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THE STATE OF THE GAME

Adieu, Expos
By David W. Monahan

On the evening of Mercredi, 29 Septembre 2004, the Montreal Expos played their last home game ever, against the Florida Marlins. The American sports media paid faint attention. The return of baseball to Washington, D.C.—announced hours earlier at a press conference heralding the relocation of the Expos—was big news in the States. The final farewell for the club to its home since 1969 was not. But a large crowd came to Olympic Stadium to say good-bye to their once-beloved team.

My friend Geoff and I made the long drive from Boston to attend the game. For the third consecutive year we had purchased tickets for the season finale in April, just in case. Montreal clung to its team by a thread the entire time, as Commissioner Bud Selig's office ran the enterprise on a shoestring budget. Major League Baseball dissed the Quebecois fans and the travel-weary players by sending the Expos to Puerto Rico for two homestands each of the past two seasons. In 2004, the end came, mercifully.

If your knowledge of the Expos is only what they have told you on ESPN for the past few years, you may think baseball was a failed experiment in a hockey town. That's not true. Baseball was an unmitigated success in Montreal, until stingy owners and the league starved the franchise. The Expos have been the butt of many a joke recently, criticized for their lack of fan support. But take a look, for example, at Montreal's average attendance for the 1980s: almost 23,000 fans per game. That's substantially better than the average attendance during the decade for two now-thriving franchises: the Atlanta Braves, who drew about 16,000 fans per game; and the Cleveland Indians, who drew fewer than 13,000 to their "Mistake on the Lake."

After a decade of neglect and disrespect, the sophisticated fans of Montreal have been preparing themselves for life without the Expos for a while. On the balmy afternoon of the finale, there was nary a sign on the bustling streets of the city that history was to be made that night.

But once we hopped on the metro for the trip to the ballpark, we felt the energy that must have coursed through this franchise in its heyday. Arriving at Pie-X station, a culturally diverse crowd clamored up the indoor ramp that leads into the stadium. A line snaked out the door from the Expos souvenir shop.

Near the stadium turnstiles, Encore Baseball Montreal, a group dedicated to keeping the Expos in Montreal, hawked T-shirts to raise funds. They proclaimed either "Save Our Expos" or "Gardons Nos Expos." The group's rally a week earlier had attracted almost a thousand fans. Walking into the stadium, one saw a stirring sight. In a nice touch, the fans were allowed to take the field for the entire pregame period. Fans posed for pictures making circus catches against the outfield fence, kneeled down to touch the (artificial) turf, and rimmed the roped-off infield dirt, taking in the views of the second baseman (deuxieme-but, in French) and shortstop (arret-court).

When I stepped on the outfield turf, I noticed that it was laid down in squares, like kitchen linoleum. In April, when I learned management had installed new artificial turf at "the Big O," I was astonished that they had gone to such expense for a lame-duck franchise. But an advertisement on the outfield fence for the maker of this new-fangled field made it clear—they got a deal.

Expo players sat at tables in the outfield, as hundreds of fans stood in line for autographs. Others walked along the outfield fence to touch the retired numbers of legendary Expos from the past. I posed in front of the number ten of my boyhood hero, Rusty Staub. Before he came to my Mets, Le Grand Orange was a matinee idol in Montreal, wowing fans at colorful old Jarry Park. The retired numbers of other stars like Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, and Hall of Famer Gary Carter served as a reminder that the Expos were, for almost two decades, a formidable opponent on this field.

In fact, on "Black Monday" in 1981, the Expos came within one out of the World Series, losing the National League Championship Series to the Dodgers on a ninth-inning home run by Rick Monday. In 1994, they led the National League East with a 74 and 40 record on August 12 when the season was halted by the owner-induced players' strike, never to resume. The salary dump began the next season, and the franchise never recovered.

If the 1994 season had been played out, and the powerful Expos had gone on to the World Series, everything might be different today. Aided by the arrival of future pitching sensation Pedro Martinez and superstar outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, fan interest might have reached new highs, and the community might have supported proposals for construction of a downtown, open-air ballpark.

Instead, on this sad night under the long-broken retractable roof, fans milled about the field wearing Expos jerseys and caps, both new and old school. Homemade signs were everywhere, conveying—in French, English, or both—sadness and undying love for "Nos Amours." Several bore messages of disdain for the power brokers that had brought the team down. One sign said "Selig is the Devil, Loria is his spawn, & Samson is his mini-me." Another minced words: "Buck Fud Selig."

At the start of the game, the "Star-Spangled Banner" was booed lustily. D╚tente soon prevailed, however, as the majority of fans drowned out the boos with applause. When the anthem ended, the crowd immediately came to a respectful hush for the singing of "O Canada."

In a moment of great irony, management unfurled a banner on the left field fence that read: "1994 Meilleure Equipe du Baseball. Best Team in Baseball." Wouldn't it have been nice to put it up a little earlier, like back in April? A man sitting directly in front of me, wearing a jersey of the Quebec Nordiques (another team from La Belle Provence that got the short end of the stick), turned to me and shook his head in disbelief.

Former Expo Carl Pavano (part of the Pedro Martinez to the Red Sox deal in 1998) started on the mound for the visiting Marlins, facing Sunwoo Kim. When the Expos came to bat in the first, the fans cheered for a rally as if it would matter. But Florida scored four runs in the second inning, and a wipeout was under way.

Fans continued to stream into the stadium well past the start of the game. The crowd, announced at 31,395, seemed even greater. The upper deck, closed off for much of the season, was almost full.

In the third inning, a golf ball careened out of the stands toward second base, and Expos manager Frank Robinson pulled his squad off the field. The game was held up for ten minutes while the public-address announcer repeatedly warned fans that continued misbehavior would result in a forfeit. The announcements could hardly be heard over the din of the crowd. It seemed like the fans were having a dialogue amongst themselves: "Do we want to send Bud Selig a message and tear the place down, or do we want to go out with class?" Unlike the 1971 finale of the Washington Senators, when a forfeit was called because most of the 14,000 fans stormed the field in the ninth inning, here the civilized won out. Calm was restored, and the rout resumed.

To the frustration of the fans, the Expos never got anything going in this game. Montreal came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, trailing 9˝1. The fans stood and cheered for the entire inning. I have been present for many great sports moments over the years, including the last out of a World Series and an overtime goal to win the Stanley Cup. This moment was the most moving. The fans, many wiping tears from their eyes, hung on every pitch, imploring the home team to get a hit. They did not. Outfielder Termel Sledge popped up for the final out of a one-two-three ninth.

Fans in the lower box seats rushed to the dugouts to wave good-bye. The Expo players came back out to the pitcher's mound, took a microphone, and thanked the fans. They then reached into buckets and threw baseballs out to the crowd.

Expos coach Claude Raymond, a Quebec native who joined the franchise as a player back at Parc Jarry, was interviewed by the sports media lined up to do on-the-field reports. They were all from Canadian networks.

The next morning, as Geoff and I hit the road at sunrise, we stopped in the duty-free shop at the border crossing south of Montreal. As I paid for a couple of chocolate bars, I noticed that the man behind me in the checkout line looked familiar. It was the same guy who'd been wearing the Nordiques jersey at the game. We hadn't talked then, but now I introduced myself. Turns out he was American too—from Vermont.

He lamented losing yet another beloved team. "Who will you root for now?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "But definitely not Washington."

—EFQ

 

DAVID W. MONAHAN is an attorney in Boston. He's sorry that the baseball fans of Montreal will never get to feel the joy that the Red Sox brought New England in 2004.

© 2005 David W. Monahan

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