Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Montreal Expos: Je me souviens…


As an enthusiast for the French-speaking world and lover of the city of Montreal, with an admittedly romanticized sentimental attachment to the game of baseball, when I found myself in Montreal last week, I simply had to make the trek over to The Big O, the concrete ruin that is Olympic Stadium, where the Montreal Expos both lived and died. Growing up, I had an affinity for the team with the tricolored caps and the highlights with announcers that called games in a language I didn’t know. Passing beneath the imposing observation tower of the Parc Olympique, nestled in the seedy, working-class district of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve in north-east Montreal, looking down on the chipped cement below and to the botanical garden ahead, I pondered the fate of this unfortunate québécoise franchise—one that could have seemingly been avoided in so many ways.


Borrowing the motto of the province of Quebec, I realize this post might read a bit like a memoir. I’m okay with that. I will, however, provide some historical justification for this post. In my lifetime (and near the end of the life of the Expos), three major events in the team’s final decade might beg to question if there is something to the fatalism--at least where baseball is concerned--adopted by the city since the failed separatist referendum of 1995. 1) The 1994 season: with a 6-game lead on Atlanta and on pace to win 105 games, the MLBPA called a strike in mid-August that would cancel the World Series and eliminate the Expos only viable chance at a title. 2) Following the 1994 heartbreak, team president Claude Brochu (an avid supporter of the team who gave 2 million of his own dollars to keep them in Montreal in 1991) inexplicably advised a “fire sale” and sold nearly all the talent behind the team’s recent success: Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland, etc. (also getting rid of Moises Alou, Mel Rojas, and Pedro Martinez in subsequent seasons). And, 3) Lucien Bouchard, Premier of Quebec and voice of the separatist movement, with the opportunity to save a floundering team, refused to act on proposals to build Labatt Field in downtown Montreal, moving the team from the decrepit dome in shady northeast Montreal to an open air haven not far from the Bell (then Molson) Centre where the Habs play. A potential stab at “the Anglos” whose Non! vote had prevailed in the 1995 referendum, Bouchard’s refusal to act on the plan, in the eyes the of many Montrealers, essentially doomed the team. Unable to fill the massive eyesore that was Big O, the team lost its morale, fans stopped coming, home games were relocated to Puerto Rico, and, ultimately, the franchise moved to Washington D.C., where the Nationals’ bland mediocrity does no justice to the former uniqueness of the Expos


The “Bouchard Theory” is but one conspiracy as to why the team failed. True to French-Canadian form, most still point to fatalism. Could baseball, an American game ever hope to exist—really exist—in a Canadian city, of which 75% of the population speaks French? In an excellent and engaging novel treating the uneasiness in Montreal following the 1995 fracas, Last Days of Montreal, John Brooke dedicates one chapter to a discussion between estranged former broadcasters for the Expos, where one character Harve Doody describes the game as “a Protestant pursuit […] the American Dream,” describing Montreal as a “purgatory of a Catholic city where baseball shouldn’t be at all.” Maybe he’s right. History and the fate of the Expos would suggest as much. Still, the Expos live on in memory; and, I fondly reflect on them each time I don my three-paneled—blue, white, and red—cap with the Montreal “M” that also contains the “E” and “B” for Expos Baseball. While one can no longer chant “Les expos sont là,” nothing precludes idealistic baseball history buffs from nostalgically uttering “Il était une fois...”

1 comment:

Corry Cropper said...

I'll comment once I wipe the tears from my eyes...