MONTREAL, April 4 -- Around the time the old Expos, now the new Nationals, started their game in Philadelphia on Monday, a forklift's engine echoed through the canyons of stands in Olympic Stadium. It looked as if they could have played baseball. The dugouts were in place, the benches lined in a row, the radio booth and press box looked just as they did in all the other baseball seasons and a 20-foot advertisement proclaiming Molson to be the beer of the Expos remained on the giant center field scoreboard.
The only difference was that the field was gone, rolled up months ago and sold to B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver. The outfield walls were no longer there, either, leaving the Nationals' former stadium with an enormous concrete floor. There had been an RV show over the weekend and next week's feature is a monster truck show. Both would easily outdraw in one night about two week's worth of Expos games, noted Etienne Boucher, a tour guide who was leading a group through the empty park.
It was 1994 that ruined baseball for Montreal, Boucher said. The Expos had the best record in the game that year, and then came the lockout that canceled the last third of the season and the World Series. It was a conspiracy, he continued. The Toronto Blue Jays had won the previous two World Series and baseball was going to be damned if it had a third champion in a row from north of the border. So it blew up the season. Or at least this is what people tell him.
"I'm not a baseball fan," he said, then shrugged.
Which was always the issue with baseball in Montreal during the Expos' 36-year run in the city.
"There was a hard-core faithful of 7,500 to 9,000 baseball fans, the problem was it was the same fans," said Gabriel Morency, a sports talk radio host in Montreal. "I put the onus on Montrealers, on the Montreal fans. They were Expo fans, not baseball fans, and when the Expos didn't win, they didn't care."
All day long, as a drizzle fell, there was little sense of loss. The mid-afternoon crowds surged through the streets and into the shopping malls and not a single person wore a baseball cap, a baseball shirt, or a baseball jacket. At a souvenir stand attached to Olympic Stadium, a man sold Canadian maple syrup, feathers, leather coin purses, socks and scarves with maple leaf prints, little soccer balls that said "Canada," little footballs that said "Canada," miniature hockey sticks and a deck of Ottawa Senators playing cards.
In fact the only evidence that a baseball team was here came in the sign that said "Expos Administration" that sat next to a row of abandoned ticket booths in the stadium's lobby. Below the sign was a doorbell. When it rang one of the last Expos workers left in Montreal opened the door. Behind her was a threadbare office, with abandoned desks, old paint, a couple of baseball pictures on the walls and another woman sitting behind a desk. For now, this is the Nationals' accounting department.
But on the first day without baseball in Montreal they would not talk about the team that went away.
"No comment! No!" said the woman who answered the door. It closed and the last Expos employees left behind ducked back into their anonymity.
If only Katie Hynes could do the same. She put on her Expos earrings today and then wept on her way downtown, where she works as a property manager. She wept in the morning, she said. She wept in the afternoon. Late in the day, she left and headed out to Hurley's Pub, where she used to meet Frankie, Tim, Jason, Jeff, Sarita and Ruth -- the others who could not let baseball go.
She is angry, she said. Furious at baseball for taking her team. "Our murder," she calls the move to Washington and she vowed to never watch a Nationals game and said she hoped the team would go 0-162. But she can't detach herself. At least not yet. She still checks box scores, still looks to see how Brad Wilkerson, the team's center fielder, fared.
A fan from Washington, Alan Alper, has taken pity on her plight. He bought her a ticket to today's Nationals game in Philadelphia that she refused to use. He has also purchased Nats tickets on Sept. 9, her birthday. She isn't sure if she wants to take them. This is still too hard. On Sunday, Alper sat in section 107 at RFK Stadium -- her old section at Olympic Stadium -- as a tribute.
This began to make her cry again. Later, the old group wouldn't show up at Hurley's to catch reports of the Nationals' first loss. She wound up sitting with the bar's owners. None of the TVs even showed baseball.