The Nord Remembers

It was always easy to dismiss Montreal as a baseball city. Now, though, 10 years after the Expos’ final game, it’s somehow harder than ever.

Paul Taunton is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

Recent Articles

 

Just over twenty years ago, Pedro Martinez was one batter away from throwing a complete game shutout for the Montreal Expos at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium. But with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Andy Van Slyke doubled to right field for the Pirates, and with a pair of runners now in scoring position, Montreal manager Felipe Alou decided that 123 pitches was enough for his starter. He gave the ball to closer John Wetteland, who promptly struck out Jeff King to preserve Pedro’s victory, and earned his 25th save in the process.

To the fans reading the box scores the next morning, it was a solid victory in a season full of them, a resolute pitching performance on the road that seemed to promise more of the same. But despite being a team that many thought could have won it all—and which some to this day insist would have won it all—this would be the last win the near-mythical ’94 Expos would ever record.

Two days later, on August 12, the players of Major League Baseball went on strike, and the Expos were reduced to paper champions. The next year Wetteland would be closing out games for the New York Yankees, with whom he’d win a World Series. Two years later, Pedro would be starting games in Boston, where he’d win a championship himself. But for those fans who’d seen the Expos play in Montreal less than a week before that final 1994 win, their best hope for a title had left on a road trip, and had never come back.

Montreal, of course, was not in a good way in 1994. The Canadian dollar was falling after the early ’90s recession, which the year prior had claimed the Conservative government and its uneasy coalition with Quebec’s nationalists. Montreal’s anglophone population was in diaspora. The fans that used to come over from the west side and the west island were moving even farther west (some of them wear Expos gear to Blue Jays games now).

In that context, the 1994 Expos were a movie montage of a team. They were young, they were unheralded, and they kept winning, as the saying goes, as if they didn’t know any better. They had a future Hall of Famer in Pedro and a manager who often got a louder ovation than the players on Opening Day, and, in contrast to the Jays—who had just won two World Series with the help of high-priced free agents—this team was largely homegrown. There had been a bunch of underdog champions in that era (the worst-to-first Twins; the wire-to-wire Reds; Gibson’s Dodgers), and it seemed like this would be the Expos’ turn.

Though fans tend to think of the strike as a sort of asteroid that obliterated baseball in Montreal, there were chances to keep it alive. But a consortium of factors never came together, and so it is the 1994 team that remains the great what-if—the year they would have known what they were made of. Had the Expos been allowed to lose (the way they had in 1981 when, ironically, a strike-affected season helped them get into the playoffs), at least the fans could have come to terms with it—even if it meant suspecting that Blue Monday hadn’t been just baseball, but predestination. 1994 was so much worse than that: the Expos became indelible in their incompletion. You can muse about them forever. Or, at least, for 20 years and counting.

*

“I’m reading the box scores, Scully. You’d like it,” said that prophet of our times, Fox Mulder, to his partner on April 15, 1999. (The box score that day: Montreal lost to Milwaukee 9-4 at home as Grissom, who had moved on to the Brewers after getting a World Series ring in Atlanta, had 2 hits and an RBI; Vlad grounded into 2 double plays and had 2 errors—though even his errors tended to be memorable.)

“It’s like the Pythagorean Theorem for jocks,” Mulder continued. “It distills all the chaos and action of any game in the history of all baseball games into one tiny, perfect, rectangular sequence of numbers. I can look at this box and I can recreate exactly what happened on some sunny summer day back in 1947. It’s like the numbers talk to me, they comfort me. They tell me that even though lots of things can change some things do remain the same.”

He’s right: you can return to that Martinez shut out; you can re-live any of the moments in Expos history, conjured through highlights and box scores. But as Mulder spoke, the team was already rumoured to be relocating to his backyard in the DC area (and he would have appreciated the conspiracy theories). Now, 15 years later—20 after the 1994 postseason should have begun, and 10 after the club played its last game as the Montreal Expos—the Washington Nationals are back in the playoffs, getting another crack at it after a collapse of their own.

Things moved on in Montreal. After the ’90s recession, which lingered in the city, it was strange to encounter an unfamiliar store or restaurant, wonder what it was before, and realize that for you, it had been plywood; you would need someone older than you to tell you about the previous incarnation. And you moved on, too, in the way that the formative invariably becomes less and less a part of you. Expatriates, as time goes on, sometimes do little more than agree on the existence of certain places. Maybe their favourite greasy spoons and bars were already the recycled favourites of several generations before, and to return is just to see another facsimile. Nostalgia can be a world of its own, seen only from a vantage point that is already too far away, filtered through that desire to return, the hatred of the changes, the realization that one’s city is now filled with the houses of strangers. But in other ways, the entire city is made of memories, and you have lived it most after you left.

*

Halloween night, 2004: the final commercial flight departed from Montreal’s Mirabel Airport, bound for Paris. The trip was to take about seven hours…

It sounds like the beginning of a ghost story, but the flight arrived safely in the French capital as planned. The only ghost in this story is, in fact, Mirabel itself. Once the largest airport in the world, it was intended to be Canada’s international gateway for years to come, but instead its passenger terminal will soon face the wrecking ball after an anticlimactic life of just four decades and a series of resuscitation attempts. Mirabel opened as part of that “big dream” that Jonah Keri describes in the introduction to Up, Up, & Away,11Full disclosure: I worked on this book for Random House Canada. his history of the Expos: the one that brought to Montreal Expo ’67 and the Expos baseball club, the ’76 Olympics and Olympic Stadium, Place-Ville Marie and the Ville Marie Expressway. The latter autoroute tunnels through downtown Montreal roughly underneath where Labatt Park, the replacement for the Big O and the Expos’ saving grace, was supposed to one day stand. That perfect site, an empty lot in 2004, was once part of the densest neighbourhood in Canada.

“The Swamp,” as it was known, was home largely to the urban poor in the time when baseball’s rules were still coming together. Nineteenth-century reformer Herbert Ames profiled the neighbourhood in The City Below the Hill, his study of the square mile of poverty that existed in stark contrast to the Golden Square Mile above it. The Swamp was the worst of that square mile. “Think of it,” wrote Ames, “a thousand people residing on a space the size of one portion of Dominion Square.”22A century later, a hundred times that number would descend on Place du Canada (split off from Dominion Square in 1967) to demonstrate against Quebec separation. The idea of over 35,000 fans watching baseball in the same spot would have been unimaginable.

After the failed 1995 referendum, succeeding Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard said what sounded even to many federalist baseball fans eminently sensible: that the government would not pay for baseball stadiums while it was forced to close hospitals due to lack of public moneys. The two issues had circled each other even before the referendum, as 800 hospital workers reportedly dressed in black and attended the May 31, 1995 Expos game to protest the closures (the Expos beat the Giants 5-4 on Moises Alou’s two-run homer in the sixth). The hospitals were still shuttered, though, and the new stadium never opened.

Labatt Park, slated to sit happily across the street from the Molson (now Bell) Centre, would instead join the ranks of those stadiums that exist only as memories. Early in the last century, the Shamrock Lacrosse Grounds at Atwater and Sainte-Catherine turned into baseball’s Atwater Park,33The second Shamrock Grounds later became Jean-Talon Market. but the grandstand burned down in 1908, and then again in 1914.44This sort of thing seemed to happen a lot: Westmount Arena burned down in 1918, ending the Montreal Wanderers hockey club and forcing the Canadiens to move to Jubilee Rink—which burned down in 1919, forcing them to move to Mount Royal Arena. Finally they moved to the Forum across from Atwater Park without tragedy, and Mount Royal Arena had a long life—until it burned down in 2000. In the east end, Mascotte Park had been the home of the Mascottes amateur baseball team, until the legendary Delorimier Downs, home of the Montreal Royals,55Charles-Emile Trudeau, the father of Mirabel’s patron Pierre Elliot Trudeau, had invested in the Royals and died at spring training in 1935. was built on top of it. But the Royals are a whole other story, and many have long tired of having to cite Montreal’s baseball bona fides.

As a baseball town, many in the U.S. found Montreal easy to dismiss—they didn’t feel, it seemed, the obligations of a shared history. But the same stick-and-ball games could be found in the streets in front of its row houses as in Boston, Brooklyn, or the Bronx. The Montreal poet A.M. Klein wrote about “a last game, talk, or rest, / until mothers like evening birds call from the stoops” in his “Pastoral of the City Streets.” Is the game baseball? We don’t know—but The Rocking Chair & Other Poems was published in 1948, the year the Royals won their second Junior World Series in three years (sorry, couldn’t help it), in the middle of a decade when they played for their league championship eight times, winning five; and won the Junior World Series three times. It was one of the few decades that didn’t belong to the Canadiens in hockey, but there were heroes to be had on the diamond.

*

The Expos played their first and last games as a Montreal franchise against the Mets at Shea Stadium in Queens. Now the Expos are gone, and Shea is, too—but somehow Olympic Stadium remains. Before this now-fading season, there was a confluence of past and present when, in March of this year, that earthbound spaceship hosted two spring training games that drew close to 100,000 fans (some of them wear Blue Jays gear to Expos games now). They flowed jubilantly towards the stadium across the Hoth-like parking lots while, underground, even more fans streamed in from the Metro. As they reached the box office, they realized the line went back down the long tunnel to the Metro and back up again: it was an hour’s wait, but everyone was in a good mood, and well-behaved. One woman read a book. A print book.

As a building, Olympic Stadium is trapped in time, not least because it was already dated when many were last there. To pass through those turnstiles is to enter several different eras simultaneously: those years in the late ’70s and early ’80s when the Expos had their first taste of success (and of heartbreak); those first years of the new millennium, desperate and funereal; and of course, in between, 1994. The exhibition games were the chance for fans to daydream about a new team—and to reminisce about the champion that never was.

The scoreboard graphics now look like a Lite Brite, the pixilated faces of the players falling into the uncanny valley. Despite the inexhaustible sale of new Expos merch to the nostalgencia, the fans in Montreal were breaking out their old gear, those powder blues, those extra-large jerseys from the ’90s that seem triple XL today. Some people tucked them into jeans. It was all pretty wonderful. Once again, it was the Mets in the visitors’ dugout, and if you squinted a bit at the home club… When Bautista crushed that home run in the fourth (the first at-bat many of the queued-up fans saw), it was almost like Vlad—though of course, it was nothing like Vlad.

In many ways, it was Montreal playing to type. Horns? Allowed. Beer? Sold way past the stretch. A cashier having to use her own phone to calculate change? Sure. But any local will tell you that this chaos is charming in small doses: to use it as synecdoche is to sink into the worst aspects of travel writing. Still, maybe this part of Montreal is the Montreal that baseball wants. A spring training Mardi Gras. A Fenway Formula One. In the same way that television killed the minor leagues in the ’50s, online and cable viewing threaten ticket sales today, even as they fill the owners’ pockets. Live sports are part of the special events market now, and the common view is that Montreal is an events town. The spring training deal has been renewed for Spring 2015, when the Cincinnati Reds will come north to face Montreal’s temporary home team. As Bud Selig—a great villain in Montreal but hero to the owners—retires, baseball seems to have found a new sort of golden goose.

The same problems persist in Montreal, not so different than the problems in any city. Sometimes the fans came in droves; other times they stayed home. Many players didn’t want to live in Montreal, but some loved it: another kind of home is the place that seems impossible where you come from. The Expos? They taught great lessons, and perhaps the greatest of those lessons were found in their defeats—the greatest of those being that their defeats were not always their fault. Probably they will never return, but when the fans banged the seats just liked they used to, and the “Let’s Go Expos” chants rang out, it wasn’t just a celebration, it was also a protest—against the idea that it didn’t matter.

take-me-out-expos-edition

Next

Negotiating With the Zeitgeist
Prince’s new albums fit in with his recent output: variations on conventional songcraft spelled by stretches of…

Previous

Kneel Before the IOC
With the potential host cities for the 2022 Winter Games narrowed down to Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, the…