Montreal’s chance to finally be heard by MLB

Montreal still remembers their baseball team, 10 years after they were moved to Washington D.C. The loss still stings for many in the city who would do anything to get their Expos back.

Have you ever had a moment when you knew you were on to something, if people would only pay attention? When you knew, deeply, that if the rest of the world would pause and listen – really listen – it would change everything. A moment where you are stuck in an elevator screaming and no one is listening?

And what if people suddenly did? What if they did recognize the wisdom you had to share? What if they not only rescued you from that elevator, but nursed your wounds until you were ready to be properly feted in a manner deserving all along?

Imagine all of those things and you might be able to imagine what it is going to be like to be a baseball fan – an Expos fan – in Montreal this weekend. It promises to be the damndest damned thing.

Friday night and Saturday afternoon at Olympic Stadium, Montreal will have the world of baseball to itself. While the rest of MLB is killing time before Opening Day, the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets will be part of a revival being played out in front of as many as 90,000 faithful, gathered under one roof to celebrate baseball, what it meant to the city and what it could mean again.

It was not predicted to be thus.

“This is a surprise,” says Warren Cromartie, who played for the Expos from 1974 to 1983, but since 2012 has been the face of the Montreal Baseball Project, an ember around which dreamers of a future with baseball in Montreal can warm themselves. “The momentum that has been gained has surprised me and everyone else. I never in my wildest dreams believed there would be this much noise.”

No one can figure out precisely what is going on.

The games are a promotion by Evenko, the Montreal-based event planning company that was able to sell out the Bell Centre for a Toronto Raptors exhibition game a few years ago and was thus convinced of Montreal’s appetite for major league sports outside of hockey.

Everything else has in some ways been a product of fortunate timing – which fans of the star-crossed Expos find amusing.

The idea for hosting a few Blue Jays games was floated in 2012 but there were some significant obstacles, not the least of which was that Olympic Stadium hasn’t hosted a baseball game since Montreal lost 9-1 to the Florida Marlins on September 29th, 2004.

There was no turf in place; there was no grounds-keeping equipment. The clubhouses and dugouts were in disrepair. There was no pitchers’ mound. Solving all those issues pushed the vision back for 18 months or so which worked out perfectly.

Since 2014 marked the 10th anniversary of the Expos last season in Montreal and the 20th anniversary of their lost season – the strike-shortened year that robbed the best team in baseball a chance to compete for the World Series – a pair of exhibition games featuring the Blue Jays and the Mets has become a rallying point for those who remembered the past so fondly and allow themselves a future that includes Youppi! At baseball and not hockey games.

“My first reaction was wow! Baseball at Olympic Stadium, that is amazing, that is so exciting. I called all my friends. It was like being 16 again,” says Jonah Keri, the Montreal-born, Colorado-based baseball writer for Grantland. “It was a visceral reaction.”

Keri is both a driver and beneficiary of the buzz. His well-received history of the Expos: Up, Up and Away was published this week and has given cause to reminiscence about Canada’s first MLB team while the prospect of Montreal being overtaken by baseball fever has made Keri a man in demand as the expert on the subject.

“What does it mean? It’s a Jays event. It’s about them expanding their regional footprint, but let’s not kid ourselves… there are going to be lots of Expos fans there,” says Keri. “We’re going to be drinking cinquante, being loud and wearing our jerseys. They won’t be on the field, but it will be like the old days, in many ways.”

I can relate, to some extent. As a transplanted Montrealer, my first sports memories are of Jarry Park and Rusty Staub and Gary Carter and Ellis Valentine. By 1981 and Blue Monday I had moved to Toronto, I but listened to the radio call that fateful day and heard Rick Monday end the Expos playoff hopes while getting ready to start my high school football practice.

But it wasn’t long before I was swept up in the Blue Jays and the Expos became an afterthought. By the time they left Montreal, undone by a litany of miscues, exacerbated by a sinking loonie, I had comfortably moved on, figuring if only a few thousand people were showing up to games, the market wasn’t interested.

This weekend is a chance to correct the record. Montreal journalist Elias Makos was an ardent Expos fan growing up and took a job with the team’s media relations department during the ‘glory years’ of 2002-2004 at age 21.

“A friend said they needed someone for photocopying and they asked me if I could work for six months and could I score a game,” says Makos, “I said ‘of course’ and I was hired on the spot. That wouldn’t happen anywhere else in baseball. It was so bare bones.”

He was the person who introduced then Expos president Tony Tavares when he was announcing that MLB (who owned the team from 2002-2004) was moving the franchise to Washington. Makos disputes the notion that fan apathy was the issue.

“There’s a misconception,” he says. “It’s not that people didn’t care about the Expos at the end. When you’re a city of 3.5-million and 3,000 show up for a baseball game, that’s not because people don’t care. People were angry. That’s an informed decision by Montrealers not to support the product. They didn’t want to support what baseball had become.”

What it could become is the tantalizing back-story to the weekend’s events. Multiple sources have confirmed that a representative from MLB’s head office will be on site, observing what promises to be an amazing spectacle, featuring a Friday tribute to the family of Expos (and Mets) legend Gary Carter, who passed away from cancer in 2012, and a celebration of the legendary 1994 team on Saturday.

“I can’t believe it will go unnoticed,” says Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, who would love to see a team back in Montreal on the logic that whatever is good for baseball in Canada is good for his team too. “And if there was ever an opportunity [to bring a team back to Montreal] the fact that they are supporting the games the way they are has to stand them in good stead.”

Cromartie started the Montreal Baseball Project as a way to galvanize the city’s forgotten baseball tribe. He says there are significant financial players – he wouldn’t give names – who are quietly pushing to bring MLB back. A feasibility study commissioned by MPB suggested the market could sustain a franchise again.

This weekend suggests there is a passion that still burns deep. All of that is for the future. For now, for two days at least, it’s about the present.

“The baseball itself might be anti-climactic,” says Makos. “But I’m sure if there’s a home run people will cheer just to remember what it was like to cheer for an Expos home run.”

For baseball fans in Montreal, finally, a chance to be heard.

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