THE MONTREAL EXPOS: NOS AMOURS NO MORE

R.I.P. Montreal Expos – You Will Forever Be In Our Hearts!

An elegy by ARI GRIEF

 

It’s a done deal... right? Major League Baseball, after numerous rumours and threats of contraction, finally announced its intention to move the Montreal Expos, Canada’s first M.L.B. team, to Washington D.C. for the 2005 season -- that is, if a court injunction does not temporarily thwart Commissioner Bud Selig’s plans. For now I’m willing to ignore those judicial issues and accept the loss of the team. So thirty-six seasons later the curtain comes down on the Montreal Expos, nos amours no more. I have many fond memories of the team and wanted to share some of them with you… the good, the bad and the sad... along with some reasons why we're here in the first place.

Over the past couple of seasons, I slowly began to accept the fact that the Expos could no longer be saved and was eager to “pull the plug” on the team -- better to have the team leave already than to watch it slowly die and wither away.

Montreal deserves better.

My personal attachment to the Expos runs deep. As a native Montrealer now living in Toronto, I followed the Expos wherever and whenever I could. My late father, an avid sportsman and a genuine pro baseball prospect in his youth, turned me and my brothers onto baseball as children. Baseball was the only organized sport I ever played growing up, and even though I am a big hockey and golf fan, baseball was always my number one game. The last true activity I ever did with my father, who passed away in 1980, was go to an Expos game. He knew he was sick at the time and I remember him asking me what I wanted to do. I said “go to a baseball game.” It was the fall of 1979 and the stadium was packed and full of energy. Youppi! entertained me along with the rest of the crowd. It had to be one of the last truly happy moments of my life I was able to share with my father and two older brothers.

The history of baseball in Montreal is long and storied. During my father’s formative years, Montreal was a hotbed of young up-and-coming baseball talent, due mainly to the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team. In 1946 Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in professional sports with the Royals. So it made a lot of sense when in 1969 the first professional baseball team to be located outside of the U.S. would be the Montreal Expos. Montreal was riding high at this time: Expo ’67 was a huge success, finally putting the city on par with such great cities as Paris, New York, and Tokyo; Separatism was not “officially” on people’s minds; the exchange rate was about even between the Canadian and U.S. dollars; and the terrible events now known as the October Crisis were still a year off. Montreal and Canada had come of age: A new Canadian flag flew over parliament. Trudeau, Canada’s J.F.K., re-energized the country. And the Expos, a labour of love for Charles Bronfman, brought professional baseball to Montreal. Those first years at Jarry Park are warmly remembered by those who were there. It might not have been the best park, but it was grass and outside and had an atmosphere that rallied fans and players alike.

Then, after the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the Expos moved into their new digs, the Olympic Stadium -- a vast, impersonal concrete stadium with artificial turf and the promises of a retractable roof. Although not really a ball park and in one of the least convenient locations of the city, Montrealers embraced Olympic Stadium, turning out in droves to support “Nos Amours.” And the Expos responded. They started to compete seriously for the pennant. Fresh talent such as Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Warren Cromartie, Larry Parrish, Rodney Scott and Ross Grimsley brought the team to new heights and excitement and their first winning record in 1979. Expo fever was in full swing and the fans responded en masse. After all, it was getting kind of boring watching the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup year after year.

 

There is no doubt the Expos are one of the best franchises ever not to win a world series. Without going through names or statistics, the Expos’ mark can be seen around the league, coaches and players alike. The Expos undoubtedly possessed the best farm system which has consistently nurtured and trained some of the best talent in the majors. This is why contraction made no sense, given the fantastic spring baseball facilities the Expos own, along with their strong farm system.

Finally, after narrowly losing the pennant two seasons in a row, the Expos finally broke through in the strike-shortened season of 1981. Little did we know the Expos would again be directly affected by another Major League Baseball strike, but this time nobody was complaining. I remember when the Expos beat the Mets to win the second half of the season in 1981 for the chance to play the Phillies for a birth in the National League Championship series. Me and my brother danced around the television set, a jig probably not uncommon around the city that day. Our team finally won and would get some recognition it long deserved. We knew we had the best team and wanted M.L.B. to finally give us some time in the sun after years of passing us over as that team “up there.” We wanted Gary Carter to get his due as the best catcher in the league. Enough of Johnny Bench or Carlton Fisk or Tony Pena… we knew Gary was the best all-around catcher in the league and we wanted him to get his due. And he would… just not with the Expos.

Then the Expos played the Phillies in probably one of the most classic showdowns ever. The Phillies were no chumps, to be sure. Steve Carlton, Greg Luzinski, Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Manny Trillo (who would play with the Expos for a season), Larry Bowa… the list goes on and on how many key, character players the Phillies had on their roster that year. But the Expos would not be outdone. Steve Rogers, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Warren Cromartie, a young Tim Wallach, Rodney Scott, and Chris Speir were the anchors of a team on the brink. I tell you I hated those Phillies with almost as much passion and fervor as I did the Quebec Nordiques… and I loved to hate those pesky Nordiques who somehow got the best of my beloved Canadiens in those years.

Of course the series went to five games, with the final showdown of Steve Rogers vs. Steve Carlton making it an instant classic even before the first pitch was thrown. And, after 9 hard innings, the Expos persevered, and won, in Philadelphia. The Expos had won the Eastern division! Strike or no strike, this team had finally broken through. On came the Dodgers…

Looking back, it is ironic that it would be the Los Angeles Dodgers who would give the Expos their lowest low (at the time). The Dodgers are a transplanted team, moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, just as the Expos are now moving to Washington D.C. And who at the time was doing the colour commentary in the broadcast booth along with the great, and loyal, Dave Van Horne? The former Brooklyn Dodger great, Duke Snyder.

Sure this was a big game, but it was the biggest baseball game ever played in Montreal, and the fans embraced it. My elementary school teacher wheeled a television into our class to watch the game. The whole school, along with the whole city, was watching. I think we all ran home as quick as we could to watch the end of the game. And so I saw the miserable conclusion from the comfort of the den in my home…

Whenever the words “Blue Monday” are uttered in Montreal, people’s expressions to this day still change. Montreal wanted so bad for the Expos to win, to finally get the respect the team, the players, and most importantly, the city deserved. It was easy to blame manager Jim Fanning for putting in Steve Rogers in relief that final game. But looking back, he did what he thought was the best move. After all, Rogers had helped the Expos get to where they were, he was their best pitcher, and there was no holding back in the final game, tied 1-1 going into the top of the ninth. The rest is history. Rick Monday hit Rogers' rising fastball over the right-center fence. I hated watching fat man Tommy Lasorda waddle-run out to the mound in celebration of the Dodger victory. But I hated more the feeling that we lost… a feeling that could only have been worse had it been stolen from us. The Dodgers were a great team and deserved to win. They won, we lost. Over time we could all accept that. But to have a season stolen from the Expos, this is a completely different matter.

In 1994, after many years of coming close to reaching the post-season once again, after some great years with Buck Rodgers at the helm, consistently coming in second year after year, and after some back to back seasons battling their new foe, the Atlanta Braves, the Expos were primed to win the pennant and maybe make a World Series appearance. Thirty-something games above 500 and 6 games ahead of the Braves, the Expos were the best team in baseball. Better than the Braves, better than the cash-ladened Yankees, better than the World Series Champion Toronto Blue Jays. So when Bud Selig announced the strike in August 1994, the last straw of Expo disappointment fell into place. Cash strapped under a new M.L.B. agreement, the Expos were forced to gut their team the next season, while fans stayed away from the ballpark in disgust and anger.

Do I hear conspiracy? Maybe the owners didn’t want the World Series to be played that year? After all, the previous two seasons the Blue Jays won the World Series, and the Expos in 1994 could have made it an unprecedented three years in a row a Canadian franchise would have won the World Series. And you know how bad this would have been for the World Series ratings down south… so hey,we’ll hijack the season and ditch the World Series. The fans will forgive us, eventually. Everyone except the Montreal Expos fans... but who cares about them, right?

Apparently lots of people. I have been amazed in my travels over the years with the people far and wide who love the Expos. Here’s a great example. Back in 1998 I was traveling solo through Europe. One night while in Amsterdam I decided to stop into a coffee shop to relax and suck in some of the local charms. Sitting at the bar, I came across an American from San Diego. After some non-memorable discussion, we came around to talking sports and baseball. I was amazed to hear that my new found American friend’s favourite team was the Expos. “Why I asked? San Diego has a good ball team of its own.” “Because they’re the underdog team, and they've had so many great players over the years, that’s why.” I started to think this guy was pulling myleg. “Oh yeah? Like who?” I uttered, thinking this will see if he really means what he says. “Like Steve Rogers, Warren Cromartie, Larry Parrish, Tim Raines, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson.” “Oh,” I said sipping my cassis soda. “Go on.” “Players like Ellis Valentine and Ross Grimsley. And Ron LeFlore. And of course Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, and Moises Alou, and Delino DeShields, and Ken Hill, and…”

Okay he was the real deal. Of all the people I could meet huh? Here we were, two men thousands of miles away from our respective homes, talking about the Expos. I tell you, it made me feel great… and I know wherever he is in the world right now, he’s mourning too.

I’ve had plenty of loss in my life, including the death of my father, all my grandparents, and a few of my close aunts. And I tell you, the demise of the Expos this year, the announcement that they are moving to D.C., is like a death in the family for me. I almost cried. Okay, I did cry. The Expos are no more. I grew up with a picture of Steve Rogers and a caricature of myself wearing Ellis Valentine’s #17 on my wall, with the hopes the Expos would one day win it all.

 

Hopefully the D.C. team will choose their own name and leave the Expos to Montreal. I’m sure they will. After all, the Expos' name celebrates the success and excitement of Expo ’67 in Montreal. It’s the team with the strange insignia, the colourful caps, and the “unique” stadium.

In some respects, the Expos are the a-typical Major League Baseball team. Everyone loves to support the underdog and the Expos were the quintessential underdog team in their competitive years. Just like the heartbreak suffered regularly by fans of the perennial chokers Boston Red Sox (chokers no more!!) or Chicago Cubs, the Expos somehow always came up just a bit short. Whether it was Mike Schmidt hitting a home run on the last day of the season, or Rick Monday, or the strike, the Expos will always be remembered as the team that could have been. What if Steve Rogers didn’t pitch to Rick Monday? What if in 1980 they had pitched around Mike Schmidt? What if in 1991 Charles Bronfman didn’t sell the team to Claude Brochu and his consortium? What if the strike didn’t end the season in 1994? What if a new downtown baseball stadium was built as promised? And here’s where it gets political… what if Separatism had not forced hundreds of thousands of Anglo and French Montrealers out of Montreal throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties, all who supported and loved the Expos and regularly attended games? Unfortunately, we’ll never know…

 

 

    

     MY TOP 10 EXPOS MEMORIES:

 

      10.  The clackity-clack of the Big O’s seats

       9.   The clucking chickens when an opposing pitcher pitched around an

             Expos hitter "Bawk-Bawk"

       8.   Olympic Stadium announcer calling out “Numero huit… number hate

             Gaaaary Carter!”

       7.   Youppi! sliding head first on top of the dugouts

       6.   Dave Van Horne’s toupee

       5.   1982 All-Star Game in Montreal (5 Expos on the team; 4 starters)

       4.   Dennis Martinez throws a perfect game (against the Dodgers funny

             enough) “El Presidente El Perfecto!!”

       3.   Gary Carter winning the All-Star M.V.P. in 1981 (Steve Rogers

             winning pitcher) and 1984 (Charlie Lea winning pitcher)

       2.   The 1994 team – the best team never to win a World Series

       1.   Gary Carter leaping into the arms of Jeff Reardon in Philadelphia to

             celebrate winning the National League Eastern Division, 1981

 

There are many others…

Good times. So what really brought us to this dark hour and the demise of the Expos?? Many reasons have been tossed around over the years in the media.

My take on it focuses on three main concerns:

 

1) The 1991 Sale

2) Olympic Stadium and The Fans

3) The 1994 Strike

 

1) The 1991 Sale

Charles Bronfman brought Major League Baseball to Montreal with the Expos in 1969. The initiative, although through the help of many, was a labour of love for Bronfman. Montrealers owe him a great deal for this. After twenty years, with rising costs, a weak Canadian dollar, and a drop in attendance, nobody can blame Bronfman for wanting to move on. After all, his baby was now over twenty, and should have been old enough to survive on its own. But Major League Baseball never truly embraced the Expos, treating the team like a poor second cousin who was never on completely even terms with the richer American squads. With an aging Bronfman and a shrinking Seagrams empire, it probably was time for French-Canadian interests to take over the team.

Unfortunately, because of a lack of interest from big business and/or investors, Bronfman had no choice, in order to assure the Expos remained in Montreal, to sell the team’s interests to Claude Brochu and his piece-meal consortium of investors. This sale is the ACTUAL beginning of the end for the Expos. Although the on-field team looked promising and competitive, the consortium never truly committed to the team for the long-term. They refused to invest in the team, even after decent attendance numbers. This was 1991, the same year a large chunk of concrete fell from Olympic Stadium -- the symbolic and actual falling apart of the Expos had officially begun.

 

2) Olympic Stadium and The Fans

Le Stade Olympique or Olympic Stadium, commonly known by fans as the “Big O,” opened for baseball officially for the 1977 season after it served, unfinished, as the stadium for the 1976 summer Olympics. Truly a unique stadium design, the Big O quickly became one of Montreal’s most recognized landmarks. Peering down Mt. Royal, it looms in the distance like an occupying spaceship from another world. My earliest memory of the Big O was with my parents, watching track and field events at the 1976 Olympics. Rumour has it I peed in my pants… fitting perhaps, seeing that over the years Olympic Stadium would be likened to a giant toilet bowl.

Long considered to be the worst stadium in the majors, its artificial turf helped shorten the Expo career of Andre Dawson. The promise of a retractable roof gave fans and players alike some hope that the stadium could be made into a true baseball park. Many improvements over the years were made towards this aim, like bringing the bleachers closer to the field, installing a new big screen scoreboard, and replacing the artificial turf. But it was like trying to transform a goose into a swan. After many tears, rips and other assorted mishaps with the roof, it was finally decided to put a permanent roof on the stadium. After all, it looked like a new downtown baseball park was going to be built.

In years past I have ranted to friends and really anyone who listened that I would pay to see the Big O imploded. It was long apparent to me the stadium would never really cut it as a professional baseball facility and I was tired of it being the laughing stock of baseball stadiums. The acoustics and air quality was poor, the lighting harsh, the artificial turf full of seams, the seats uncomfortable, and no matter how many fans were in the seats, the place was so big it still seemed empty. The “Big Owe” as it came to be known -- because Montrealers are still paying for it -- is not a pleasant environment to watch any sporting event, let alone a baseball game, which depends on atmosphere perhaps more than any other spectator sport. To top it off, the stadium is located in Montreal’s east end, out of the heart of the city and away from most other tourist attractions.

One needs only to look at the resurgence of attendance for the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League to realize how important a stadium and atmosphere is to fan attendance and morale. Since moving from Olympic Stadium to McGill University’s Molson Stadium, with its football stands, outdoor air, downtown location and cityscape vistas, attendance for Alouette games is now strong. The Expos were apparently poised to begin building a new stadium on a downtown lot right next to the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens. Aside from the obvious benefits, a downtown ballpark near hotels and other attractions would help promote pedestrian walk-up same day ticket purchases, like in cities like Chicago or Boston.

Expo fans grew tired of Olympic Stadium. Montrealers support winners. The stadium is a loser among stadiums. Its design is highlighted in architectural textbooks as an example of what not to do in stadium design. Perhaps Montreal is spoiled after so many years of a championship tradition with the Canadiens, but nevertheless the city did support the Expos with all its heart through thick and thin for so many years. The Expos became known as “Nos Amours,” literally translated as “Our Loves.” Listening to the games on radio or gathering around the television to watch the team on the CBC became a local ritual. This raises another important fact: the CBC pulled the plug on the Expos. By not supplying the Expos with a proper television deal, the CBC contributed to the demise of the Expos with a loss of advertising, publicity, and prestige the team needed to further its already established fan support as well as help to promote a new generation of fans. The CBC should be ashamed, as Canada's national broadcaster, to have turned its back on the Expos. There should have been a way… but at least the CBC is now getting its "payback" with its loss of revenue due to the National Hockey League strike.

I disagree with people who say French-Canadians do not like or support baseball. As someone who played organized baseball in Quebec throughout his youth, I know this is completely untrue. I have always known the French to be incredibly big amateurs of all sports, not just hockey. Olympic games after Olympic games, Quebec’s medal counts consistently outnumber the rest of the country’s. Quebec for all intent and purpose is the center of Canadian sport. Growing up I played baseball with many French Canadians, often whom were the best players. One needs to only look at Eric Gagné of the Los Angeles Dodgers to see how strong the talent base is in Quebec for baseball.

The big thing people forget when looking at the lack of fan support over the last decade is the significant and steady exodus of Montrealers over the last three decades, beginning in the seventies. I am only a recent example. I was born in Montreal and lived there for 27 years until I eventually headed down the 401 to settle in Toronto like so many other former Montrealers. I probably went to at least 2 games a year while in Montreal. There must be at least 100,000 former Montrealers living in Toronto alone. If all had stayed in Montreal and went to at least two games a year, that’s an additional 200,000 in fan attendance yearly. This obviously has made a huge difference not only in the overall attendance numbers, but in the way the players might have performed and perceived their team given this added fan support.

 

3) The 1994 Strike

Even with all of these factors, the fans still supported the Expos, so long as they put a competitive team on the field. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, their last game drew 39,000 fans. But after the strike and subsequent gutting of our all-star, dynasty-in-the-making team, Expos fans had taken enough disrespect and contempt from Major League Baseball.

Then the team was sold to uber-saviour Jeffrey Loria, who promised to build a new stadium and keep the Expos in Montreal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fans and team alike were duped. Loria used the Expos as his entrée into professional baseball ownership and used the team as his personal plunder zone for major league talent. He let the land lease expire for the site of the new stadium. The Quebec government refused to step up to the plate. Bud Selig acted more like a co-conspirator than league commissioner. And so the death knoll began to ring loud and clear for the Expos...

Although I’m extremely sad over the loss of the Expos, I’m happy to have such good memories. What saddens me is that new generations will never have this same opportunity. My last memory of the Expos was exactly the one I wanted. In 2003 I traveled to Chicago with my older brother to visit our other brother who now lives there. We planned our trip around the Expos being in town to play the Cubs and sat about 10 rows from the field just a bit past 1st base.

The Expos crushed the Cubs that day. In a moment reminiscent of something from the movie “The Natural,” I watched, seemingly in slow-motion, Vladimir Guerrero pound a ball straight out of Wrigley Field. The instant the ball struck his bat, I rose to my feet as I knew it was a goner. I could just tell by the sound that he belted it. For what seemed like an eternity but in reality was only a matter of seconds, I was the only one in the entire ballpark on my feet, cheering, until my brothers and the others realized what had happened. The Cubs left fielder (it might have been Moises Alou) didn’t even move.

I finally realized why I was so upset over the loss of the Expos. They were born in 1969 while I was born in 1971. I don’t know a world without the Expos. So the passing of something so close to me, so close to my age, and so intermingled with my personal history, is tough to bear. The Expos are not only moving from Montreal, they are passing into history. And it is this realization that hurts the most. The Expos are now history, as I will be when I die. And to watch someone or something that I knew and loved so much die way before its time is… difficult.

I have to say writing this essay has brought back some great memories for myself and made me think of a bunch of Expo ballplayers I haven’t thought of in a very long time whom I once supported with all my might. Players like: Ellis Valentine, Jerry White, Bryn Smith, Scott Sanderson, Bill Lee, Elias Sosa, Jeff Reardon, Vance Law, Spike Owen, Oil Can Boyd, Chris Speir, Bryan Little, Dan Schatzeder, Ray Burris, Bill Gullickson, Woody Fryman, Rusty Staub, Tony Perez, Al Oliver, Mike Lansing, Sean Berry, Larry Parrish, Hubie Brooks, Doug Flynn, Floyd Youmans, Dave Cash, Rodney Scott, Darrin Fletcher, Dave Palmer, Otis Nixon and many, many, many others…

My hope is this: One day, sometime soon, someone from my generation, born and bred in Montreal, who has become financially successful in the way only baseball owners can be, will bring a Major League franchise back to Montreal. After all, the Alouettes came back from the dead. New ownership created an entirely new and successful hockey franchises in Minnesota and Colorado. Even Washington D.C., after losing their Senators 36 years ago, will finally have a team once more. Let’s just hope they don’t call the team the Expos. That just wouldn’t be right. The Expos were born and thus should die in Montreal, but they will forever be alive and well in the hearts of all its fans. Even Bud Selig can’t take that away.

NEXT TIME: WHY MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL WILL REGRET THE LOSS OF THE EXPOS

Comments on this article? Bite me, I mean...write me: ag@griefilm.com

 


© 1999-2008 GRIEFILM INC. All rights reserved.