Ce qui s'est produit à Montréal
August 20, 2004

Two weeks ago I made a trip to Montreal and after experiencing the city and it's fans, I have to concede that over the last several years I've been overly critical of Montreal as a baseball town.   It will not be a joyous day for baseball when the major leagues leave that city.  I'm not necessarily saying that the Expos should stay there - that decision has already been made.  What I am saying is that Montreal as a baseball town is not as moribund as Sportscenter makes it out to be and that baseball wasn't given a fair chance to thrive there, especially over the last 10 years. 

Before addressing their future, I will address their past.  Around 1.8 million people live on the island where Montreal sits, and a little over 3 million live in the metropolitan area.  That's roughly the same size as Cleveland, Seattle, San Diego, Phoenix and Minneapolis/St.Paul.  So it has the potential to be a decent mid-sized market.  The city has a history of supporting it's major sports franchises, especially if they win.  The Alouettes of the Canadian Football League have sold out every home game for the last 5 years.  The Canadiens routinely sell out the Molson Center, even when that hockey team isn't very good.  During their first 4 years as a major league franchise (1969-1972), the Expos outdrew the Yankees.  They did it again in 1982 and 1983.  Three other years, they came within 100,000 of what the Yankees drew, most recently in 1992.  From 1979-1983 (with the exception of the 1981 strike year) they drew over 2 million fans per season.  So what happened? 

Montreal's plight can be summed up succinctly with this year's Canada Day fiasco.  The Expos and Blue Jays, Canada's two baseball teams, were scheduled to begin an interleague series on the date which Canada celebrates it's dominion status.  It is the one time every year when Canadian baseball fans have an opportunity to see their teams play each other.  Unfortunately, the MLB schedule makers made them play the games in Puerto Rico.

The primary problem has been ownership.  From Claude Brochu's failed attempts to get another publicly-financed stadium built to Jeffery Loria's indifference to having (or not having as was the case) English speaking broadcasts of the game, ownership since the Bronfmans sold the team in 1991 has demonstrated a fatal lack of creativity in marketing the team.  To make matters worse, Loria was allowed to sell the team to the other 29 team owners, making the Expos' most recent sale the most obvious conflict of interest transaction in the last 100 years.  Dating from Loria's ownership, the team's resources have been managed quite poorly - from spending a large portion of the budget on marginal free agent talent, to blocking the promotion of minor leaguers in September just to save a couple hundred thousand dollars, despite the team being in the midst of the wild card race last year.  This after the players agreed to shift 22 of their "home games" to Puerto Rico so the team could make more money.  As it turned out, the team didn't make any more money from the Puerto Rico games than it would have had they played in Montreal, but that didn't stop the major league owners from scheduling another 22 games in San Juan this year.  One of those games was rained out and the Expos were forced to make-up a home game as the visiting team in San Francisco because the owners wouldn't insist on the Giants making up the game in Montreal.  The reason: it was too far for the Giants to travel.  For a team that has to travel nearly 2000 miles between "home games", that rang awfully hollow.  The front office has been blamed for some of these missteps, but their origin points directly back to ownership. 

I've heard many in the media complain that Stade Olympique is a poor place to play baseball, which I find somewhat ironic.  Every new stadium with a family-oriented complex owes its very existence to it.  After it served as the host of the Summer Olympics in 1976, the park where the stadium sits became home to the Biodome (an indoor natural habitat for plants and animals featuring four different climates), the Insectarium (a hands-on insect zoo), a botanical garden and a large expanse of fair grounds for carnivals, exhibitions and other seasonal activities.  There's also a funicular that will take you to the top of the roof tower where you get one of the most spectacular views of any major city.  For a family day out, no other ballpark has as many attractions in such close proximity. 

The baseball experience itself isn't bad either.  The press box is nicer than most, the field is well-lighted (although I'm told that wasn't always the case) and the new Nexturf playing surface plays true like an astroturf field but with many of the properties of real grass.  And although the crowds are meager by major league standards, they are among the most boisterous yet knowledgeable I've come across.  They didn't need flashing signs on the jumbotron to know that a particular at bat was pivotal or that they needed to make noise.  Unlike the passive observers who make up the majority of attendees at the new ballparks, the fans in Montreal were active participants in the game raising their team's adrenaline levels at the right times without a cue.  Short of hailing the beerman, the majority of the fans at the new retro ballparks require video prodding to make any kind of clamor.  Expo fans also knew the team's history very well, recounting the feats of their favorite sons, even those who went on to other teams and found success.  To their credit, they are also among the most polite fans.   Not once did I hear foul language or pointless disparaging.  And it wasn't because they didn't drink more than their fair share of beer; the Molson Export flowed like the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Speaking of the fans, I spoke with plenty about the fate of their team.  Many seemed resigned to the fact that the team will be moving.  John Lloyd, a resident of Toronto but a season ticket holder of the Expos, drives five hours one-way to see his favorite team play.  He was disappointed that Expos fans are perceived as unsupportive.  Marie Cormier puts the blame squarely Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf for fomenting the player strike that ended the 1994 season, crippling a franchise that was beginning to draw big crowds, but has since been resigned to a decade-long sell-off of it's best players.  I spoke with several folks in the press box including the official scorer and the opinions were unanimous on two topics: they were mystified by the way the franchise has been handled and they believed that Montreal could have been as good as any mid-sized market.  The Expos certainly had the potential to be as good talent-wise as the Cardinals are today.  With the likes of Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Vlad Guerrero, Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Rondell White, Henry Rodriguez, Orlando Cabrera, Mark Grudzialanek, Michael Barrett, Dustin Hermanson, Ugueth Urbina, John Wetteland, Pedro Martinez, Javier Vazquez, Carl Pavano, Jeff Fassero and Kirk Rueter all traded away or let go to free agency over salary concerns, how can one argue that they wouldn't?  All those players got their first chance to realize their potential in Montreal.  How good would that team look with even half of them still in the fold? 

It finally dawned on me that maybe Canadian fans are not like American fans.  While both positive and passionate, they don't tolerate the corporate extortion for new ballparks that Americans have come to accept as routine in baseball as a double play.  This is the primary reason the fans just aren't coming to the games in the numbers they once did.  They simply tired of the shell game that MLB plays with local politics and decided there were better things to do with their time than agonize over when their team would be stolen away.  Sadly, that kind of integrity is a mortal sin in the 21st century in North America, one that will cost Montreal it's baseball team.

As I was leaving my final game in Montreal, long-time season ticket holder Dave Kaufman told me, "We're not losers here.  We don't want the team to go, but if they do, we're not losers."   No, Dave, you're not losers.  And hopefully, one day baseball will realize that just like Baltimore (in 1902), New York (in 1957), Milwaukee (in 1965), Kansas City (in 1967), Seattle (in 1969) and perhaps Washington DC (in 1971) were when they lost teams, Montreal can still be a good place for baseball.