You had to like the scene in Montreal last night, where 34,000 people showed up to express their displeasure with the visiting Florida Marlins. The Marlins, of course, were what Jeffrey Loria upgraded to after selling the Expos to Major League Baseball.
I don't mean to defend the actions of certain fans, which went well past the rules of decorum, but the emotion displayed by those people struck me as a large one-finger salute to those who want to say that the Montreal Expos can be eliminated and no one will care. Many people will care; perhaps not enough to make this destroyed franchise viable again, but certainly enough to make the point that the Expos didn't die: they were killed by an ownership group content to collect welfare rather than compete.
ESPN.com, as part of its preseason package, asked participants to guess how many crowds of greater than 10,000 the Expos would have. I chose 31 (which, by the way, was not the highest guess), because I really believe that Montreal's baseball fans are going to show up in the second half of this season, as the team's fate becomes more clear. They're going to show up and cheer and remember Steve Rogers and Gary Carter and Andre Dawson and Tim Wallach and Larry Walker, as well as appreciate the greatness of Javier Vazquez and Vladimir Guerrero. If this really is the end, I think it's going to be a celebration, not a funeral.
I really wish I could find a way to be more optimistic about the team on the field. It's pretty bad, though, especially on offense. The Expos have long had problems putting on enough runners to sustain an offense–they haven't been above the NL average in OBP or runs since 1994–and that looks to continue this year. Their best hitters are high-average guys who don't walk much, and while they get more power than most teams from their middle infield, they're just terrible at the infield corners.
If there's reason for optimism, we saw it last night as erstwhile prospect Peter Bergeron poked a couple of doubles and drew a walk. Bergeron has been a complete disappointment the last few years, hitting .232/.306/.324 and providing none of the help at the top of the order the Expos have needed. If Bergeron can put up a .350 OBP, the top of the Expos order, with Jose Vidro and Guerrero, looks a lot better.
More good news came in the form of Brad Wilkerson, who hit more like Curtis last year (.205/.304/.325). He drew a walk and looked more comfortable at the plate than he did last year, or even in the spring. The Expos could use the doubles power he provides.
The Expos have fewer questions on the mound, although they're not deep. Vazquez and Tony Armas Jr. compare nicely to the top two pitchers on almost any staff. Carl Pavano was healthy and effective this spring, providing hope that he could finally be back after years of arm problems.
This team isn't going to win anything this year, but they're not the hopeless cases they've been presented as. The core–Guerrero, Vidro, Vazquez, Armas, Orlando Cabrera–compares favorably with many teams that haven't been threatened with extinction.
I hope I'm right, and that the people of Montreal show up and cheer their hearts out for a group of ballplayers who deserve their fervor.