This town understands and appreciates style -- and, in fact, demands it.

Urbanity, a sophisticated civility and a European sense of relaxed pace are among Montreal's attractions.

In this city of parks and bronz statuary, grown green with age and covered with lichens, perhaps no quality is more ingrained than good taste.

This predominantly French-speaking metropolis loves fine restaurants, fine art and that unpretentiously expensive taste in clothes that Americans never seem to grasp.

No wonder Montreal is daft about its Expos. They are a baseball team that inspires one of two responses -- total indifference or total fascination. Montreal has the judgment to make the proper choice.

This morning Guy Lafleur, star of the champion Montreal Canadiens, was on a radio talk show discussing Canada's passion, hockey.

"Excuse me, Guy," said a firm caller, "but don't you really think we should be talking about the Expos?"

"Oui, oui," said Lafleur. "Let's talk baseball."

That's what Montreal, and by extension, all of Canada, is saying during these pennant race days. Crowds at the futuristic Olympic Stadium averaged more than 50,000 for the latest home stand.

"They are the loudest fans in the National League," says Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Don Robinson. "You can't hear yourself think. They give standing ovations for a base on balls."

Montreal has never seen anything like its baseball love affair in the last two months. Canadians may know more about the blue line than the foul line, but they have embraced the pertinacious Expos as warmly as the patrician Habs.

That, of course, is a reflection of Montrealers' trained eye for style. The Expos reflect this country's tastes.

The Expos are not a team of stars, nor a club of great wealth. They are far from being betting favorites in their struggle with the Pirates. They, like Canada, have many limits of raw resources that must be overcome. They, like Canada, desperately require teamwork. In that respect, the Expos are frequently cited, perhaps fatuously, as a "force for national unity" in this separatist-laden province.

At any rate, the Expos suit Montreal as perfectly as the conservative, muscular Reds match middle-American Cincinnati, or the rich, powerful and emotionally tangled Yankees appeal to New York.

Montreal may only have one native Canadian -- Bill (Kid Kanuck) Atkinson -- but the club is littered with players who admit a preference for Canadian life style.

Baseball's raconteur, Rusty Staub, Le Grand Orange, was welcomed back here with open arms in midseason. Bill Lee, the Spaceman, was certain that no town could approve his counterculture rhetoric as Boston had. But Montreal loves him.

Ross Grimsley, he of the electrified mane and grease ball, has found a home here, as has bearded hurler Steve Rogers. The Expos -- tall, strapping, broad-chouldered and frequently full-bearded -- look like mountain men off to the Yukon.

This city has the broad tolerance born of European roots. That is fortunate, because the Expos are what Grimsley calls "a team of flakes and wackos . . . we're baseball's secret. Word of the Expos stops at the U.S. border."

The Expos are no lovey-dovey team -- their clubhouse has its provinces and its separatists. Manager Dick Williams is an instinctive autocrat in the midst of a team full of free spirits and individualists.

Williams kept Dave Cash, 31, on the bench and deep in the doghouse all season. No specific reason has surfaced, but a million-dollar free agent who is young and in perfect health does not go from All-Star to nonperson without a cause.

When injuries finally forced Cash into the lineup three weeks ago, he went crazy, hitting .350, including his first career grand-slam homer, as the Expos ran their record to 19-5 in games that he started.

Ex-Pirate Cash has translated his motto of "Yes we can," to "Oui on peut." And he has swallowed his pride, temporarily.

"We don't have time for animosity at this stage," Cash says, the last three words needing no explanation. "Dick (Williams) has never seen me play in pennant situations . . . Maybe somebody has misjudged my talents."

All frictions on the outspoken Expos are not so mild. Hurler Rogers, who may win his second straight NL ERA title, had offseason surgery last winter. When he first saw Williams this spring, he said, "The elbow feels great, but there's been some atrophy in the shoulder. It should be okay, though."

Williams, never enthusiastic about Rogers' penchant for losing low-scoring games, answered (according to Rogers) with typical acidity, saying, "If you can't pitch, we'll get someone who can."

"Any communication or respect between us ended right there," Rogers says.

The read-between-the-lines atmosphere around the Expos is that Montreal wins with the aid of Williams' tactics, especially in handling a pitching staff, but in spite of his bristly temperament that runs counter to the team's.

The contrary theory, one that is easy to believe, is that Williams' stern, almost frightening mien is an excellent counterbalance to the Expos' looseness.

By contrast, the Pirates are baseball's No. 1 practical-joking insult-wielding, and perhaps sophomoric team. Manager Chuck Tanner is strictly one of the boys.

Historians will note that, in pennant races, the prickly Williams has finished first four times, while the hail-fellow Tanner has finished second four times.

Certainly, Williams has burnished his reputation this season. Entering last night, the .600 Expos needed just a win over the Pirates to have the second best record in baseball.

That mark has been built in the most appealing possible way, with no visible means of support. Some towns might cover their eyes, half expecting the crash. Montreal is determined to carry the Expos along just one more day by force of will.

As is usually the case in instances of baseball legerdemain, the mirror, the trap door, the trick is pitching.

The Expos are playing an arm-breaking 19 games in 13 days. No pitching staff in baseball, not even Baltimore's is so uniquely suited to surviving such torture.

Montreal's three leading winners -- Lee, Rogers and Dan Schatzeder (10-4) -- are no better than perhaps a dozen or more Big Threes on other teams. And the right-left bullpen of Elias Sosa (7-7, 1.84, 17 saves) and Woody Fryman (3.09) is good, but not intimidating.

What allows the Expos to have the lowest team ERA in baseball (3.11) is a contingent of in-and-out starters, all of whom are decent, none of whom is a star.

Grimsley (8-9, 5.38) has had a miserable season after a 20-win year and has been booted out of the rotation. ("I'll probably be pitching somewhere else next year," he says. But Grimsley sure looks valuable in these last two crowded weeks.

Rookie flash Dave Palmer (9.2, 2.72) is nursing a sore arm, but can still pitch. Old Rudy May (9-3, 2.25) has been evacuated and has hit a hot streak. And Scott Sanderson (8-7) is competent.

That's seven, count them, seven starting pitchers at a time when Montreal cannot survive with any less. "We're as prepared to handle this as anybody could be," catcher Gary Carter says.

Montreal has all its fingers and toes crossed for this schizophrenic team that is 55-22 at home and 32-36 away -- and, naturally, has 13 of its last 17 games on the road.

In this season of mystery teams, Canada is not ready yet to give the Expos the nickname it reserves for the Canadiens -- "Les Glorieux."

But they understand and respect a team that still has American fans scratching their heads. For instance, how can Montreal go on a 16-of-17 winning streak without a 100-RBI man?

It's easy, if you have five players who all figure to drive in 80 to 95 runs -- Carter, Andre Dawson, Larry Parrish, Tony Perez and Ellis Valentine.

For bench strength, the Expos have their BUS squad: "Broke Underrated Superstars."

For the time being, Olympic Stadium is baseball's No. 1 scene of delirium. Weaned on the constant noise of hockey, Expos crowds are uneasy with baseball's long pauses. They search for excuses to explode into ovations. And find them. Major league baseballs; biggest noises may, for the first time, be heard outside the U.S.

Olympic Stadium is a microcosm of Montreal -- clean, modern, constantly full of civilized surprises. A superb subway system that exits only 100 yards from home plate practically eliminates serious traffic problems. Every sort of boutique, restaurant and shop is tangled within the stadium complex of a huge shopping mall and ballpark.

Cafes and promenades pop up all over Olympic Stadium. For a pregame stroll, the sundown views from the terraces can be surpassed only in Chavez Ravine.

Inside, Olympic Stadium has a pleasing almost science-fiction aspect. A dome is supposed to be built within two years. Huge, monstrous cranes, like 100-foot-high interplanetary invaders, tower above the roof in center field, seeming to reach up toward the moon as though it were some bulb that needed fixing.

Far below, in the stands, a beautiful girl walks among the crowd with long-stemmed roses in her arms. Buy one for your sweetheart.

If loving Canada had her way, every Expo would wear a rose.