Somewhere 500 miles away in a drab and fading office, tucked into a handful of giant duffel bags, lays the last tangible asset of the Montreal Expos. Its orange fur and giant nose have been carefully preserved, zipped into a sealed environment safe from moths and scavengers. And there it will remain until the lawyers can finally resolve its fate.
Youppi! is resting now.
But in the first spring without baseball in Montreal, the Expos' orange mascot is missed. Perhaps this seems strange. After all, Youppi! is grossly overweight, has a pointy head, a nose disproportionate to the rest of its body and appears to have something resembling an enormous beard that at some point grows into a forest of orange chest hair. And yet he is beloved in Montreal where his future is a daily topic of conversation.
The rumors have been flying: First Youppi! was going to be sold to a Canadian pharmacy chain, then to a hospital. Now the latest reports have the Montreal Canadiens deep in negotiations to acquire him.
"We do confirm that we have a serious interest in adopting Youppi!" Canadiens Vice President Donald Beauchamp said.
Of course in the big money world of professional sports, adopt is a relative term. Make no mistake, the Canadiens will pay for the rights to Youppi! and this, too, is the subject of much debate around Quebec with estimates of a final sales price ranging anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million.
The Canadiens will say nothing about a price. And Claude Delorme, the former Expos vice president who is assigned the task of divesting the team of everything Montreal, cites a confidentiality agreement when discussing Youppi's sale. All he will say is that the Canadiens are one of many bidders for Youppi!
Either way, the money goes to the Nationals. The situation is a bit awkward for the team, which tomorrow will unveil a new mascot, providing a face to an organization still searching for an identity. But this also leaves the team in the precarious position of being a club without an owner, yet with mascots in two countries.
The problem of the sale is a complicated one. Delorme says the deal would probably have been completed weeks ago if not for the issue of Youppi's trademarks. When Youppi! was first created in 1979, the Expos registered their logos on his cap and shirt. The registers lasted even as the team's insignias changed. Now in order to get rid of him, they must first "de-register" every logo, Delorme said, then register it again without the word "Expos."
And so Youppi! rests in his duffel bags while Montreal waits to hear what will become of him.
"When you think about Youppi!, think about Santa Claus, it's the same thing," said Rodger Brulotte, a broadcaster for French-speaking radio and television networks in Montreal. "The importance he has with adults and small children is amazing. If you walked into a hospital with Youppi! you can imagine the reaction. You would pay to do it again."
Brulotte, it should be noted, has a history with Youppi! As an employee in the Expos' marketing department in 1979 he helped to invent Youppi! At the time, the team had a different mascot, a figure in an Expos uniform with a giant baseball for a head. It was a variation of the popular mascot of the New York Mets called Mr. Met, but with one difference. The Expos' Mr. Met, called Souki, had odd antennas sticking out the sides of his head.
"He looked like something from outer space and the kids were afraid of him," Brulotte says.
So the Expos rid themselves of Souki, giving him to a fraternity at Montreal University, which held a public burial for the space creature, thus sparing children all over the city. Then the team set out to find the least offensive mascot that it could get. This led the Expos to Jim Henson, the Muppets creator. Henson sent several prototypes that the team rejected, including a purple and brown monster and something with a huge nose.