La D?fense de Montr?al
Sometimes a baseball fan just can’t win.
There is a certain attractiveness to a struggling baseball team. No wild-eyed
dreamer sits around dreaming about his day as GM where his wisdom, wit, passion
and devilish good looks transform the New York Yankees into World Champions.
The Yankees don?t need his help. No, the dreamer in all of us wants to take
the struggling club, the doormats, the worst of the worst, and lead them to
the World Championship with a grateful city offering its praise and adulation.
And so the wild-eyed dreamer in me has been inherently fascinated with some
of the also-rans in Major League Baseball. The Pirates? Love ?em, always have.
Devil Rays? Terrific fun.
But as you no doubt know, it has very recently gotten very ugly for two of
these struggling franchises. Many people in the last week have come to bat for
the Minnesota Twins and they certainly have all sorts of valid reasons for doing
so, but let me speak for a moment for MLB’s favorite punching bag, the Montreal
By now everybody should know the story of the Expos, but here’s a blow by blow
of their existence the last 7 or 8 years.
1994: While drawing 24,000 a game and picking up steam into August,
the Expos put together the best record in baseball. However, Montreal fans are
forced to watch helplessly as the Strike hits, canceling the rest of the season,
the post-season and the World Series. A club that looked to be on the verge
of breaking through and winning the hearts of Montreal has the rug pulled out
from underneath them. The best season in franchise history ends unfinished.
1995: The strike ends and the Expos ownership decided that it would
be a fine idea to slash payroll. The rationale some people have posed for this
strategy was that since the new revenue sharing agreement was tied into payroll,
with the lowest payroll teams receiving the largest share, the Expos had discovered
that they could guarantee a profit every season simply by slashing payroll to
bare minimum levels and collecting the shared revenue. Expos ownership could
also cry poor, saying that they simply couldn?t afford the increasing player
salaries and that the only way they could would be if they got a publicly funded
stadium. Whatever the reasoning, the Expos lose two of their starting outfielders,
one of their better starting pitchers and their All-Star closer in the resulting
carnage. The team drops to 66-78.
1996: The Expos bounce back going 88-74. Attendance, which had understandably
fallen off the previous year, begins to recover a bit. Despite losing their
shortstop and third baseman and also losing two starting pitchers to injury,
they continue to plug holes with talent from their abundant farm system. Expo
fans hold their breath and hope the worst is over.
1997: The latest purges cost the Expos their rightfielder, their team
leader in innings pitched, and their latest closer. One of the first purgees
wins the National League Most Valuable Player Award for the Rockies. Having
turned over their entire outfield, their shortstop, most of their starting pitching
staff, and two different closers since the 1994 team, the Expos simply can’t
plug the holes fast enough anymore and they drop to 78-84. Attendance falls
slightly but was still above 1995 levels. Still, the Expos have added some nice
young talent in Rondell White, Valdimir Guerrero, Ugueth Urbina and have good
looking prospects like Brad Fullmer waiting in the wings. Most importantly,
the Expos have the 1997 Cy Young Award Winner who posted a brilliant ERA of
1.90 struck out over 300 batters and was just 25 years old. This certainly looked
like a team that could still make some hay…
1998: The 25 year-old Cy Young pitcher is promptly traded the following
offseason. Expo fans get to watch in horror as he proceeds to dominate hitters
the next three years to an extent that possibly hasn?t been seen in baseball
history. If that isn?t enough, they also ditch their leftfielder, second baseman,
catcher, first baseman and set-up man. They go 65-97 and attendance drops to
11,295 a game.
1999: The Expos have a good offseason and only lose their shortstop
to the annual salary purges. With the club now fully gutted, the management
side of things starts to unravel. An understandably grouchy Felipe Alou has
trouble getting along with some of the young players (Brad Fullmer chief amongst
them) and punitive benchings and demotions begin to occur. The youth movement
begins to crumble as it appears the coaching staff has run out of patience with
the revolving door. Their former Cy Young pitcher snags another Cy Young with
the Boston Red Sox. The Expos field a young club and lose ballgames. They finish
68-94 before average crowds of 9,547. Head orchestrator of the great baseball
flea market, Claude Brochu, finally leaves the scene after this season. New
owner Jeff Loria pronounces that things would be different from now on.
2000: The Expos acquire a few veterans of dubious quality as a message
that the team would begin trying again. The Expos storm out of the gate as the
league?s surprise team and Expo fans see one last shining glimmer of hope in
what has turned into an awful test of their allegiance. But it was not to be.
The biggest of their offseason acquisitions has an ERA of a jetliner and then
gets injured. The Expos cool off and start losing again. They trade one of their
better (and soon to be more expensive) players, an outfielder, for a young pitcher
who promptly pitches one game for the Expos and blows his arm out. He has not
pitched for them since. Discussions for a new stadium come to a halt, the U.S.
press starts beating up on the team, and the Commissioner’s office (in a position
all along to stop the fire sales) begins questioning the ability of the people
of Montreal to support their baseball team. Their former Cy Young pitcher grabs
another Cy Young and narrowly misses the American League Most Valuable Player
Award. The Expos go 67-95, though the early season run boosts their average
attendance back up to 11,000 a game.
2001: After an entire offseason criticizing, not only the Expo fans
for not supporting their team, but also the city of Montreal for being a second
rate city, the U.S. press begins using the Expos as their favorite punching
bag for all that’s "wrong with the game." The Expos have a slow start
and the whole thing goes downhill from there. Alou is fired and replaced by
former player, manager and broadcaster Jeff Torborg. Amidst increasing talk
that the team will either be moved or contracted, the Expos start to draw crowds
in the 2,000 range on occassion. The owner of the Colorado Rockies, out of the
goodness of his own heart, decides he wants to donate some of the Expos revenue
to the disaster relief fund in New York by having his team and city host games
that were scheduled to be played in Montreal and donate the gate proceeds. When
the Expos understandably balk, some of the press blasts them for not wanting
to help out such a good cause. A shipment of American flags to be given out
at the first games since the terrorist attack is late in arriving to Olympic
Stadium and fans don’t receive them when they enter as they had in other parks.
The press points out the lack of flags at the game as evidence as to how insensitive
the city of Montreal is to the tragedy that has occurred in America. The team
goes 68-94, averages 7,935 fans a game, and, just after the season concludes,
reports begin to spread that the Expos will be contracted before the start of
the 2002 season.
While just summarizing all of the events (and I’m sure I’ve missed or misremembered
a grisly detail or two here or there) this nutshells what has occurred over
the last eight years. To sum up even more simply: the Expos were a good young
team, supported by one of the largest Canadian cities. They had their best season
ever snuffed out by a labor dispute, saw the end results of said dispute encourage
their owner to sell off any player talent with any sort of a price tag, and
got to re-live this little exercise over and over again after every season.
The owner of the club badmouths the stadium; the commissioner of the sport badmouths
the sport; and both badmouth the town for not buying them a stadium. They endured
losing seasons, and when there was hope for winning baseball, it was quickly
extinguished by more fire sales. The stadium was, by most accounts, no longer
being maintained properly. The best pitcher in the game got traded at the very
start of the peak of his career in order to avoid arbitration. Finally, in the
last year, Expo fans have seen the unsympathetic American press attack and villify
the fans, the city and at times the country of Les Expos…
...and wonder of wonders, the fans have stopped attending Expos games. Who
could possibly have guessed that?
One of the things I hear a lot when listening to a struggling team?s fans discuss
their club, is ?the only thing we can really do about the club’s terminal
incompetence is vote with our dollar. We should stop going to the park, stop
buying their merchandise and stop watching the games on TV. If we hit them in
their wallet, then they’ll have to take notice and correct their behavior.?
A common theory about the Cubs long tradition on ineptitude makes the same argument:
?since the Cubs make money every single year and sell lots of tickets every
single year, regardless of how good the team is, management never has any incentive
to field a good team.?? In other words, the vote with your pocketbook theory
contends that if you don?t buy their substandard product, they will be forced
to improve it.
It is a theory the many fans of the Montreal Expos have put to the test, and
it is a theory that apparently does not hold. If the team puts a substandard
product on the field, and you don’t attend, it appears that:
- Your devotion as a fan will be questioned,
- The adequacy of where you live will be questioned, and
- You will lose your team.
Apparently ownership has decided that every Major League city is obligated
to put a great deal of time, effort and money into supporting their baseball
team, regardless of whether the team?s ownership chooses to do the same. If
not, you lose your? team, and the owner gets to try his act elsewhere.
And so, as Bud Selig attempts to sell the used Volkswagen that is contraction
to the baseball public, the city of Montreal and their many Expo fans get hit
from all angles, as an increasingly reactionary baseball world lines up in lock-step
to place the blame for "all that is wrong with the sport" squarely
at their feet…
It doesn?t seem that baseball will ever realize that for most rational people
(a group of which I am not a member) there is far more to life than Major League
Baseball. Expo fans have spouses, children, parents and friends whom they care
about more deeply than they ever could about a silly baseball team. They go
to parks, and on vacations and use the money they earn from working to spend
it in whatever way they find most enriches their lives and the lives of people
they care about. For many of the people of Montreal, one of those things used
to be Montreal Expos Baseball. Still, the citizens of Montreal will heal and
begin to do other things with their time that will give them at least almost
as much joy. And that is where Major League Baseball has made a terrible
mistake. The city of Montreal is by far the most unique city in Major League
Baseball. They speak a different language in a different country with strong
ties to a continent into which Major League Baseball has made little inroads.
They have a few of the most exciting young players in the game of baseball,
and, like most fans of struggling teams, are just waiting for someone to step
to the plate and make a difference for their ballclub. In eras past the city
of Montreal has shown quite clearly it can and will support Major League Baseball
and the Montreal Expos under one and only one condition: the league and team
agree to meet them halfway and actually try to put a good team on the field
for them. In the end greed isn?t the one holding the knife to throats of the
Expos, but rather laziness. Apparently effort is a price Major League
Baseball and the Expos current ownership is unwilling to pay.
And if there’s anything that can and will destroy the great sport of baseball,
it’s most certainly that kind of attitude from its stewards.
Posted: November 09, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 9 comment(s)
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