A Sept. 24 Sports article incorrectly described Montreal's Olympic Stadium as a dome built in 1976 for the Winter Olympics. The stadium was built for the 1976 Summer Games, and the dome was added 12 years later. (Published 9/25/04)
The final days of the Montreal Expos are painful to watch. Few do. When the scattered fans at Olympic Stadium try to rally the team, they bang the empty seats beside them. The seats are almost always empty. The team rarely rallies. It is in last place, its players bitter, the city more so.
The long, draining arguments about whether to move the Expos from Montreal are settled here -- if not yet in the league boardrooms -- by the glum reality. Team President Tony Tavaras ponders aloud about layoffs at the stadium. There are rumors that next year's schedule has been printed without the name Montreal. And the team played the New York Mets on Wednesday night before an audience of 3,664, about enough to fill a large high school gym.
"It's embarrassing," said Mets pitcher Steve Trachsel, whose team won, 3-2, to avoid its own embarrassment of slipping into the National League East cellar. "The attendance here is worse than spring training."
On Thursday, lured by the season's last $5-seat-and-$1-dog night, the crowd swelled to 11,142. The Expos lost to the New York Mets, 4-2.
The Expos insist they are used to the small crowds, that they play to win no matter how many watch. The meager attendance is an old story. They don't want to talk about it. The relationship between the team and its town is all but over; it would be unseemly to trash talk now.
But it hurts, they admit. "I understand we're not in first," said Brad Wilkerson, a 26-year-old first baseman from Kentucky whose hustle might make him a rising star if more came to watch. "But to have a crowd like tonight in a city as big as this -- it's a shame."
There is plenty of blame to go around. The fans are still angry about the 1994 players strike, which froze Montreal in what had promised to be its really big year, the year they might well have gone All The Way, say the fans.
"The city has turned its back on the Expos ever since the strike," said Ian Tkach, 31, from his regular seat along the third base line. "Every year it's gotten worse. Look, they don't even bother to clean the stadium."
After the strike, the Expos owners traded off a slew of the best players, dumping high salaries to make money, say the fans.
"It was a garage sale," said Rick Choquette, 64, a retired policeman who gets occasional free tickets in the far outfield seats, where he sits apart from the gaggle of scruffy youths who gather there to drink and party.
The final straw, say some of the fans, was the trade in 1997 of Pedro Martinez -- now a star for the Boston Red Sox -- just after he won the National League Cy Young Award.
Attendance slid, bubbling only briefly for occasional moments of hope, such as the run at the end of last season that put the Expos within striking distance of a playoff wild-card slot, and brought 30,000 to the stadium. But that run fell short, and the crowds left, feeding the old accusation that French Montreal only loves the winners, that it doesn't have the heart of, say, Boston, to keep coming back to support a team through good times and bad.
"Montreal is a happening town. The Expos are not happening," conceded Joe Lahae, 22, who works in a CD shop but remains a loyal fan. "Montreal wants hot. They want a victorious team."
Montreal is also said to be a hockey town, in which the Canadiens hold the rapt attention of the fans. But the NHL lockout has emptied the ice, with no discernable uptick in interest in baseball.
"The truth is, interest in all the teams has gone down," said John Chiasson, 33, who has followed the Expos for decades. His father worked for the team in 1968, and Chiasson covers the Expos for ESPN's SportsTicker. "Everybody has their own roster of fantasy leagues, everybody has office pools, and they are more interested in those than the real teams.
"And when the Expos are 30 games out with no chance, and it's summer time and there are so many other things to do, who wants to come inside this stadium and watch them?"
Not many. In other cities, a stranger could find the stadium on game night by going to the subway and following the crowd. In Montreal, that route might end up at latest popular cabaret. At Olympic Stadium, a cavernous dome built in 1976 for the Winter Olympics, a few desperate hawkers try to salvage a couple of bucks for extra tickets. Inside, there are so many vacant spaces that foul balls almost always clang on empty seats.
The souvenir concessionaires tend to a few buyers, who are undoubtedly mindful that Montreal logos will soon become collectors items. The lower seats are sparsely peopled. The upper sections are ghost towns, patrolled by a solitary usher, the hot dog and beer stalls shuttered.
But the worst is the quiet, an unnatural element for baseball. Even sand lot games are accompanied by the chatter of players or the hollers of parents from the side. Major league games are meant to be set amid the murmur of a crowd, a vocal score that rises in oohs and falls in groans with the play on the field, that erupts in a surprised roar with any sudden drama and succumbs to cheers or jeers from the stands.
At the cavernous Olympic Stadium, with 46,000 seats in a warehouse setting, all is silent. The clattering of empty chairs and the yells of advice from the fans are swallowed in huge void. It's so quiet, you can hear the oofh from a batter being hit by a pitch, the negotiations of the hot dog vendors, the jangle of cell phones. It doesn't sound like baseball.
"Everyone hates this stadium. It's really ugly," said Pierre Lu Bernier, 21, who drives 60 miles with pals to watch the Expos. "If we had a small arena, maybe more would come."
More fans usually come in Puerto Rico, where the team plays 22 of its "home" games. That split schedule is at the top of the complaints of the players.
"It's unfair to us. It's unacceptable," said Joey Eischen, 33, a pitcher who first came to the Expos in 1991 and kicked around the corners of professional baseball before returning from the Independent League in 2000. "All of us are professionals. We play to win. But we want a level playing field with the other teams. We have 22 extra road games each year because we play in Puerto Rico."
Eischen, a muscular man slugging down a beer after the Mets game Wednesday, acknowledged that he was angry that other teams have what he says is an unfair advantage.
"At one point of the season, we were on the road for 28 days," agreed Chad Cordero, 22, a right-hander, as he got dressed following the defeat. "Going from hotel room to hotel room is pretty tough. And in Puerto Rico, it got pretty hot."
Tony Batista, 30, the Expos' hottest hitter, is one of the few who likes the split schedule.
"My family came over from Dominican Republic, so it was like playing at home for me," said Batista. But even he acknowledged that most players on the team dislike the arrangement. "I think every player here is just looking for a home," he said.
It's not just the burden of the travel, said Wilkerson. The estranged relationship with Montreal means there is little involvement between the team and city in either direction. "You don't see the players getting involved in the community that much. And you don't see the promotions in the city that get people excited about the team and get them out to the games," he said.
"We want a place where we could settle down for 81 home games. We want a place, whether it's Washington or wherever, that we can call home, have our own field, and relate to the community. I think all the players are ready for that."