Few sights break a heart like that of a terminal patient showing fleeting signs of recovery late in the game. But that was the scene last weekend at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. For just a couple of days, it seemed, all of the problems surrounding the Montreal Expos — who survive on some sort of professional sports life-support — faded away. They might, just might, earn a trip to the postseason, and banner crowds seemed to suggest there really was a market for baseball in Quebec.
The situation’s grim reality soon reasserted itself, and every indication is that this is Montreal’s last season as a major league city.
The Expos have been Dead Men Playing all season. Just days after the conclusion of last year’s epic World Series, Major League Baseball attempted to contract the Expos and Minnesota Twins. And if it weren’t for some legal wrangling by the feisty Minnesotans, MLB probably would have succeeded.
Montreal didn’t put up much of a fight. If there’s one thing the last few years have revealed, it’s that virtually no one in Montreal cares too deeply about their Expos. The number of fans who might be termed “zealous” could fit into a phone booth.
Instead of a phone booth, these few hearty souls get together amid the unfriendly confines of the deplorable Stade Olympique, a hideous concrete monstrosity that once was open to the elements but has been domed, basically by dropping a giant blue soccer ball over the lid of the building’s original roof.
At this concrete pavilion on the outskirts of otherwise charming Montreal, the Expos averaged a mind-bogglingly low 7,935 fans per game last season. With the executioner’s blade hovering nearby, attendance has been no better this campaign. After filling a little more than half the stadium for the home opener (a guaranteed sellout in nearly every other baseball city), the Expos saw crowds of less than 5,000 in each of their next six games. Indeed, over the next 36 games, the team drew double figures on only six occasions. Montreal is on the verge of answering what would once have been thought a rhetorical question: What if they held a season and nobody came?
Just this week 14 individuals filed a RICO lawsuit against Major League Baseball, commissioner Bud Selig, and former Expos owner Jeff Loria, charging conspiracy to destroy baseball in Montreal. One commentator suggested this was a class-action suit filed by all the Expos’ season-ticket holders (in reality it was filed by the club’s former minority shareholders). With a season-ticket base measured in terms of hundreds, not thousands, that wasn’t far off base.
It’s hard to blame fans for not turning out to see the team. The atmosphere is beyond dreary. As one member of the Atlanta Braves said after last Saturday’s game, “We love coming to Montreal, for the city, at least. We hate this stadium.” Add to this the utter indifference of the team’s owners over the past decade, conducting fire sale after fire sale and getting rid of budding superstars like Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez.
The team is now in receivership, owned and operated by the Major League Baseball, which is not unlike having Jack Kevorkian in charge of the nursing home. Even if baseball fails to close down the Expos after this season, the club most likely will be shipped to a place that wants it, probably Washington, DC.
None of this seemed to matter over the past weekend. The Eastern Division-leading Braves rolled into town. With a couple victories the surprising Expos could gain ground on Atlanta and certainly inch closer to the wild-card playoff berth.
After dropping the first two games of a four-game series, the Expos roared back and injected a shot of adrenalin into a dying franchise. The Expos knocked Braves star Tom Glavine out of the box in the fifth inning when three of the first four batters (including bona fide superstar Vladimir Guerrero and recent acquisition Cliff Floyd) went deep. The 17,345 in the stands went nuts. Bartolo Colon, also picked up for the stretch run, held on for his twelfth victory of the season. Sunday’s series finale drew more than 25,000 raucous fans to see the Expos dispatch the Braves yet again (it was also Tim Raines bobblehead day). This success both on and off the field was front-page news in the Canadian papers on Monday.
Naturally, this would not last. How could it? A fatalism pervades baseball in Montreal that won’t allow good fortune to take hold. Deep down in their breasts, the few true Montreal fans out there are resigned. They know they can’t win. And it isn’t just that the demigods who inhabit Major League Baseball’s owners’ boxes are drawing up plans to dissolve the Expos. It’s baseball’s gods themselves, willing Montreal’s misfortune from their Mt. Olympus overlooking Cooperstown’s Lake Otsego. Remember 1994? Most baseball fans would rather not. Expos fans will forever be spared that comfort: 1994 was the year the higher powers showed just what they thought of baseball in Montreal.
That year the Expos were the best team in baseball, and had very real prospects for playing in their first ever World Series. It was a glorious time. Late in the season, however, the players went on strike. Baseball ended up canceling the World Series, and with it the Expos’ hopes.
So is it any surprise what happened the first night after life and magic miraculously seemed to be injected into Olympic Stadium? Before a relatively huge Monday night crowd of more than 11,000, the Expos were cruising to their third straight win by taking an 8-3 lead into the ninth inning.
After getting leadoff hitter Mike Lieberthal to ground out, the Expos fell apart. They allowed the Phillies to bat around, putting eight runs across the plate before it was all said and done. A shell-shocked Expos squad went down in order in their half of the ninth, and the Phillies won 11-8.
Almost as quickly as it began, the Expos boomlet was quashed. When the season is over, and the Expos pack their bags for the very last time at Olympic Stadium, they can look back to this mid-summer stretch when they let their season slip away. More than that, their supporters can look to it as the point when any hope for building up and demonstrating enthusiasm for the team — the only chance for convincing anyone to keep baseball in Montreal — was quelled.
It couldn’t really have been any other way. C’est la vie.
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