Henry Rodriguez's 1996 in Montreal was Underappreciated
As a few of my friends and followers know, besides being a die-hard New York Met fan, I am a true believer in Major League Baseball needing to return to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. I’ve written a previous Professional 3 on why Labatt Park would work today in downtown Montreal. Ever since that piece, I’ve been reading as much as I can on the history of Montreal baseball and what has been happening since.
I give a wealth of credit to the Montreal Baseball Project; led by former Expo Warren Cromartie, for trying to bring the game back to the city. I give major props to Jonah Keri and his book “Up Up and Away” for the definitive history behind the Expos. I also credit the die-hard fan base of Expos Nation for keeping the dream alive for fans to get behind Montreal baseball.
As a guy from the Tri-State area, I can only live in the memories of watching the Expos play their final game of existence at Shea Stadium in 2004, as Endy Chavez (future Mets postseason hero with “the Catch” in 2006) grounded out to officially close out that chapter of Quebec baseball. It was as sad to see then as it is sad to see now. History has never been the same for me as it has come for how the National League East used to be.
Speaking of baseball history, we all know about the legacy of Gary Carter, Pedro Martinez, the 1981 and 1994 teams, and Vladimir Guerrero’s career in Quebec. However, there are certain years where players had a dynamite season that is not remembered well in the minds of casual fans. I’ve always felt that one player in Montreal, in particular, had an excellent season in 1996 and, due to the struggles and the despair of fans because of 1994, never got the props it deserved from Montreal fans alike. Just personal opinion, but I definitely felt it was a great season for this man and is overlooked due to the final years of struggles and woe in Montreal.
That man was Henry Rodriguez.
“OH HENRY!” was a cult figure in Montreal for the two-plus seasons he was an Expo. Born in the Dominican Republic in 1967, Rodriguez was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers as an amateur free agent on July 14, 1985. Showing underrated power in 1990 as a part of the Texas League, the Dodgers minor-league system mistook Rodriguez as a power hitter and demanded more power production from him in 1991. Instead, his home run numbers diminished in the minors. Although he made his way to the Dodgers as a major leaguer in 1992, he was always platooned or utilized as a fourth outfielder in Tommy Lasorda’s strategy.
Rodriguez wound up being traded to the Montreal Expos on May 23, 1995 for Joey Eischen and outfielder Roberto Kelly. In his three-plus seasons as a Dodger, Rodriguez only batted .246 in 759 plate appearances with only 20 home runs and 96 RBIs. The remaining part of 1995 wasn’t impressive for Rodriguez, only playing in 24 games and batting .207, but 1996, Rodriguez came into his own.
PHOTO CREDIT: RDS.ca
Demonstrating his power, Rodriguez walloped 36 home runs and drove in 103 RBIs with a .276 batting average in his first full season as an everyday player. Splitting time between left field and first base, he became quite a cult phenomenon to Expos fans. Thanks to the tremendous broadcasting of Rodger Brulotte, every time Rodriguez hit a home run, Brulotte’s call of “OH HENRY!” helped link him to a particular candy bar. Fans would throw “Oh Henry!” candy bars onto the field in honor of a Rodriguez round-tripper, normally stopping the game for a few moments as officials would have to clean up the field. That is another tremendous example of fan participation that the Expos fans deserve props for, as it was very creative and innovative.
Regardless, Rodriguez, combined with Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Pedro Martinez, and Mark Grudzielanek, helped lead Montreal to an 88-74 second place finish in the NL East. Rodriguez’s contributions were so positive towards the Expos in 1996; he finished 17th in MVP voting, receiving 2% of the vote, as well as a selection to the 1996 All-Star team. Getting an opportunity to truly play in Montreal, Rodriguez maximized his minutes and got his just desserts for it.
Being this is the Professional 3, here are the top three moments that I remember from the 1996 season that really made “Oh Henry!” stand out for the Expos in that particular year.
9/27/96: GRAND SLAM OFF SCHILLING – A few days after the infamous Pedro Martinez vs the Philadelphia Phillies base brawl that took place in Veterans Stadium, the Expos faced off against Curt Schilling. Personally, as an anti-Schilling guy, I smiled big seeing this back on ESPN. After rolling through the first five innings, Schilling ran into some trouble. After having the bases loaded and already one run in off a David Segui RBI, Rodriguez came to the dish and unloaded the bases for a grand slam, shutting down the Phillies with a 5-2 win. With one swing, Rodriguez hit his 36th homer of the year and got to 100 RBIs, the first time in his career he would be able to do so.
8/12/96: RODRIGUEZ VS DARWIN – On August 12, 1996, the Astros played at Olympic Stadium against the Expos. In the second inning, Rodriguez took veteran Danny Darwin deep with his 30th home run and, in Darwin’s mind, took too much time admiring the smash. The next inning, with the Expos up 6-1, Rodriguez came up to the plate to face Darwin again. After going inside on the first pitch, Darwin beaned Rodriguez in the back on the second. Getting lit up and being treated as an example to Darwin’s views and frustration, Rodriguez took no garbage and bolted out to the pitcher’s mound, taking down Darwin, and the benches cleared. Although Rodriguez defended himself, it kicked off a fantastic brawl, including Jeff Juden’s insanity and Terry Collins, then-manager of the Astros, getting a terrible laceration after getting hit in the face with a batting helmet. “Oh Henry!” got a four-game suspension, but he showcased his toughness by not backing down and defending himself against a frustrated Darwin.
7/9/16: OH HENRY! IN THE HOME RUN DERBY – Being nominated as an All-Star in 1996 along with his teammates Pedro Martinez and Mark Grudzielanek, Rodriguez was also placed into the MLB Home Run Derby on July 9, 1996. Showcasing his power streak early on in the year, Rodriguez had a chance to make an impact on the national stage. Finishing in 5th, Rodriguez didn’t necessarily end strong stats wise, but one drive went into the second deck of Veterans Stadium. It was an incredible feat of strength from a guy with underrated stroke at the dish. At least he didn’t finish off like Gary Sheffield or Greg Vaughn with zero!
Overall, Rodriguez’s 1996 is overlooked from the final years of Expos history. Getting a substantial pay raise to $2 million in 1997 compared to $220,000 in 1996, Rodriguez underperformed in 1997, hitting only .244 with 26 home runs with 83 RBIs, forcing Montreal to trade him to Chicago for the 1998 campaign. Five years later, “Oh Henry!” was out of MLB, last playing, coincidentally, in a Montreal uniform.
I feel that the Expos need to come back to Montreal sooner rather than later. If that does happen, I would love to see guys not just from the 1981 and 1994 teams get love and respect for their contributions for the franchise. The 1996 for Henry Rodriguez is a great example of that. Keep it up Expos fans; let’s hope a team comes sooner rather than later.
Until then, I’m going to eat an “Oh Henry!” Bar and get yelled for eating sweets by my girlfriend.