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Thursday, May 20, 2004

Nos Amours Expos

To many fans, the Expos are still more than a Selig fiasco.


As my daughters watched me rooting for the Chicago Cubs during last year’s post-season (I lived in Illinois for six years in the 1970s and my heart fell for those perennial losers), my 6-year old announced to the family that her favorite baseball team was "the Cubbies."  No father would wish such a lifetime of pain on his darling baby girl but some things in life are simply outside your control.  She explained her reasoning very succinctly, "My favorite color is blue, and the Cubbies are blue.  And, I really like that little bear."  Who is going to argue with that? 


We have a camp on Moosehead Lake, located in Maine about forty-five minutes from the Canadian border.  We are fortunate to go to Canada, to the French-speaking Province of Quebec, several times throughout each year.  Our family really enjoys the culture, the French language, the best food in the world, and our awesome Canadian friends who live in Saint-Georges. 


So, just last week Dad came up with a great idea for a get-a-way this summer, if I may say so myself.  "We will go to Montreal and see the Expos play the Cubbies," I inform the family.  The kids start jumping all around with excitement.  They swiftly ran to the computer and went onto the Internet.  They were ecstatic to see that Olympic Park in Montreal also has an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and penguins.  Cool.


The next day the wife brings home AAA books with all kinds of information on Montreal.  It was very interesting to read what the Tour Book had to say about the Expos.  Its states that, in 1969, "fans came out in droves to root for Nos Amours (‘Our Beloveds’)."  Boy, have times changed.  It added, "The team has benefited from brilliant play of numerous stars: Andre Dawson, who took the Rookie of the Year Award; Tim Raines, a master of stealing bases; and Dennis ‘Oil Can’ Boyd, a wizard on the mound.  And fan favorite Rusty Staub, dubbed ‘Le Grand Orange’ for his fiery red hair, once hit four homeruns in one night."  From such a billing, one might wonder whether the Expos could ever lose.  (The choice of mentioning "Oil Can" is somewhat perplexing.  A colorful nickname for sure, but he’s not the first pitcher I would think of listing here.  In his career, he won only 16 games for the Expos.)


Being frugal (or as my wife would say, "one cheap S.O.B."), I went to the website (if you haven’t tried it, you should) to find someone in Montreal to trade their place in Montreal for my camp on Moosehead Lake, for a week.  I sent out messages to a few Canadians, and explained that I hoped to catch an Expos game while I was in Montreal.  One guy responded, "WHAT?  I was starting to believe that the Expos have no fans in Montreal.  It can’t be that they have a fan waaaaaaaay down your way!" 


It is an understatement to say that baseball fans are on an Expos death watch.  How did they get to such a state?  As a kid, I recall them having competitive and exciting teams. 


Montreal is rich in baseball history.  Jackie Robinson got his start in the minors with the Montreal Royals.  Pete Rose got his 4,000 hit as an Expo.  The Expos actually got off to a great start.  The team won their very first game, beating the 1969 Miracle Mets.  They beat the Mets at Shea Stadium on April 8, 1969, in front of 44,541 fans.  They jumped all over Tom Seaver.  Bob Bailey doubled home two runs in the first inning.  Both starting pitchers were ineffective that afternoon (Seaver and Mudcat Grant).  The Expos eventually won the game 11-10.  The first Expos homer came from relief pitcher Dan McGinn, who went deep on Tom Terrific in the third inning.  Other Expos homeruns were hit that day by Rusty Staub and Coco Laboy.  Maury Wills had three hits and a steal for the Expos.  In Montreal, 29,184 fans witnessed the Expos win their first home game at Jarry Park, against the Cardinals. 


It took only two weeks for the Expos to record their first no-hitter.  On April 14, 1969 Bill Stoneman pitched a gem for the Expos in Philadelphia, winning 7-0.  It took the Expos but a few months to record the team’s first triple play.  On June 25, 1969, first baseman Bob Bailey snared a linedrive off the bat of Vada Pinson, stepped on first, then threw a strike to shortstop Bobby Wine at second base to register the third out.  Despite these highlights, the Expos finished 48 games out of first place in 1969.  But, Montreal loved their Expos. 

By the late 1970s the Expos had developed into a very respectable team.  They notched their first winning record in 1979, just missing first place by only two games.  They had impressive talent in Gary Carter, Tony Perez, Larry Parrish, Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, and solid pitching came from Bill Lee and Steve Rogers.  Tim Raines made his first appearance for the Expos that season.  It’s hard to imagine now, but the Expos drew more than 2 million fans that year.  The following season, the Expos again drew more than 2 million fans as they won 90 ballgames. 


In 1981, in the strike shortened season, the Expos made the playoffs for the first time.  The Expos handled the Phillies in the Division Series in five games.  The Expos then squared off against the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series.  After four games the two teams were locked up, 2 games to 2 games.  Then came "Blue Monday."  In the deciding Game Five, Rick Monday smacked a homerun that crushed Montreal’s dreams of a World Series.  Dodgers won the game 2-1. 


Over the next two seasons, the Expos again drew over 2 million fans.  In 1983, the Expos actually finished second in attendance in the National League.  Yet, as the Expos moved through the 1980s, a troubling pattern was developing.  Their best talent was moving to other ballclubs, with regularity.  Carter was traded to the Mets, Dawson went to the Cubs, and after the 1990 season, Raines was traded to the White Sox.  Following the foregoing blockbuster player moves, the Expos would lose Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Andres Galarrage, and Pedro Martinez.  In September of 1991, a huge cement beam collapsed at Olympic Stadium.  This caused the team to play its remaining home games on the road.  Interest in the team waned.  From 1983 through 1993, the Expos would not reach 2 million in attendance. 


Then, in 1994, the Expos found themselves on top of their division, that is, until the baseball strike wiped out the remaining six weeks of the season, and the entire post-season.  Just before the strike, the Expos were 20-3 over the last 23 games.  When the strike occurred, the Expos had the best record in baseball (74-40).  As Tim Raines has said, "and then the strike [of 1994] . . . that was the beginning of the end."  Thereafter, the team continued to lose its best talent.  The team’s mascot, Youppi!, was the only Expo that was a constant on the team’s roster.  By 1998, the Expos were a mess.  That season they couldn’t even draw 1 million fans.  The next four seasons would end the same way. 


In November of 2001, Commissioner Bud Selig announced that Major League Baseball would undergo a contraction of two teams, after a 28-2 vote by the owners.  Montreal was one of the two dissenting votes.  In 2002, the league voted to buy the Expos with the intent of eliminating the Expos and the Twins.  After the sale of the Expos was complete, the club was placed in the care of the Commissioner’s Office.  Some subsequent legal maneuvering allowed the two clubs to stay in the league, at least for the time being.     


In 2002, Hall of Famer and Expos Manager Frank Robinson said, "There is no future."  Raines added, "I feel for the fans more than anything.  I think the fans got fed up with having good teams and then losing all their good players.  Montreal fans were so used to winning, with the Canadiens there.  Then there was this whole series of things that just kind of turned fans away."

A number of factors contributed to cause the Expos saga.  Many people blame poor business management.  The first year the Expos finished last in attendance in the National League was in 1991, which was the same year the original owner Charles Bronfman sold the team to a group of investors led by Claude Brochu.  A lot of fingers have been pointed in the direction of subsequent majority owner Jeff Loria as well.  Minority owners ended up sueing Loria and Commissioner Selig alleging fraud.  In their 44-page complaint, the minority owners alleged that "[Loria] and his co-conspirators engaged in a scheme that had as its object the destruction of baseball in Montreal, so that Mr. Loria and his co-conspirators could justify relocating the franchise to the United States." 

Baseball itself is suffering from many ailments.  The labor strife has served to push many baseball fans away.  The financial imbalance existing in the league has disgusted many fans.  The fan outcry that followed the recent A-Rod signing was rather telling.  A MLB team’s roster changes more often and more dramatically than the weather in New England.  As Jerry Seinfeld said years ago, and I’m paraphrasing, "As fans of a team in professional baseball, and we visit our home team ballpark, we are not routing for a team.  The players for our teams change every year, if not every day.  All we are routing for are uniforms." 

One of the saddest things is, despite all of its own problems which contributed to the current state of the Expos, Major League Baseball itself gave up on Montreal.  Baseball failed to fix its major problems; certain teams paid the price; so, the rest of the league votes to get rid of them. 

Sports teams become part of the soul of a community.  When the Dodgers left for California, it left a whole in the heart of Brooklyn.  The same thing happened to Cleveland when the Cleveland Browns left their community.  There are many other examples.  Even though attendance at Olympic Stadium has been painfully low in recent years, the death of the Expos will undoubtedly leave scars upon Expos fans and the City of Montreal for many years to come. 

When I arrive in Montreal this summer, I look forward to speaking with the citizens of the great City.  I am really curious to hear what they think about all of this. 

I saw online that the highest priced ticket for an Expos game was only $40 Canadian (for the VIP seats).  That’s like only $30 US.  I’ve been used to paying through the nose for tickets for Fenway Park—the highest ticket prices in the league.  It will be a blast.  Montreal in the summer.  Culture and the French language.  Cheap game tickets.  No lodging costs.  Swimming before the game.  Awesome food.  Penguins.  Play ball! 


Stephen Jordan Posted: May 20, 2004 at 10:52 PM | 6 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Gerald Bostock Posted: May 20, 2004 at 11:31 PM (#638131)
Nice article. The Expos have a couple of fans in London, England, so you can tell the Montrealers about them, too. We might even get out to see some games this year, and tell them ourselves.
   2. Damon Rutherford Posted: May 22, 2004 at 05:35 AM (#640367)
Rooting for laundry!

I see Primer has taken the quality over quantity route. Nice job, Stephen.
   3. Pingu Posted: May 22, 2004 at 07:19 AM (#640388)
Great read Stephen,

Our family really enjoys the culture, the French language, the best food in the world, and our awesome Canadian friends who live in Saint-Georges.

I second the food in Montreal, amazing to say the least, and Canada in general. I used to have a camp on Rangley, and I have been fishing on Moosehead Lake (among others) many times. Wonderful area of the world. The way life should be. Speaking of which, the Sea Dogs up in Portland get quite a bit of press, I wonder if the Expos would be better off in Maine??? I always thought the New England market was strong enough for more than one team.
   4. RB in NYC (Now Semi-Retired from BBTF) Posted: May 24, 2004 at 03:28 AM (#641968)
I went to an Expos game myself last year, along with 33,235 others. Might have been their best crowd of the year. This is just a hunch, but I suspect the crowd was there more for the dollar hot dogs than they were to see me, or possibly the baseball. Great game too, ended with a walk-of HR in the bottom of the ninth.

Of course, the problem with Montreal--as its sadly been for years--is that they only drew a combined 26,534 for the other two games of the series
   5. eremela Posted: May 26, 2004 at 02:59 PM (#645184)
Nice article. Interesting that virtually no local sports journalist has put the history of the fans' relationship with the Expos so well...
At the end of the strike-shortened 1994 season, the Expos owners promised a run at the championship in '95... at the same time that they let Walker walk, traded Wetteland for a bag of cash, Ken Hill for Bryan Eversgerd and Grissom for Tony Tarasco. Now that's a commitment to win! Expos fans have been dealing with that kind of 'vision' for 14 years. And from 1992 local reporters have nagged and threatened fans, saying the team would go if we didn't show. That may have been true (well, partly true) but it's hardly a motivating tactic. Reporters would have done better to do some investigating into Loria's background, say, to see what his likely motives might be... or to look a little more closely at what the new downtown ballpark proposal was really about. Instead, they tended to blindly jump on those (and any) developments as the saviours of the team. But there was a lot more going to decide the fate of the Expos (that's another story). Anyway, the survival of a baseball team is only partly based on fan attendance: notice that all the new ballparks of the past 15 years have a lower ratio of "cheap" seats to luxury loges than they used to? And if the number of fans meant everything I'm not sure there'd be a rejuvenated Tigers team to watch in 2004, nevermind the Devil Rays!

   6. Sam-I-Am Posted: June 16, 2004 at 03:52 PM (#679775)
This is an open invitation to all who are able to visit the Big Owe. Come sit in the "yellows" with us behind home plate and make some noise. We're here every Thursday and Friday.

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