If nothing else, Jonah Keri’s Up, Up, and Away taught me that the French term for knuckleball is “balle papillon”—literally, butterfly ball. That alone was worth the cost of admission.
Of course, that is not the only thing of value in Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos (the longest title ever?) by a long shot. What Keri succeeds in doing in the book is distilling the 36-year history of the first Canadian franchise into roughly 400 pages of highly readable and enjoyable narrative.
The larger scope works to advantage of the book, as opposed to our last pick, because Keri is able to move quickly through events rather than get bogged down in the individual details. Rather than recreate Rusty Staub’s Baseball-Reference entry, the reader is shown what Le Grand Orange meant to the early Expos and the Montrealers braving the elements at Jarry Park.
In his writing on the spaces the Expos existed in — Jarry Park, Olympic Stadium, the hearts and minds of the fanbase — Keri really excels, creating a story that is accessible and relatable to anyone, whether you watched the Expos play in one of those horrible stadiums or can’t remember a time before the Washington Nationals. But it’s not just those places, of course, it’s the people in Up, Up, and Away that provide the most endearing narrative.
Every team has its characters. Cleveland has more than a century worth of heroes, scamps, and good guys (as author Bob Dolgan termed them) to draw from, and even though the Expos lasted just a fraction of that time, Up, Up, and Away makes you fall in love with Staub and Gary Carter and Tim Raines and Vlad Guerrero — for the first time or all over again — because of Keri’s insightful writing. His blend of personal experience, objective fact, oral history, and anecdotal storytelling creates a compelling story with characters you can’t help but be charmed by. Though it is not as if the book gushes with affection for the players, as Keri balances his fandom with facts well and lets others do some of the heavy lifting, like allowing players such as Darren Fletcher to speak with authority about the talent on the field for the Expos.
Likewise, Up, Up, and Away pulls no punches about the flaws of the characters. Rampant drug use is not excused as a “different time,” raw skill is no excuse for under-performing, and bad luck is no excuse for civic indifference. The most surprising element of the book was the level to which Keri holds Montreal responsible for the demise of the Expos. Yes, he puts the blame squarely upon the shoulders of grossly incompetent owners, but he does not entirely excuse the local government, local business establishment, or the local population for their role in the team’s ultimate fate. Also surprising was the level to which Jeffrey Loria comes out of this book seeming like a decent person. Of course, by what he did in Miami we know Loria is not a decent person, but Keri does not equivocate about the fact that Loria tried as owner of the Expos. When it became obvious things would not work out in Montreal, he made the most of the situation for himself, but his descent to baseball villainy is not due to his time running the Expos.
As a return of baseball to Montreal inches toward reality, I could easily find myself returning to Up, Up, and Away, and likely finding more to love about the book and the Expos. Keri’s book is described on the cover as a “love letter” to the team and the city, and that love comes through; this is little surprise to fans of his work from Baseball Prospectus or Grantland or his podcast or anywhere else. His style is authentic and (as he described in our interview) enthusiastic, and that comes through in the book and makes it a winner.