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Can't Forget 'Coco': Former Expo Laboy, '69 NL Rookie Of Year, Has Only Fond Memories About Montreal
April 8, 2003
Fans of the Expos' early days will remember the name Coco Laboy, and the 1969 National League rookie of the year hasn't forgotten Montreal, either.
"I was glad the Expos drafted me (from the St. Louis Cardinals organization in the 1969 expansion draft) because I had a chance to play," the former Expos third baseman said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where he was born and attended school. "Montreal was a great town. I was treated very well. Everything that happened to me there was very good.
"A French-Canadian family helped us find a place to live. They were great friends. Too bad I don't know how to contact them now. We loved everything about Montreal."
Laboy's two children, Eunice, 22, and Alberto, 21, were born during his time with the Expos (1969-73).
Laboy, whose real name is Jose Alberto Laboy, laughed when asked if there's a history to his "Coco" nickname.
"My mother used to call me Coco - I don't know why," said the 62-year-old Laboy, who retired recently after 27 years working for the Puerto Rican government, including the last 10 in charge of the country's wide and varied sports programs.
Laboy, who was always sound defensively, was voted the 1969 NL rookie of the year in a players' poll because of his offence. He led the Expos in their first season with 29 doubles and 83 RBIs, and his 18 homers were third-best on the team behind Rusty Staub's 29 and Mack Jones's 22.
In 1970, Laboy's average dropped from .258 to .199. "Every time I hit the ball solid, I smacked it right at somebody," he recalled.
Even though he led the team again in 1970 with 26 doubles, Laboy worried about the drop in his other offensive numbers and was determined to work extra hard during the offseason. However, in the first game of the Puerto Rican winter-league season, he damaged cartilage in his right knee. He had only 151 at-bats with the Expos in 1971 and spent most of the 1972 season on the disabled list after undergoing knee surgery in March.
After going through rehab, Laboy played himself back into shape with the Expos' Triple-A Peninsula team in Newport News, Va. He was recalled in early September and was at third base for the first game of an Oct. 2, 1972 doubleheader against the New York Mets at Jarry Park when Bill Stoneman pitched his second no-hitter with the Expos. Laboy was also at third base for Stoneman's first no-hitter on April 17, 1969.
"Coco was the only player who started in both those games," Stoneman, the vice-president and general manager of the World Series champion Anaheim Angels, recalled a few years ago when he was an Expos executive. "I can't remember if he had any tough plays to make, but it was comforting to know he was there because he was our best defensive third baseman. He had good hands and a great arm."
Current Expos coach Claude Raymond, a key man in the bullpen during the Expos' early years, had an explanation for why Laboy struggled at the plate after his brilliant rookie season.
"He was always a good defensive player, but after that first year he saw fewer fastballs," Raymond explained. "As the Expos got better, pitchers were much more careful with him."
Jim Fanning, the Expos' original general manager, wasn't expecting too much when he selected Laboy in the expansion draft. Laboy was playing with the Cardinals' Triple-A team in Tulsa, Okla., at the time.
"We were pleasantly surprised at training camp," Fanning recalled. "He was sound fundamentally and that was what (manager Mauch Mauch) wanted. Mauch liked players who didn't make a noise. Laboy became one of his favourites and Coco repaid the confidence that was given him."
John McHale, the Expos' original president and CEO, remembers Laboy as a "perfect gentleman and a plus for the team on and off the field."
"He had a million-dollar name and the fans loved it," McHale added.
Laboy's son, Alberto, was a good amateur baseball player, but was felled by a similar knee injury to the one that cut his father's career short. Alberto currently works for the Puerto Rican government, specializing in children's programs. Laboy's daughter, Eunice, works for a women's welfare program.
Although he was injured a lot during his career, Laboy still qualified for the major-league pension with five years of service. The amount is comparable with what he gets from the Puerto Rican government and allows for a comfortable lifestyle.
Laboy said he might take in a few, "but not many" of the 22 games the Expos will play this season at San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, beginning Friday.
"It is a 21/2-hour hour drive from Ponce," he explained
Laboy said Jose Vidro, the Expos' current second baseman, is now a big star in his native Puerto Rico.
This Date in Expos History
2002 - Michael Barrett hit a two-run double and a three-run homer in a 10-2 win over the Marlins in Florida.
1991 - Ivan Calderon had three hits, including a homer, in his Expos debut.
1969 - In their first game ever, the Expos defeated the New York Mets 11-10 at Shea Stadium. Pitcher Dan McGinn hit the first home run in Expos history.