Expos fans give Carter a proper goodbye

March 28, 2014, 10:16 PM

Montreal – It started when she arrived in snowy Montreal from sunny Florida and intensified when she pulled up to Olympic Stadium with her mom. It built to a crescendo walking up the tunnel and onto the field for the first time since she was a little girl.

And then the crowd started and it came over her in a wave.

“When I heard the clapping and roar of the crowd? I was done.”

Kimberly Bloemers was the only one of Gary Carter’s three children born in Montreal, coming into this world on Oct. 6, 1980, just 24 hours after her dad and the Montreal Expos lost two of their last three at home to Philadelphia to finish a game behind the Phillies in the National League East.

Her older sister Kristy and younger brother DJ were born in California and Florida, respectively. She was born at Montreal’s Lakeshore General Hospital but had to wait 33 years to get a grown up sense of what it was like to be her dad, arguably the best to ever play baseball in the city of her birth.

Friday night was the first of two exhibition games between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets this weekend, a decade after the Expos were moved to Washington at the end of the 2004 season.

There were all kinds of roars Friday and plenty of “Let’s Go Expos!” chants, but they began during the pre-game ceremony honouring the man everyone knows as Kid but she knew as Dad.

“It’s special,” said Kimberly. “Dad was happiest when he was playing and as soon as the roar of the crowd happened it made me light up because it’s what he loved.”

The Kid died of cancer Feb. 16, 2012. The baseball fans of Montreal never got a chance to say a proper goodbye; the daughter of one of Montreal baseball’s greatest sons never got to say thank you.

Teams are a lot of things, but at their heart and at their best they hold over a place because they allow the varied tribes that follow them — that work together and fight traffic together and pay taxes together — to actually do something together.

It’s where those with diverse backgrounds but a common interest can hope, hurt, anticipate and – when everything works out just right – celebrate.

The flipside is also true. A sports team and the field of play can be a place to mourn and reflect, surrounded by those who share the memories you do.

That’s what Montreal was missing when Gary Carter passed away. The Expos were long buried. There was no church for a funeral.

“I must have cried for a month. I was so emotional,” said Warren Cromartie, Carter’s teammate for nine seasons. “It causes you to reflect on how something or someone can be taken away, that it was a guy with his personality, his love for the game and being the best at what he did, it was a real emotional shock for everybody.”

There had been a street named after the effervescent catcher and baseball parks. Memorably the Montreal Canadiens had their players take the ice at the Bell Centre wearing No. 8 jerseys with Carter on the back in their first home game after his death.

What was missing was a place for those who still loved baseball, who still loved his old team, to come together.

Friday night at Olympic Stadium baseball fans in Montreal finally got their chance. The two-game exhibition series here is a party and a reunion and a pep rally for an uncertain baseball future in Montreal, but also a memorial service for a fan base that never had the chance to say a proper goodbye to one of their own.

That the series has come off the way it has – more than 90,000 fans are expected to take in the two games – is in some ways a response to the void.

“The first time I think the bitterness so many people felt towards baseball began to turn to nostalgia and thinking back on the good times was when Andre Dawson was inducted into the Hall of Fame,” says Montreal hip-hop artist Annakid Slayd, whose song and video tribute to Carter, called “Kid,” was featured in the pre-game ceremony. “But Carter’s death turned it into a genuine movement, and that’s where we are now, we’re a movement.”

Carter’s death inspired Cromartie to launch the Montreal Baseball Project, which is aimed at proving Montreal could be a viable MLB market again. A fan-based group, Expos Nation, has 170,000 members on Facebook and will be having a rally on Sunday in downtown Montreal.

Cromartie remembers Carter jumping up and down all the way to home plate after Cromartie hit his first MLB home run – “It was like he hit the damn thing” — and the Hall of Fame catcher sitting on the floor of the clubhouse teaching Cromartie’s oldest son to tie his shoes. “My son is 38 years old now, and he brings that up every once in a while: Gary Carter teaching him how to tie his shoes,” he says. “It’s still vivid in both our minds.”

Baseball fans in Montreal and across Canada have their own memories of Carter, but until Friday they hadn’t had a chance to thank anyone for them.

The Kid’s little girl says thank you right back. She coaches softball at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Like her dad she was a catcher and they extended their bond when they spent three years working together when her dad became the men’s baseball coach at the small school near their off-season home.

She’s turned her team from a perennial doormat to a conference power, not all that different than the effect her dad had on the Expos.

She carries thoughts of him with her everyday but last night was something new: She heard a Montreal crowd cheering her dad one last time.

“The reason why I’m here is because of him,” she said. “Even just walking down the same tunnel and things like that, I felt his presence. It’s very emotional, in a sad sense, because I miss him, but in a happy sense because we feel so much love here and we’re very grateful for people wanting to remember him.”

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