I have been in a wonderful mood since I learned on Friday morning that the New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays would be playing two spring training games this weekend at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. It marks the first time professional baseball has been played in Montreal since the Expos left at the end of the 2004 season for D.C.
During lunch, I went over to the Harvard Coop and was greeted by a new book about the Expos written by Montreal native Jonah Keri titled Up, Up & Away: The Kid, The Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, The Crazy Business of Baseball, & the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos. That is the longest title for a book I’ve ever seen. I nearly read the first 100 pages of the book this afternoon. It only whetted my appetite.
Olympic Stadium is still ugly as ever, but never has it looked so beautiful. Tonight, 46,121 fans saw the Jays beat the Mets 5-4. The Jays were down 4-1 after five innings although Jose Bautista hit a long HR into the left field bleachers. It reminded me of the homer Mike Schmidt hit off Stan Bahnsen during the final weekend of the 1980 season when the Phillies beat out the Expos to win the NL East.
A sacrifice fly by Dioner Navarro in the sixth made it 4-2. Jays DH Edwin Encarnacion tied the game with a single in the seventh. In the ninth, shortstop Munenori Kawasaki led off the inning by hustling for an infield double. Kawasaki scored the winning run on a pinch hit single by career minor leaguer Ricardo Nanita. The Jays won the game 5-4, but the fans were chanting “Let’s Go Expos!!!” It felt like the Expos heyday during the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Today brought back a lot of memories and these memories were sharpened when I spoke to my Dad on the phone during the game. He was also watching the game. We reminisced about the very first big league game I attended. On August 30, 1981, me, Dad and my maternal grandfather saw the Atlanta Braves best the Expos 5-4 in 12 innings. The Braves scored the winning run when Chris Chambliss reached base on a error by Expos second baseman Rodney Scott. What Dad remembered was the cow milking contest which was won by the late Expos reliever Woody “Farmer” Fryman.
A week later, the Expos fired manager Dick Williams, replaced him with Jim Fanning and made their only post-season appearance. Their post-season dreams ended when my favorite team was beaten by a pinch hit home run by my favorite player, Rick Monday. That day came to be known as Blue Monday.
It was great to hear names like Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Ellis Valentine, Scott Sanderson, Chris Speier and Rodney Scott bandied about. Ditto for the broadcast team of Dave Van Horne and Duke Snider (yes, that Duke Snider) as well as French broadcaster Claude Raymond.
During the game, Blue Jays broadcasters Buck Martinez and Jerry Howarth spoke with three Expos legends — outfielder Warren Cromartie, pitcher Steve Rogers and scouting director Mel Didier. Cromartie, affectionately known as Cro, is spearheading an effort to bring a big league team back to Montreal. These efforts were prompted in large part following Carter’s passing in 2012. Meanwhile, Rogers is working for the MLBPA which today considerably toughened MLB’s anti-drug policy. As for Didier, he turns 87 in June and still working as a scout with the Jays organization. Well, as Satchel Paige put it, “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Prior to the game, there was a tribute to the late Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter who is considered by many to be the best to ever were an Expos uniform. Carter, of course, also won a World Series ring with the Mets in 1986 at the expense of the Red Sox. Before tomorrow’s game, the 1994 Expos will be honored. The Expos were 74-40 when the players strike began which ultimately resulted in the World Series being cancelled. Baseball in Montreal was never the same.
The chances of a MLB team returning to Montreal are slim. When the Expos moved to DC they became the first team to move since the Washington Senators moved to Texas 32 years earlier. The Tampa Bay Rays are a great team that play in a lousy ballpark with lousy attendance. But they are stuck in Tropicana Field until 2027. The Oakland A’s lease at O.Co Coliseum expires at the end of the 2015 season. But if the A’s are to move it would most likely be somewhere out west like San Jose or Las Vegas. Besides I can’t see them calling the team the Montreal A’s.
Dad suggested that it would be great if the Jays were to play a handful of regular season games each season in Montreal. That would satiate the appetites of Montreal baseball fans.
In the end, money talks. Montreal needs a new ballpark to be built downtown. But they need another Charles Bronfman who had the pockets and prestige to get things done way back in 1969. I’m not sure if there is another Bronfman out there.
Even if a MLB team doesn’t return to Montreal, I am thrilled I got a chance to see baseball played once more at Olympic Stadium.
UPDATE: On Saturday afternoon before 50,229 fans, the Jays beat the Mets 2-0. Jays pitchers Brandon Moore, Aaron Loup, Steve Delabar, and Aaron Sanchez limited the Mets to two hits. Morrow struck out eight betters in 5 2/3 innings pitched. Mets starter Daisuke Matzusaka also fanned eight batters. Melky Cabrera’s two-run HR in the eighth accounted for the only runs of the game. Sanchez struck out the side in the ninth to end the game and earn the win.
Larry Walker, Darrin Fletcher and Tim Raines were interviewed during the game. In all, nearly 100,000 fans went through the turnstiles to see baseball in Montreal this weekend.