Grange: Dusty, mothballed field of dreams

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The Expos weren’t in action when the Jays hit the Big O in March. But their grounds crew was.

For 10 years the pitcher’s mound at Olympic Stadium lay in its basement crypt—dry, dusty, dead and forgotten. Pierre Vezina was the one who put it there. He was the one who draped it and stood watching as it disappeared slowly underground on its hydraulic lift. It was Sept. 29, 2004, the date of the final home game for the Montreal Expos. Vezina had cared for the mound’s every need for more than 20 years, and the memories flooded back as his life’s work slipped away.

Then the suddenly-former head groundskeeper at Olympic Stadium and his team gathered in their locker room and drank, holding their beer the way men do when they know something good is gone. “We did our thing. We tore everything down and we said bye-bye to the stadium and the job,” he says. “We weren’t like the players. We couldn’t leave. We didn’t have a baseball team to go to. I was with the same guys for 24 years. We were a team, but you turn the page and go on with life.”

It wasn’t a bad life. After the Expos moved, the men who smoothed the dirt that Tim Raines slid into and packed the clay where Pedro Martinez made his Jheri-curled magic were hired by the City of Montreal parks and recreation department. And there’s comfort in this: In the summers since the Expos left, Vezina’s been in charge of the city’s premier fields, where the elite of the province’s vibrant baseball community test themselves. In the winter? He drives a Zamboni.

But that doesn’t mean the end of the Expos wasn’t like having his heart torn out. Love of a job is a powerful thing. When he heard that a two-game exhibition series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets was being planned for Olympic Stadium at the end of spring training, the first baseball of any kind to be played there since Nos Amours left for Washington, Vezina’s heart leapt. He got in touch with the event promoters offering his expertise, and he and his team were given a contract almost immediately. Building a baseball field to MLB specifications takes practice to make perfect. Olympic Stadium has its quirks, too: The top of the mound is supposed to be 10 inches above home plate, but at the Big O the cement floor drops four inches from the base of the mound to the batters’ box to help drainage, calibrations Vezina didn’t even have to think about.

When he saw the old mound rise up slowly from the basement, like a tarp-covered casket, Vezina knew he had his work cut out for him. He had to order the hand tamper, pneumatic tamper and soil level that are the tools of the trade—the ones he’d used had left with the Expos. Then he had to import 11 tonnes of red mound clay from Partac Peat Corporation in Great Meadows, N.J.

It takes about three days to build a mound from scratch, but Vezina and his team had to work around other events at the Big O, so they did it a few hours at a time. It takes patience: You spread the clay, add some water, tamp it down, let it settle and then add another layer. At every step you need to measure to make sure the slope conforms to MLB specs: one inch down for every foot across. “And it has to be hard,” Vezina says. “It has to last.”

The first test came on the Thursday before the series when MLB staff got their tape measure out. Everything was perfect, Vezina had no doubt. “I wasn’t nervous,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years.”

The games themselves were to be enjoyed, savoured even. More than 96,000 people came to the Big O to watch baseball on that field for the first time in a decade. It set off waves of Expos nostalgia.

But for Vezina, the best moment came in the dim light on Friday night after the first game. The crowds were gone and the work was done. He and his old team sat on the turf beside the dugout and, this time, they drank their beer to remember.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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