or lefty to guess who should be covering the base -- and wait until the end of the game and then ask the manager who should have been at the bag.
Another incident was in 1969 with Jose "Coco" Laboy, who even at 29 was making a run for the Rookie of the Year title. Al Ferrara was patrolling left field that day and after a hard hit ball by Laboy, Ferrara had taken two steps forward, but the ball went over his head and I had scored E7. After the game, I was in the manager’s office and Gene Mauch said to me, “C’mon, the ball was hit hard and Ferrera is no Willie Mays.” He was clearly trying to convince me to give the player a double and help him in the Rookie of the Year race, but I said to him, “He might not be Willie Mays, but he is in the major leagues and he should have caught that ball!”
Bizball: Can you tell me about Jarry Park and the Olympic Stadium, how they were as baseball stadium?
Doucet: As a commentator and broadcaster, it was an ideal setting to see everything on the field of play, almost right behind the catcher. The shortcomings of that ballpark were obviously the cold weather in Spring and in the beginning of Fall, the number of seats available -- with almost 7,000 as bleachers on a total of 20,000 places available -- and the angle along the baseline, with no curb between the plate and right field, giving the spectators a hard time when seated near the outfield fences.
When you compare the place to the Olympic Stadium, you were far from the action as an analysts and spectator, but the broadcasting studios were modern, the clubhouses were bigger and more accommodating.
Bizball: Do you feel as if the Olympic Stadium was as good a ballpark as any in the majors when filled with people and not the small crowds that became a usual occurrence in the latter days of the franchise?
Doucet: I would go as far as to say that even when there were only 20,000 fans in the ballpark, it was a far noisier and fun place than some other stadiums in the league, with the crowd really getting into it, despite some Americans describing the Montreal fanatics as not knowledgeable about the game. I disagree totally with those assertions.
Bizball: Describe to me both perfect games you attended.
Doucet: Obviously, the one in Los Angeles had a special meaning because Dennis Martinez was a member of the Expos. The other one, by David Cone, had a special flavor to it, as it was done in The House that Ruth Buit, but as an Expos fan and employee, it was against us, but it was a privilege to assists to both historical events. They say perfection is not a part of this world, but I had the chance of witnessing it twice.
Bizball: Did you feel any pressure to refrain from talking about a potential no-hitter or perfect game, in order to, as they say, not ‘jinx it’?
Doucet: It reminds me of the first no-hitter I broadcasted -- the second of Bill Stoneman’s career -- and at that time, I worked with Jean-Piere Roy, who was as superstitious as an old pitcher could be. He would never mention the fact that a no-hitter was in progress, even after six or seven innings, and it was bothering me a lot. When Claude Raymond (former Expos pitcher) came to work with me later, we began to talk of that game and he told me that, at that time, he was driving toward Drummondville for a conference and when he arrived at destination -- it was the first game of a doubleheader -- the game had reached the seventh inning and working with Roy, I had not mentioned the special event that was happening on the field.
When Raymond came back in his car after the conference, we were at the beginning of the second game and the pitcher at the time had retired the first seven batters to go up against him, so I said on the air: “Well, are we going to witness a second no-hitter in the same night?!”. Raymond was furious, because as a listener, he was not aware at the time of what was happening. So, when we began working together, I checked with him if it was ok if I mentioned a special event while it was in progress and he said ‘sure’, making it much easier for me.
It’s easier for a broadcaster to keep his listener if they know something special is taking place, especially if the score is 12-0.
Bizball: In 1989, you were in San Francisco when an earthquake caused significant damages to the city. Describe your experience for us.
Doucet: It was a traumatizing experience for me. We were just about to go on the air after 5PM, in the stadium, and after it happened, one of the two phone lines available to us was still working, so we were able to warn the radio station in Montreal (CKAC) of what had just happened.
We stayed there for over an hour, to give the time for everyone to quit the ballpark and we went directly to the hotel. There, our phone lines were up and we (with co-host Roger Brulotte) each took turn describing our experience to the Montreal listeners. With my recently purchased Walkman, I was also able to listen to reports from San Francisco station and relay the developments (crumbled highways, neighborhoods on fire, etc.) directly to the station in Montreal for the entire night.
The radio managers asked us if we wanted to get out of town and we said ‘as soon as humanly possible’. While there were no flight going out at that time, because of the earthquake, we were able to take a taxi ride to Sacramento ($250) and make the flight out of California.
A short while after the events, I was in an arena to assist a hockey game in Marieville and we had arrived early. Shortly after the preceding game that had just finished, I went to the cafeteria and while I was ordering my coffee, the Zamboni started to do its job on the ice, but it caused a vibration in the counter and I had to grab it by both hands, thinking it was another earthquake. The girl asked if I was ok after my strange reaction and she had to explain that it was the Zamboni on the ice causing the shaking. That’s how much it affected me in the short term.
Bizball: Could you describe the preparation needed before a game, a typical day for you at the ballpark?
Doucet: My work always began when I woke up, with the newspapers. Before the laptops, everything was done by hands (notes and research), but the information was also hard to get and most of the times restricted to the town in which the team was playing. I bought every magazine I could get my hands on, in order to build a good database on all players. Most people like strategies and stats, but for other listeners, you have to keep their attention with varied information.
I was never that much impressed or interested by all the stats available, I focused on the ones that had a direct relation to the play at hand, on top of the traditional numbers given in every broadcast, like the batting average, home runs, strikeouts, walks, etc.
When my pre-game show was prepared, I would go down to the clubhouse and my routine -- something that was established with Claude Raymond when we worked together -- would be to visit the manager and executive and I would let my partner do the work with the players. It made no sense to visit the guys twice to hear the same answer. It was boring for them and unpractical for us.
We would then enter the studio to record our pre-game segment and share the information we had just obtained from players, managers and others.
Bizball: Did you have a favorite broadcaster growing up or someone who’s been a strong influence?
Doucet: Well, Rene Lecavalier was my model. Earlier in my career, I was doing research for a weekly Expos broadcast on Radio-Canada, where Lecavalier handled the play-by-play duties, along with another man. One day, the co-host was sick and couldn’t do the job, so the producer was frenetically looking for a replacement and Lecavalier calmly said, “don’t worry, we have Doucet right here.” So the producer asked me if I wanted to have the job for that day and I certainly accepted! I would have even paid for the opportunity!
Bizball: Let’s talk about the Expos’ history. What would be your dream team if you had to choose among all former Expos players?
Doucet: I could definitely give you one, because if you didn’t already know, I’m currently writing a book with the help of Marc Robitaille. We are both members of SABR and Encore Baseball Montreal, so we are familiar with each other. For this project, he also asked me my dream team, so here it is:
- C: Gary Carter
- 1B: Andres Gallaraga
- 2B: Jose Vidro
- 3B: Tim Wallach
- SS: Orlando Cabrera
- OF: Vladimir Guerrero, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson
- Bench: Darrin Fletcher, Tony Perez, Ron Hunt, Chris Speier, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Ellis Valentine
- Pitchers: Steve Rogers, Dennis Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson, Bill Lee, Ross Grimsley, Jeff Reardon, John Wetteland
- Manager: Dick Williams, Gene Mauch, Felipe Alou, Perry Hill
- Pitching coach: Jim Brewer
- Hitting coach: Duke Snyder
- Bullpen coach: Pierre Arsenault
Bizball: John McHale passed away recently. How was he as a man and baseball executive?
Doucet: The Montreal franchise was blessed when he accepted to come here as President of the club. By coming here, he was instantly giving the team the credibility it sorely needed. Maybe a local guy could have done the job, but he was perfect at the time.
That’s really something I regret the Expos didn’t do more during their stay in the city; giving important jobs to Quebeckers or Canadians in the organization. That’s something the Blue Jays have done (and are still doing), but that the Expos didn’t put the emphasis on. Why not propose jobs to players who were retiring, like Claude Raymond. I was happy they didn’t ask him because he was my partner in the booth (laughs), but you get the idea. Guys like Denis Boucher, Marc Griffin, Rene Marchand…they all could have contributed to the team as coach or personnel for the franchise.
I remember when Alou supervised his first training as an instructor, just before I went to his home in West Palm Beach to write an article for the Expos magazine and he said to me, “Before you open your voice recorder, can I ask you a question? What am I doing here? Since 1969, the Expos have not trained or promoted a single manager from Quebec and Canada?”
Bizball: It’s funny you mention that, because in a book you wrote alongside Claude Raymond, called ‘Les Secrets du Baseball’ (Baseball’s Secrets), it was mentioned that the manager has an important role to play with the media and front office people. How were the relations between the Anglophone managers and the front office, which was led by Claude Brochu at one point, and the media?
Bizball: I think Brochu had the good instinct of not putting his nose in the baseball operations department. McHale was involved in that side of the team because he was previously a player and general manager before coming to Montreal.
But if you go back to the issue of putting local people in the organization, you could, for example, have sent Claude Raymond as a manager at the A-level in the minor leagues and then the local players we were recruiting would have had a French manager talking to them, putting them much more at ease.
When Rene Marchand retired, they gave him a job as a scout, but failed to give him the proper tools and money to be even remotely effective. He became frustrated and quit the organization.
Bizball: Are you a Blue Jays fans now that Montreal has lost its team?
Doucet: Yes, absolutely, because that’s a Canadian team. I went to a SABR convention in Toronto three years ago and they asked me to be the host of the ceremony where they were giving out some prizes. I had to present Blue Jays President Paul Godfrey and I warned the crowd and Mr. Godfrey to be careful and really take care of the team they already had and not make the same mistakes Montreal had done.
Bizball: And they are going strong now…
Doucet: Well, when Rogers bought the team, they had the good sense of putting money in the team.
That’s the sad part about the Expos; when the team was threatened to be moved to another city, not a single company or investor stepped up to the plate. When Charles Bronfman first decided to invest in the team in the beginning, it was against his father’s will, but he was doing it as a civic duty and clearly said that it would be good for the city, the province and the country.
Bizball: While we are on the subject, I’d like to read to you what former owner and President of the club, Claude Brochu, said about the difficulties of keeping the team in Montreal.
“The discussions with different levels of government, the negotiations for the TV/radio broadcasting deals, the revenue-sharing idea with MLB, the negative attitude by the local media, the lukewarm involvement by the business community and the weakness of the Canadian dollar, all ganged up against the very existence of this franchise."
What do you say to this analysis?
Doucet: He’s absolutely right!
Bizball: Could you tell me how you feel about the negative coverage by the Montreal media?
Doucet: In 2000, when Selig announced the possible contraction of the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos, the media completely surrendered, while everybody was up in arms in Minnesota. From that day forward, the newspapers in our city, except The Gazette (only English daily in city), diminished their coverage; they didn’t cover all of Spring Training and didn’t go to every games on the road. They should have done the complete opposite.
On the radio, there was a time when I almost went to my knees in front of Claude Brochu in order to get back into the organization, because after CKAC and CJMS merged, there was no more rivalry between the two stations. That was a time when the new station began to cut into baseball time, so they eliminated the World Series coverage, the All-Star coverage. Then they cut ten road games, then sixty!
I said, on the air, what kind of a message is this when the number one radio station in its market decides to cut 60 ball games from its schedule. I was reprimanded for that, but I maintained my position nonetheless.
Bizball: What was your reaction when they decided to eliminate the English broadcasts of the Expos in 2000?
Doucet: That was a decision by Jeffrey Loria and [David] Samson (Read The Biz of Baseball interview with David Samson). When they got here, they arrived with their way of doing things.
Think about it... If I’m going to work in another town or country, I’ll try and create bonds with people around me, instead of imposing my will on people. Well, that’s exactly the mistake they made, intentional or not.
I talked with the president of a TV network in Quebec and he told me about the first meeting the media had with Loria and Samson. When they got into the meeting, there was a document on the table that was basically, "Here’s what we are expecting from you." The guy put it back down on the table, went up to Loria and said, "It was nice meeting you sir.” He then quickly adjourned the meeting.
The first contract signed with CKAC for the French radio broadcast was signed at 4pm on Opening Day. I did not even know I was going to work that day and the owner did not even take the time to call me. I learned that I was working on the way to the stadium that day, on the airwaves.
That said, I have a tremendous amount of respect for The Gazette and the Canadian Press for covering the team during its entire existence, but I am disappointed in La Presse, Le Journal de Montreal and the others for diminishing their involvement with the team.
Bizball: What was the impact of the 1981 and 1994 strikes on the team and the fans?
Doucet: In 1981, there was people buying single-game and season tickets week after week, the luxury suites were a hot commodity and there were new advertisers on radio and TV, although we didn’t get to the World Series. It was a good time for the franchise.
In 1994, the momentum and atmosphere were incredible, but not only did they go on strike, but the World Series was cancelled. I’m pretty sure the strikes didn’t do that much damage, although after talking with Brochu in 1994, he told me that the possible revenue they could have made during the remaining games of the season and playoffs was around $US 20 M. Instead, they had to take a $US 20 M loan.
Bizball: But why would they do a fire sale after ’94 when star players like Larry Walker admitted that they would have been prepared to take sign to a hometown discount in order to stay with the team?
Doucet: We’ll never know. Was it the investors who refused to give the money to Brochu and keep the players or did Brochu choose not to ask in the first place and then watched the players being traded and signed elsewhere? We’ll never know.
Bizball: What was your reaction in 2003 when MLB decided not to pay the replacement players from the minor leagues in order to help the team make the playoffs?
Doucet: Disgust. It was proof of a conflict of interest on the part of Major League Baseball.
Bizball: How would you qualify the years under MLB ownership?
Doucet: We basically got to enjoy the team three more years, always hoping that an investor would finally decide to buy the team and keep it in the city, but nothing happened.
I find it absurd that Loria chose to sell the team for $120 million to MLB, that we could have bought the club for $100 million a year later, but was finally sold to Washington, DC ownership group for $350 million.
Bizball: Do you agree with baseball owners who recently extended Bud Selig’s contract?
Doucet: I’m not a big fan of his, but I am forced to admit that he did some good things, like the Wild Card, and revenue-sharing. But even that comes from Brochu!
I don’t like the fact that he didn’t keep the team in Montreal and that he closed his eyes on the steroids problem.
Bizball: When the team was forced to play ‘home’ games in Puerto Rico, was it a tiring experience for you and the team?
Doucet: It was no fun at all. During the last season, in 2004, we made a trip from Puerto Rico to Seattle! The installations over there were subpar, but we had to live with it. It’s funny to think that now there are again talks of the Marlins playing games over there, and look who’s the owner of the team.
Bizball: How were players reacting to the problems outside the lines? Did they like playing in the Montreal?
Doucet: Yes, for the most part they liked the city and playing here, but let’s face it: the important thing for them was to have a contract and playing every season. When there was a threat of contraction, that’s when they wanted to get out, because contraction means the club doesn’t exist anymore and you lose your job.
Bizball: Finally, can you describe your last game for the Expos at Shea Stadium?
Doucet: I was very sad, of course. But most of all, it was disheartening to see that Frank Robinson had not put the best players in the starting lineup.
The first three innings went quick, the middle third was becoming a bit harder, but the last three innings were really tough for me. It was a last and unequivocal goodbye to the team. I did not even go to the clubhouse afterwards, I had to turn the page and that was the best way for me to do so.
Interview conducted, translated, and transcribed by Dave Rouleau
Edited by Devon Teeple and Maury Brown