Kinston Expos

From BR Bullpen

Introduction[edit]

The Kinston Expos represented a one-year failed experiment by the Montreal Expos to run a second high Class A team in 1974. From the time they were created in 1969, the Montreal Expos had operated an affiliate in the Class A Florida State League, the West Palm Beach Expos, which quickly became a very successful team. As the organization filled out with players following the first few amateur drafts and free-agent signings, the Expos needed to add more affiliates, included short-season Class A teams in the Northern League in 1970 and 1971, and then in the New York-Penn League from 1971 to 1973. In 1974, Montreal decided that it needed a higher level of competition for its second Class A franchise and took over the Kinston Eagles, who had been members of the Carolina League since 1962 but had played the 1973 season without a major league affiliation. The name Eagles was strongly identified with the city of Kinston, NC, having been used by all its teams since 1925, but that didn't stop Montreal from breaking tradition and calling its new affiliate the Expos.

The Team[edit]

The major problem of the Kinston Expos was that the Montreal organization simply did not have enough good players to staff two high-level class A teams. The better-established West Palm Beach affiliate received the pick of the Expos' players, and finished the 1974 season with an excellent record of 79-53. Kinston had to make do with the rest, and it was quite a mediocre lot which compiled a woeful 38-93 record, for a winning percentage below .300. Kinston was managed by Jack Damaska, an infielder who had played a handful of games with the 1963 Cardinals before completing his playing career with two seasons in the Expos' organization in 1972 and 1973, as a player-coach. During the season, Kinston used 48 players, way more than any team in the league. Damaska said that a good part of his job was releasing players (more than a dozen from his own estimation)! This was his first managerial opportunity, and in light of the team's complete lack of success, the only one he would ever get in the Expos' organization.

Team Hitting[edit]

The team's best hitter was third baseman Eddie Gates - whose main claim to fame is to have been the 1978 Southern League MVP with the Memphis Chicks - who hit 16 home runs and drove in 74 runs with a .263 average. No other player hit more than 6 home runs. The other offensive contributor was first baseman Greg Biagini, who hit .306 and drove in 67 runs. Neither of them were considered prime prospects at the time, and although they hung around the Expos' organization for a number of years, neither made the majors. Biagini did reach the majors as a hitting coach, however.

The two hitters who did reach the major leagues did so by very different paths. Outfielder Don Hopkins was one of the fastest players in organized baseball; he had stolen 63 bases in 70 games at Jamestown in 1972, and 58 in 85 games between A and AA in 1973. However he had never hit a home run as a professional and had trouble maintaining a .250 batting average. At Kinston, he managed to hit .301 in 82 games, before earning promotions to AA and AAA, to help playoff-bound teams with his running ability. In spring training 1975, the Oakland Athletics purchased him from the Expos to make him a full-time pinch runner, alongside former track star Herb Washington, whom Hopkins eventually pushed out of a job.

The other Kinston position player to reach the majors took much longer: second baseman Tony Bernazard was getting his first taste of professional ball in 1974 and was badly overmatched, hitting barely .200 with no power in 56 games before being sent down to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League to finish the season. It would take Bernazard until 1979 to reach the majors, but once there he had himself a nice career as a second baseman with some power. He later became an assistant to Omar Minaya, the general manager of the New York Mets.

Team Pitching[edit]

The Kinston Expos definitely lacked stability on the mound. No less than 24 men took a turn on the mound for the team that year, an extremely high total for that time. Of the 21 pitchers who had at least one decision, only one had a winning record: Canadian Dave MacQuarrie, who went 4-2 in 9 games. No one had an outrageously bad year, but no one stood out either. The best pitcher was probably Stan Kmet, who went 7-7 (the only other pitcher to reach .500 besides MacQuarrie) with a 3.30 ERA. Four members of the staff eventually pitched in the major leagues: Hal Dues, Joe Kerrigan, Craig Minetto and Shane Rawley; they were a combined 8-19. For such a wretched team, it is strange that there were no big losers on the staff, but in fact three pitchers tied for the team lead in losses with 10 - including Kerrigan -, a perfectly unremarkable number. What sank the team was general mediocrity, instead of glaring weaknesses. It should be remembered that the other teams in the League were composed of their parent club's best prospects at that level, so it is no surprise that the Expos were badly outmatched in terms of talent.

The Aftermath[edit]

The Kinston Expos' dreadful record proved that it was not worth the effort for the Expos to run a second high-level class A team, and they pulled out of their relationship with the franchise. The decision left Damaska without a job and he would never get back in baseball. The Expos' decision to leave Kinston almost brought down the whole Carolina League. Left without a major-league parent, Kinston had to fold its franchise, accompanied by the unaffiliated Peninsula Pennants. That took the Carolina League down to four cities for the 1975 season: Lynchburg, VA, Rocky Mount, NC, Salem, VA and Winston-Salem, NC, the bare minimum for survival. The league would teeter on the brink of extinction for three years (the league was forced to play an interlocking schedule with the low-A South Atlantic League in 1975-1976), until it began an aggressive campaign of expansion, adding two cities in 1978 and two more in 1981 to bring it to a healthy eight teams. Kinston would be part of the first expansion, playing one season as an unaffiliated team under the traditional Eagles name, before finding long-term stability in an agreement with the Toronto Blue Jays.