Dealt at the deadline

  • Above, Greenfield native Peter Bergeron (sitting with hat) signs with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being drafted in the fourth round of the 1996 Major League Baseball entry draft. He is flanked by (left to right) father Bob, sister Kristina, mother Janice and Dodgers’ scout John Kosciak. Twenty years ago, today, Bergeron was dealt to the Montreal Expos in a seven-player deal and the next season he was called up to the Majors with Montreal. recorder file photos

  • On the day he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a grinning Peter Bergeron never imagined he would be traded to the Montreal Expos within two years’ time. recorder file photo

  • Peter Bergeron, formerly a player for the Montreal Expos, now a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, spoke at the Greenfield Public Library in 2017. recorder file photo

  • Pete Bergeron, formerly a player for the Montreal Expos, now a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, speaks at Greenfield library where they had a raffle to benefit the fund for the library created in his mother's name, the Janice Bohonowicz Memorial Fund, Sunday, April 2, 2017. Matt Burkhartt

Staff Writer
Published: 7/30/2018 11:05:19 PM

There was a grim realization confronting Jim Beattie when he woke up on July 31, 1998.

The winds of change were inevitable.

Staring at the NL East standings, the General Manager of the Montreal Expos couldn’t have been encouraged. His Expos stood at 42-66 overall, ahead of only the Florida Marlins in the East. That would be the same Marlins that went on to set the mark for worst record in franchise history after the club was gutted following a World Series title in 1997.

It was the first year in what eventually became a four-year span where Montreal went just 268-380 overall. That factors out to a .414 winning percentage.

The day that followed meant different things to different organizations. It meant different things to many players as well. 

For our purposes, Montreal’s sub-par record was one side of the equation. Add in a Los Angeles Dodgers club looking to make a push for a playoff berth, and you had perfect dance partners for a trade.

Peter Bergeron was in El Paso, Texas that Friday, the final day of July. Just a 20-year-old top prospect at the time, the Greenfield native had no idea what was on the horizon. Now, 20 years to the day, Bergeron looked back on the trade that sparked his professional career.

Burning up the Texas League

Considering the season he was having, it was no surprise that other teams coveted Bergeron as a player.

The outfielder was taken in the fourth round of the 1996 Major League Baseball Draft by the Dodgers. Long a cornerstone franchise of the league, the Los Angeles organization enjoyed the fruits of Bergeron’s labors during the ’96 and ’97 seasons in the minors before he broke out in 1998. Assigned to Double-A San Antonio of the Texas League, Bergeron turned heads that summer. In 109 games with the club, he batted .317 with eight home runs, 54 RBIs and 33 stolen bases and an on-base percentage over .400. The week before the 1998 trade deadline, Baseball America called Bergeron the best defensive outfielder in the Texas League.

“I was having a great year in San Antonio,” recalled Bergeron, now a professional scout for the Dodgers, on the phone last week while watching the Mets play in New York. “We had a great team, and personally, I was having a pretty good season.”

When San Antonio rolled into El Paso to play the Diablos for a weekend series, there was no indication that Bergeron’s career with the Dodgers organization was about to come to an abrupt end.

Big League build-up

The Dodgers viewed the 1998 trade deadline in much different fashion than the Expos.

Tommy Lasorda, the former longtime manager of the club, was hired as the interim GM just a month before the deadline. The team was 56-52 as July 31 rolled around, within striking distance of a playoff spot.

Lasorda decided to go for it.

Looking for established major leaguers to help give L.A. a shot at winning a World Series, he worked a deal with Montreal that directly impacted Greenfield’s native son.

The Dodgers sent major league second baseman Wilton Guerrero along with minor leaguers Bergeron, Ted Lilly and Jonathan Tucker to Montreal for shortstop Mark Grudzielanek, starting pitcher Carlos Perez and minor-leaguer Hiram Bocachica.

“They went for the prospects,” Lasorda told the Associated Press of the Expos following the trade. “We went for the guys who can help us right now. We’ve got to get this club into the playoffs.”

Montreal acquired Guerrero to pair him with brother Vladimir, the team’s star outfielder, in the Expos starting lineup. As it turned out, the core of the trade had been talked about for months.

“We had discussions with the Dodgers in the offseason,” Beattie said afterward. “They wanted Mark and we wanted Wilton. We’ve had ongoing discussions.”

Deep in the heart of Texas

Mother Nature had Bergeron thinking it would be an uneventful evening in El Paso.

The Missions had their game against the Diablos rained out on July 31. But as the trade deadline approached, Bergeron and Tucker, his teammate with the Missions, were summoned into manager Ron Roenicke’s office. Now the bench coach for the Boston Red Sox, Roenicke got right to the point.

“He didn’t mince words,” began Bergeron of the conversation with his manager. “It was, ‘You’ve been traded. Good luck. Hopefully this works out for you.’ He probably said a few more things but I didn’t remember a lot of words after he said, ‘You’re traded.’”

With that, Bergeron was now a member of the Montreal organization. Just over two years after being drafted by the Dodgers, he had been traded.

“Certainly the media attention wasn’t what it is now, back then,” said Bergeron of the build-up to the deal. “I never saw my name mentioned regarding trades or trade rumors. There was no indication that I would’ve been traded. I guess you always know that it could happen, but I was young enough and naive enough to think that it wasn’t going to happen to me.”

Bergeron rode the team bus back to the hotel and waited for a phone call from Montreal about his next destination. He would be assigned to Double-A Harrisburg (Penn.) in the Eastern League, which gave his friends and family a better opportunity to see him play in person.

“It was a whirlwind couple of days,” he admitted. “The good news was that I went from one good team to another. After I was traded, everyone tried putting a silver lining on it, but to be honest, it did work out for me, because I was put in a good situation. Some guys get traded away from where they want to be and that can be tough. But that wasn’t the case for me. And I had some familiar faces coming over with me in the trade, so I had people I knew.”

One of those people in the trade was left-handed pitcher Ted Lilly. A 22-year-old at the time, Lilly was in AAA when he was sent along with Bergeron, Guerrero and Tucker to Montreal. Lilly probably had the best career of anyone in the deal. In 15 seasons in the big leagues, he went 130-113 with a 4.14 ERA pitching for six different organizations after making his debut in 1999 with Montreal.

Bergeron was friends with Lilly at the time of the trade, and although he can’t confirm it for certain, was told that the pitcher’s reaction to the deal was memorable.

“We had played together and were close through the years,” Bergeron began of Lilly. “Supposedly, and I can’t confirm it but it’s kind of a funny story, when (Lilly) got told he was traded from AAA his immediate reaction was, ‘I can’t believe they traded Peter.’”

Montreal property

Back in the Northeast, Bergeron quickly got to work for his new club in Harrisburg. 

He batted .246 in 34 games the rest of the season, and the club went on to win the Eastern League championship thanks to a 3-1 series victory over the New Britain Rock Cats in the finals.

“I welcomed the opportunity,” he said of the new home. “The Dodgers had really instilled the history of the franchise and a family attitude. I was drafted by them and, I think, naive enough to think that if I was going to make the big leagues, it would be with them. But I think the trade brought the whole process together maybe quicker than it would’ve been with the Dodgers.”

Bergeron started the 1999 season scorching hot, batting .327 in 42 games with Harrisburg before getting promoted to AAA Ottawa. He batted .314 there in 58 games, smacking three home runs and 20 RBIs, and in a total of 100 games for the two teams that season, he would hit a combined .320 with 23 stolen bases as a leadoff hitter.

That September, he got the call he’d been waiting for. At just 21 years old, Bergeron made his Major League debut on September 7, 1999 with the Expos. He was the team’s everyday center fielder and lead-off hitter the following season.

“I made it to the big leagues at a young age with really no veteran guys blocking the path,” he explained. “It worked out in that I was able to get there quicker than I probably would have with the Dodgers. (Montreal) had a history of bringing young guys up and seeing what they could do.”

Returning to play games in Los Angeles as a member of the Expos over the next few seasons, Bergeron said his affection for the club that drafted him never wavered despite the deal in ‘98.

“I was never angry or disappointed with them for trading me,” he offered. “I got to the place in my mind where the Dodgers meant something special and different than any other team in the league. Even going back there and playing games at Dodger Stadium, it meant more to me than the other places because once I was drafted, I spent so much time wearing Dodger hats and working out in Dodgertown. That doesn’t just go away.”

1998 aftermath

Looking back on the trade that sent Bergeron to Montreal, the Dodgers didn’t exactly gain the edge they were seeking following the swap. 

Grudzielanek batted .264 with two home runs and 21 RBIs in 51 games with L.A., while Perez was 4-4 with a 3.24 ERA in 10 starts down the stretch. The team went 27-27 the rest of the way, finishing 83-79 overall. That was only good enough for a third-place finish in the NL West, putting them out of the playoff hunt.

Grudzielanek ultimately played four more seasons with the Dodgers before finishing his 15-year career with the Cubs, Cardinals, Royals and Indians. He retired in 2010.

“I ran into him in Spring Training one year,” said Bergeron of Grudzielanek. “I introduced myself and told him I got traded for him once. He was gracious. We laughed about it.”

Perez ended up with an 11-22 record and 5.52 ERA in Dodger blue before his career came to an end in 2000.

Lasorda resigned as GM after the season and was appointed as Senior Vice-President of the club.

The Expos wound up 65-97 in 1998, tying for the third-fewest wins in all of baseball.

Wilton Guerrero hit .284 in 52 games following the trade, and he retired in 2004. Lilly appeared in just nine games on the mound in 1999 with the Expos before being dealt to the Yankees in a deal that sent Hideki Irabu to Montreal. He also pitched for the Athletics, Blue Jays and Cubs before coincidentally finishing his career with the Dodgers. He retired in 2013.

Twenty years later

Bergeron’s career has come full circle in the 20 years that passed since his trade to Montreal. He lives back in Greenfield with wife Jennifer and three children — daughters Amber and Tayler, and son Connor. And he’s back with the Dodgers, hired as a scout in 2013. He finds himself on the other side of the trade equation these days.

The Dodgers lead the NL West by half a game over Arizona as this year’s deadline arrives today, though they already made perhaps the biggest splash of the summer with a trade on July 18. The club acquired All-Star shortstop Manny Machado from the Baltimore Orioles for five prospects: outfielder Yusniel Diaz, right-hander Dean Kremer, third baseman Rylan Bannon, righty Zach Pop and third baseman Breyvic Valera.

Bergeron knows a little something about how those minor leaguers felt.

“It’s crazy, but it’s no longer like a trade deadline week or day. It’s more like a month. It seems like things are happening earlier and earlier each year,” he explained. “Teams are trying to get a jump on other teams.”

Like they did when they made the deal in 1998, the Dodgers are hoping that a big deadline acquisition can propel them deep into the playoffs.

“I’m sure Machado loved Baltimore and that’s the only place he knows, but going from a last-place team to a first-place team, you welcome things like that as a player,” Bergeron said.

The Machado trade gives the Dodgers a middle of the order bat at the expense of some talented minor leaguers.

“The Dodgers are in a position where fortunately they’re in first place so they’re looking to add Major League talent, not looking to dump guys,” he said. “We had meetings at the very beginning of the month, had our eyes open all the time. Leading into this week, it’s all about flexibility. I have a schedule of places I need to be but when something happens, that all goes out the window.”

While it’s been two decades since his own introduction into the professional trade worlds, the now 40-year-old Bergeron said the moment does still cross his mind from time to time.

“Twenty years seems like a long time, and it is a long time,” he said. “Certainly time has passed, and a lot has changed since then. In some ways, it’s a distant memory because of how much has happened in my life since then. But I can still remember the day and all that. It’s always going to be there in some way.”

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