By now you’ve probably heard that the Montreal Expos are moving to Washington, D.C. for 2005.
At least that’s what they tell us. Of course there is still the outstanding issue of the Expos’ former owners and their RICO suit against Major League Baseball, as well as gaining the approval of the notoriously flaky Washington, D.C. city council. Placating Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos is a barrier, though if Jayson Stark’s report on the matter is accurate, the Orioles could pull some serious shenanigans under the terms of their settlement with MLB. There’s also the matter of precedent: Montreal and Washington baseball fans alike have been jerked around every year for what seems like forever.
Given all those factors and more, I’ll refrain from making predictions on the team’s future. Given the strong signs that do suggest the team will play its final game in Montreal tonight, however, it seemed appropriate to say some goodbyes.
For those of you who’ve never had the ummm…pleasure of hearing me rant about the Expos in a fit of rose-colored glee, know that I’m an unabashed ‘Spos fan. Have been my whole life, through all the team’s countless hardships, plus two moves that have landed me 3,000 miles from the Big O’s right-field bleachers, where I used to jump up and down, hold up giant signs, eat poutine with my nutty friends, and chat up Larry Walker during pitching changes.
Now that the Expos appear set to leave, I’m writing the article I’ve dreaded writing for almost a decade. Every year since then, people–friends, family members, colleagues, BP readers–have asked me the same question, over and over: What will you do when they’re gone?
I won’t root for them, that much I know. Washington is a great city, and I think the Expos will find a warm home there. A waterfront site revolving around a long-planned redevelopment in the promising, but still hardscrabble, Navy Yard area has major potential. Given the rabid interest in landing a team that I saw during my two years living in The District, I strongly believe the ‘Spos/Sens/Nats/Feds will be a success.
As Jerry Seinfeld liked to say, rooting for a sports team is like rooting for laundry. Sure, you grow attached to certain players. But trades, free agency–all of that means your favorites may not be around long. That’s not a hopeless romantic talking, but a realist. Teams don’t do themselves any good by holding on to players well past their primes for the sake of familiarity. I’ve grown to like and root for plenty of Expos over the years, but that’s not what’s kept me going all this time.
Fandom, more often than not, is about the city in which the team plays. Your hometown team becomes part of your identity. When your team wins, your hometown walks a little taller–you walk a little taller. When your team loses, you’re not quite right–a piece of yourself has been knocked down a peg. I was born and raised in Montreal. For as long as I can remember, an Expos victory has provided that bounce in my step; an Expos loss slumped my shoulders ever so slightly.
Tracing fandom can lead you to an even smaller place than your hometown. It goes to the ballpark where you grew up watching the games. It extends to the chesterfield (sofa, for you Yanks) where you sat, feet nowhere near touching the floor, seeing your first images of your baby-blue pajama-top wearing hometown heroes. I remember getting my first taste of Expos baseball watching games with my grandfather Max, sitting in his living room, watching a scratchy old TV, listening to him cheer Andre Dawson, rail against Rodney Scott. “Oh no, not The Woodchopper again!” he’d cry as Scott strode to the plate, his trademark ugly swing about to unleash another hopeless grounder to second on Expo Nation.
Really, that’s what being a fan of a sports team is all about. Enjoying the moment, cherishing the memories.
Before I share some of those memories with you, I wanted to reiterate an argument that gets lost in all the cheap jokes and ridicule of the media and the masses: Montreal didn’t let the Expos down–MLB did. As in any city, fans came out to support a winner, then dwindled in number when the team lost. As one terrible ownership group transitioned to another, Expos fans endured endless assaults on the viability of their team, their stadium, their players, their city and themselves, from Major League Baseball and their team’s owners. As word spread of a possible move, fans staged rallies, voiced their opinions, showed up to cheer their team. Eventually–long past the point at which most rational people would have thrown in the towel–Montreal baseball fans decided they’d had enough of being toyed with and laughed at.
So please, if you’re debating the issue online or at the water cooler, don’t lower yourself to the level of the mindless columnists and dundering talking heads blasting Montreal for blowing it. If the Expos move, it’ll be MLB that blew it, losing a world-class city with a baseball-rich history and a unique, vibrant culture unmatched almost anywhere in the world. The critics–from Bryn Smith‘s wife famously begging to leave after failing to find Doritos in the grocery store to Bud Selig trashing Montreal every chance he got–simply missed out on a great thing.
There are so many memories, but we’ll focus on 1982 to 1993 here. The ’82 season was the first where I have vivid memories of games at Olympic Stadium. The ’93 season featured one of the most amazing comebacks I’ve ever seen. The Expos stormed back from 15 games out in August after having dealt away staff ace Dennis Martinez only to have him veto the trade as a 10-and-5 player. The team ended up in contention, eventually playing a showdown series with the Phillies in September that ranked as one of the most dramatic ever played by the Expos. It was also the year before the ecstasy and agony of ’94, when the Expos built the best record in baseball on the backs of an all-world team, led by Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Ken Hill, John Wetteland, Larry Walker, and many others. The ’94 season has been discussed in great detail, and the years thereafter meant fewer Big O games for me, culminating with a move in 1997.
With apologies both to the era of Jarry Park, Le Grand Orange and Coco Laboy, as well as the heyday of the incredible Pedro Martinez and the incomparable Vladimir Guerrero, let’s travel back in time. (Thanks to Retrosheet, for making childhood memories at the Big O come alive through their tireless work. Support Retrosheet!)
- Aug. 1, 1982: A game charged with pennant fever featured Steve Rogers and the Cardinals’ Joaquin Andujar going head-to-head. Both pitchers were in the midst of Cy Young-caliber seasons, and 51,353 crazed fans turned up for this showdown; this was in the days when the far-off outfield seats stayed open, all the way to the upper deck flanking the scoreboard. A dramatic three-run seventh inning gave the Expos a thrilling 5-4 victory. Not yet eight years old at the time, in one of my first games ever at the Big O, I remember wondering if all games were this much fun.
- June 18, 1986: Dwight Gooden and Floyd Youmans did battle. Old enough by now to appreciate a great pitching matchup, I was fired up for this one. Both pitchers had great stuff, and this was the one year in which Youmans seemed to put it together, so I was thrilled when my grandfather Alec told me he was taking me to this game. The pitching matchup was something of a bust, as the Expos roughed up Gooden and prevailed, 7-4. This game featured two home runs by Tim Wallach, cementing his status as a favorite of mine. (Yes, in later years, my colder, analytical side would grow to realize he hit into too many double plays and made outs more often than you’d like, but I always rooted for Eli.)
- April 4, 1988: Opening Day, made famous by Darryl Strawberry‘s indescribable moonshot off the surface ring of the Big O. You had to be there–Strawberry flicking those powerful wrists, the ball exploding off his bat, poor Randy St. Claire standing, slack-jawed, as the ball flew into orbit. I’m guessing if St. Claire stays on as pitching coach next year, he’ll show this to his young charges as an example of what not to do: “See here, where this 78-mph pitch breaks directly into the middle of the plate? Now see where Strawberry’s actually licking his chops as the ball’s coming in? Yeah, don’t throw that pitch.”
- April 4, 1989: Another Opening Day, and a game that had everything. Barry Bonds was coming into his own, going 4-for-4 with a homer, triple, two singles and a steal in this game. (Before Bonds became the modern-day Babe Ruth, he was Willie Mays, or at least what I imagine Mays must have been like as a player. If you’re too young to remember early-career Bonds, go find a game of his on ESPN Classic or a similar retro channel if you can–he was amazing.) Another favorite of mine, utility man Tom Foley, improbably whacked a double and a homer off the foul pole to lead the Expos. A bases-loaded walk by Tim Raines–my favorite Expo of all-time, and a worthy first-ballot Hall of Famer (check out not just his stolen bases, but his SB success rate, walks, OBP and runs scored, all categories usually ignored by voters)–won the game for the home team.
(This was another game to which I was accompanied by my grandfather Alec. Both my papas have since passed on, but I think of them often, rarely more so than when I think of our trips together to Expos games. I miss them both, deeply.)
- May 23, 1991: One of the most improbable no-hitters of all-time, spun by forgettable Phillies pitcher Tommy Greene. The announced attendance was 8,833, but there were far fewer people than that in the stadium that night. By the end of the game my friends and I had snuck down to the first row above the dugout, first-base side, to see if Greene could pull it off. His final line included 10 strikeouts and seven walks. This was one of way too many games to count in which my buddies and I, not wanting to miss out on a chance to see a game, brought homework with us on a school night, alternating encouragement for Bop Deshields and company with quadratic equations, or Romeo and Juliet journals, or whatever happened to be due the next morning. Our youth was most definitely not wasted.
- Sept. 27, 1992: The last home game of Gary Carter‘s career. With Felipe Alou taking over as manager that year, the Expos improbably racked up 87 wins, contending for far longer than anyone should have expected. Out of the race in the last week, the team gave Carter one last start behind the plate, hoping to give one last thrill to the 41,802 fans (yes, Montreal supported its team passionately once upon a time). With the game scoreless in the seventh inning, Carter lashed a double to right-center, scoring what would prove to be the only run in a 1-0 Expos victory. As Tim Laker jogged on the field to pinch-run, the fans gave Carter–who even at 38 remained The Kid–the loudest, warmest ovation I’d ever heard. Every bit as much as Yankees fans, Red Sox fans, or any other fans, Expos fans loved their heroes. For every 100-degree game Carter squatted in, for every knee injury he fought through, every day game after night game he played long after the Expos had fallen out of contention, Montreal fans gave it all back with their appreciation that day.
- Sept. 17, 1993: I mentioned earlier the stage for this series. Riding an unbelievable comeback, the Expos surged from also-rans to contenders in a span of a month, setting up a summit with the Phillies at the Big O. In another testament to their ability to pack the stadium given the right circumstances, 45,757 crazies showed up for this game. Trailing 7-4 entering the seventh inning (this may not actually be true if you examine the data, but ask any Expos fan in this era which inning was Magic Time, and invariably they’d say the seventh), the Expos tried to mount a rally, putting two on for rookie pinch-hitter Curtis Pride. Pride responded by smashing a double to the gap, scoring both runners as the Expos tied the game that inning. They’d go on to win 8-7, though their quest for the division title would eventually fall short.
What made the moment unforgettable was the crowd’s reaction. As the Phillies made a pitching change, the delirious fans–myself one of them–stood and cheered. And cheered. And cheered. Pride stood at second watching the crowd. At the first-base coach’s urging, he tipped his cap. Pride, who is deaf, would later say that he couldn’t hear the crowd’s thunderous cheering–he felt it through the turf.
So long, Expos. If this really is the end, know that there are many of us out there, die-hards who’ll never forget the joy you brought to the great city of Montreal. You’ll be missed.