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Montreal, Expos'd
Visiting the City Whose Team Might Call D.C. Home

By Mike Tidwell
The Washington Post
Sunday, July 11, 1999; Page E01
   


Hundreds of crazed fans in this crowd of 5,000 foreigners begin standing and savagely slamming the backs of their chairs up and down, up and down to register their intense approval of what's going on on the playing field. The act creates sharp explosions of sound not unlike small-arms fire. The only people not banging chairs, it seems, are the sticky-fingered children eating deep-fried dough or forking strange mounds of fried potatoes laced with cheese and gravy.

Suddenly, down on the field halfway through this "match," something bad happens for the home team. The French-speaking fans begin yelling at the mostly Spanish-speaking players: "Pourri! Pourri!" Rotten! Rotten! People whistle and blow long, booming plastic horns.

I am, of course, taking in a major league baseball game in Montreal. I'm watching the pinstriped Expos on their home turf, a nine-inning experience that's perhaps the best multicultural adventure available to Washingtonians within easy flying distance of Reagan National Airport. It's a spectacle, a combination of God's two greatest inventions: baseball and international travel. As a junkie for both, I'm borderline apoplectic, immersed in fastballs and home runs, foreign billboards and surnames I can't pronounce.

But a worrisome question nags as I sip my Molson: Do we really want these guys? Unless you're tone deaf to sports news, you probably know there's rampant speculation that the financially troubled Expos may move to the D.C. area.

So I've come here as more than a sports tourist. I'm on a scouting mission, crossing the border for a sneak preview. I've already told my 2-year-old son, an emerging fan back in Takoma Park, that this is his team. He wears a tiny Expos hat when we play Whiffle ball in the back yard.

But seeing this team firsthand reveals the naked truth: They're awful. Just now, an Expos batter strikes out on four pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies, triggering grumbles from the sparse crowd at Olympic Stadium. The team mascot--an orange and hairy something called "Youppi" (French for "hooray")--leads the fans in more chair-slamming fun, trying to keep a rally alive.

The next batter runs the count full, teasing the fans, before popping out to the pitcher. More grumbles. The Expos have the lowest team payroll in baseball and some of the youngest players--and they are off to one of their worst starts in the team's 30-year history. Two nights ago, the players committed six errors in a single game.

Again: Do we really want these guys?

The answer, of course: Oui! Si! Yes! Please! Pretty please! Pretty please with whipped cream and a new, stylishly retro downtown stadium within easy walking distance of the Metro on top!

Expos second baseman Wilton Guerrero steps to the plate as Youppi waves his hirsute arms wildly and the fans begin yelling things in French I can't understand. Guerrero, like the rest of the team, is in a terrible slump, and he falls behind in the count just as I come to a realization: Whatever happens in this game, I'll leave without regrets. If the Expos decamp for Washington, this will be the last summer to see French Canadian big-league baseball, a phenomenon worth catching before it goes, if for no other reason than it provides something found nowhere else in North America: minor league baseball with major league players.

For anyone fashionably tired of big pro salaries, high ticket prices, arrogant players and the hassle of big crowds, the Expos offer the best of all worlds. I took a cheap Air Canada flight here, spent two days touring one of the world's great cities, and now I'm getting the farm league treatment: a tiny crowd, players barely old enough to shave, a crazy marriage proposal in the stands brokered by the mascot, and a wooden outfield scoreboard with numbers updated manually by teenagers. All this for the ridiculously low ticket price of less than $5 U.S. and a seat so close to the action that I can almost smell the pine tar.

Guerrero bounces to second for an out, ending the inning. I do the only sensible thing. I order another Molson.

My innkeeper in downtown Montreal, Madeline, says in accented English, "So what if the Expos leave town? There are many things fantastique and unique in Montreal besides just the Expos."

She's right, of course, and during my two-day stay I'm determined see some "things fantastique" before hitting the ballpark.

I begin by renting a mountain bike and pedaling straight to the top of Mont Royal, the dramatic, forested mountain (okay, a big hill) in the dead center of town that gives the city its name. A winding gravel road takes me through stands of Canadian maples to a beautiful summit park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. It's odd to stand at the grassy pinnacle and be eyeball to eyeball with the tops of skyscrapers just 10 blocks away.

On the way down, pausing for great views of the lovely St. Lawrence River, I pass a pair of oddly segregated cemeteries--one for French speakers, one for English speakers--a site that mutely summarizes the long-festering cultural divisions within Quebec.

I pedal to the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, a 40-square-block delight of colonial structures and alleyways filled with horse-drawn caleches and itinerant artists. A warm spring sun has unloosed crowds of diners on the city's Euro-gamut of outdoor cafes, bistros and restaurants. The legendary French Canadian reputation for highly developed leisure skills is on full display this Sunday afternoon amid a sea of white tablecloths and red wines so good that even the vin de maison is a pretty sure bet. I eat grilled salmon served rare with escargots on a bed of scallions and garlic, and nearly swoon.

The next day is game day. I visit the Old Fort on St. Helen's Island, in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, before heading to Olympic Stadium. After the War of 1812, the British prepared for a possible American invasion of Montreal by building this moated fortress with eight-foot-long cannons and two-meter-thick stone walls. As something of an invader myself, I grow slightly self-conscious inside those walls. Maybe I'm paranoid, but the eyes of those period-dress sentries make me think they're onto me, pegging me as the expeditionary fingertip of Washington's long arm reaching up to snatch the Expos. I make a discreet but hasty exit.

I arrive three hours before the game, leaving plenty of time to tour the flag-festooned Olympic Park. I buy a ticket for the highly touted gondola ride rising from the spine of Olympic Stadium. Photos of the 1976 Games ornament the waiting area: Nadia Comaneci, Kornelia Ender, Sugar Ray Leonard.

But I soon learn something unexpected about myself: Facing backward in a gondola rapidly moving upward at a 45-degree angle makes me afraid. At the top, pale and sweating, I take in a dramatic aerial view of the famous Olympic Village, the Montreal Botanical Garden and the city's 1967 international Expo site.

Back on terra firma, there's time for one more stop: Moe's Deli and Bar, where Expos fans gather. It's a friendly place with exposed-brick walls, barbecued ribs and desserts kept in an old phone booth by the bar. It's happy hour--two-for-one Labatt beers--till well past game time, perhaps to anesthetize the fans for the poor play sure to follow.

I sit at the bar next to Daniel, a baseball-hatted Expos loyalist, who has a message for D.C. fans. "Don't accept our Expos," he tells me. "You've lost two teams of your own before, so you know what it feels like. Please don't do this to us."

I grimace and finish my second Labatt and push back my stool while Daniel, like all Montrealers I meet, remains a friendly sport to the end.

"When you reach the stadium," he says, "buy the cheapest ticket in the house. It's only $7 Canadian [$4.80 U.S.]. Then, after the first pitch, sit wherever you want."

"A $7 seat, please," I tell the stadium ticket seller moments later, handing over my money. I walk through the turnstile, past the popcorn and pennant venders, toward Section 139, right field. Virtually alone in my area, I take in batting practice amid thoroughly modern trappings: artificial turf, a space-age stadium roof, a gargantuan replay screen in center field. But already it doesn't quite feel like major league baseball.

First, of course, there's the ticket price, about a quarter of what you'd pay at Camden Yards. Then there's the action on the field. An Expos coach is pitching batting practice using a wobbly shopping cart full of baseballs, and he's throwing to the beat of French rock music blasting over the P.A. Thirty feet below me, two teenage boys are standing on a crude scaffold, diligently updating a sprawling pre-World War II-type wooden scoreboard that gives results from around the league. This old-fashioned work, utterly exposed to those of us in the cheap seats, involves taking scores from a press-box official, then reaching into several wooden troughs for wooden slabs hand-painted with numbers and sliding them into the appropriate slot. One of them wears a felt Gatsby hat.

I exit the stands for a quick pregame bite. "One order of poutine," I tell the uniformed attendant at a concession stand. Poutine, a uniquely Quebecois concoction combining french fries, cheddar cheese and beef-stock gravy, is so popular that it's served at McDonald's restaurants throughout the province. I watch the cook in back combine the fries and cheese in a tall paper cup, then slop on a ladleful of thick gravy from a stainless-steel vat. He pauses and then, momentarily indecisive, adds a second, heaping ladleful.

I'm back at my seat in time for the national anthem, spearing dripping mouthfuls of poutine with a fork. For extreme junk food, it's not so bad, though halfway through the serving my stomach begins making odd noises that compete with the junior high school band playing "O Canada" with tubas and French horns on the field.

The Expos take the field next, and the crowd, sprinkled more or less evenly across the stadium, begins banging empty seats up and down in preparation for the opening pitch. Twenty-five-year-old Expos pitcher Mike Thurman is on the mound, and as he warms up you can almost sense the whole place cringe. With an 0-2 record and an ERA of 8.05, he's the worst pitcher on the second-worst pitching staff in the National League. Just two nights ago, Expos pitchers gave up 17 runs in a game.

But the first pitch from Thurman is a strike on the outside corner, and cheers go up just as the strange migration begins. True to Daniel's prediction, everyone in the stands not already seated behind home plate makes a beeline for amazingly choice (and empty) lower-level seats just 20 rows from the field (above a narrow VIP section) in an arc from dugout to dugout. I grab the rest of my poutine and join the exodus. By the end of the first inning, we fans are huddled cozily around home plate.

In the third inning, the Expos stage a mini rally. Third baseman Mike Mordecai lines a clean single to left, and the juices start flowing in the stands. I get caught up in the excitement--this is my team, too--so I stand and begin slamming the back of my chair and cheer madly like those around me. The noise coming from these fans is, no exaggeration, as much as I've heard from crowds four times as big in other parks. Despite the high-decibel support, the rally sputters when Thurman strikes out trying to lay down a bunt.

Next to me, a serious fan named Jean Yves Leduc is studiously scoring the game. He says he's attended at least 40 Expos home games every year for the past two decades. He puts down his scoring pencil and reminisces about highlights, including the 22-inning game against Los Angeles in 1987 and the time he shook hands with third baseman Tim Wallach in the parking lot before a game. "I could feel all the calluses on Wallach's hand from taking extra batting practice every day," Yves says. "I'll never forget those calluses. He was so dedicated to this team and to the game."

And what will Yves do if the Expos leave town?

"I had a talk with my girlfriend," he says, "and I decided that, with all my new free time, I would just go ahead and get married and have a life."

It's the top of the fourth when Thurman makes a mistake pitch and Phillies right-fielder Bobby Abreu lifts a second two-run homer into left field. Four-zip, Philadelphia.

"One more Phillies run," mutters the old farmer next to me after removing his teeth, whistling and putting them back in, "and I'm going home to watch hockey."

Halfway through the fifth inning, Yves gets into an animated conversation with a hot dog vendor. It's all in French, and they both laugh a great deal, and I ask Yves what's so funny. "The crowd's so small tonight that the stadium is telling all the vendors--when they go back for more hot dogs--to go home. They're getting paid for only half a game. But this vendor's decided to avoid the order by not going back to resupply. That way, he can at least get his base pay for the rest of the game."

Sure enough, the vendor walks away with a smile, barking to the crowd, "No hot dogs here! No hot dogs! Pas de chiens chauds!"

Unexpectedly, the Expos make a heroic comeback with three runs in the seventh, while a young relief pitcher called up from Double-A somehow keeps the Phillies scoreless. By the bottom of the ninth, the drama escalates. The Expos are down 4-3 with two outs and a man on second. First baseman Ryan McGuire, who has power, steps to the plate.

We may be few, but we fans do our best. Youppi claps his hairy orange hands and directs our cheers to the field. Chairs are banging. The vendor has stopped not selling hot dogs and is rooting like everyone else. The scoreboard guys are smoking nervously, peeping through a hole in the outfield scoreboard. The guy with the false teeth, true to his word, has stayed to the end.

On a 2-1 pitch, McGuire lifts a towering blast to left field. We jump for joy and cheer louder and louder. But the Phillies's left fielder refuses to give up on the ball. He drifts back, back, back and, incredibly, makes the catch standing against the outfield fence. Five thousand people collapse in their seats in anguish and disbelief.

It was a good game, and the young Expos have no reason to drop their chins. But there is something very sad about the way these previously boisterous fans shuffle slowly out of the stadium. An unusually large number stop and linger at souvenir stands by the exit gates. Souvenir. A French word meaning "to remember." For many of these fans, this may very well be the last time they see their Expos. They buy hats, T-shirts, pennants. To remember.

I take the Montreal Metro back to downtown thinking two things. First, I sincerely hope Montreal figures out a way to keep its team, and prosper, even if it means we in D.C. don't get one. Second, if the Expos do come to us, I can't wait for the day when I can take the Washington Metro to a baseball game with my son. I'll really show him how to make a stadium chair hum.

Mike Tidwell last wrote for Travel about driving Maryland's old National Road.

DETAILS

The Montreal Expos

GETTING THERE: United and Air Canada offer Washington-Montreal flights for as low as $92 with restrictions. I took the 90-minute flight up on a Saturday evening and returned first thing the following Tuesday morning early enough to put in a full day at the office. And don't worry about Expos games being rained out: Olympic Stadium is covered with a $30 million Teflon roof.

WHERE TO STAY: Montreal is famous for great bed-and-breakfast inns scattered throughout the historic Old City, downtown and the Latin Quarter. Search for a room at www.bbmontreal.qc.ca.

GAME TICKETS: Have no fear: The Expos rarely draw more than 10,000 fans, much less sell out. Buy any seat you want, as many seats as you want, five minutes before game time right at the stadium.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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