Tim Raines wore an Expos jersey on the field as the Nationals honored him this week, and while it was nice and sweet and harmless, it was also an incredibly weird sight: a big-league team honoring a guy who never wore its uniform, as he stood there in a different set of threads. Ditto for seeing another Expos logo added to the right-field facade at Nats Park, next to Raines’s name, as he entered the franchise’s Ring of Honor. The further we are from 2005, the wackier those logos start to look.
But in Montreal — the city where Raines starred for the first 12 years of his Hall of Fame career — the Monday evening ceremony was wonderf … well, it was gloriou … well, it was magica … well, let’s just ask an Expos fan.
“I’ll put it to you as simple as I can,” said Perry Giannias, who estimated his Expos fandom at about a 15 or 25 on a scale of 1 to 10. “It’s like you being friends with a guy who’s now sleeping with your ex. And now they invite you to the wedding, and your kids are ushers or bridesmaids or flower girls. It doesn’t work like that. It’s very difficult to digest.”
Washington’s tangled dance with its rouge blanc et bleu past is old news, as is the weirdness of these ceremonies. Dave Sheinin already wrote about the oddity back in 2010, when Andre Dawson had his name added to the Ring. Gary Carter’s is up there, too, and a fourth Expo might arrive next year, when Vladimir Guerrero is expected to join the Hall of Fame, making him eligible for the Nats Park Ring of Honor.
(The qualifications, which have been adjusted at least once and were developed in conjunction with the Baseball Hall of Fame, say that members must either be Hall of Famers who logged “significant years” with the Nats, Senators, Homestead Grays or Expos; or must have “made significant contributions to the game of baseball in Washington, D.C.” Pedro Martinez, who won the franchise’s first Cy Young Award during his four seasons in Montreal, is not in. Pudge Rodriguez, who played 155 games over two seasons in Washington, entered Monday.)
As you probably know, there is a fierce segment of Washingtonians put off by any nod to Montreal. They cared about Ryan Zimmerman’s chase of Frank Howard’s D.C. home run record, but disdained Zimmerman’s chase of Guerrero’s franchise mark. They hate those graphics comparing these Nats to successful Expos teams of yore. And they sure don’t want more Expos logos splashed on Washington’s Ring of Honor.
But what I didn’t realize is that a fierce segment of Montreal fans feels exactly the same way! Perhaps no one understands Washington’s frustration with all of this better than Montreal, and vice versa!
“It sort of rubs me the wrong way; I’m not gonna lie,” said Annakin Slayd, a 39-year-old musician who has recorded songs about the Expos, including one in honor of Raines’s Cooperstown moment. “From our point of view, we feel like our history is being stolen from us. And I get how in Washington they’re like, ‘What’s the big deal? We’ll just honor Tim. It’ll be nice; his family will enjoy it.’ But for us there’s a little more depth to it. … “
“I get that the franchise is linked, but it’s not at all the same for us,” Slayd went on. “For us, the Expos are paused, and they’re going to resume very soon. So we’re like, ‘Ryan Zimmerman, who’s that? How can Ryan Zimmerman pass Andre Dawson?’ That doesn’t make any sense to us.
“Maybe it does based on a technicality, but we don’t follow sports based on technicalities. We follow sports based on what’s in our hearts, what’s in our memories, the things we cherish. In the same way people there don’t cherish Montreal baseball and its history, we don’t cherish Washington baseball and its history. So let’s just make it a clean break: You guys have your team and your history, and we have our team and our history.”
“Why are they pushing a history that didn’t belong to them? It makes no sense,” added Giannias, who organizes an annual Expos Fest to benefit the Montreal Children’s Hospital. “I don’t blame the fans of the Nationals; I don’t blame Tim Raines, for sure. If someone wants to honor you, who are you to say no? It’s just the whole notion. The team hasn’t been around for a long time, and they need to find a history? Create your own history. You have Ryan Zimmerman, you have Bryce Harper. The Expos are certainly not a part of that, no matter what MLB says. Everybody knows that’s not the case, and the best part is the fans of Washington know that’s not the case.”
Now to defend the Nats: They don’t go out of their way to claim the Expos. They don’t wear Montreal throwbacks or push Expos merchandise. It isn’t the front office’s fault that baseball didn’t treat the club as an expansion franchise. Once Dawson was in that Ring, it’d be hard to keep Raines out. The ex-players themselves seem thrilled by the honor. There’s not a shred of malicious intent. Some Nats fans actually get a kick out of nods to this binational history. So only a true heartless crank would write hundreds of words about a nice and sweet and harmless ceremony. (Guilty!)
Further, it isn’t like all Expos fans are riled up.
“There’s a diversity of opinion on this stuff. I think a lot of people might feel like me: that it’s fine,” said author Jonah Keri, who has literally written the book on the Expos. “I think that these two franchises should be considered separate in general … but put yourself in the players’ perspective. It’s a nice thing to be honored. Maybe it’s not more complicated than that.”
“We just find it strange,” said Matthew Ross, a host on Montreal’s TSN 690 and the founder of Expos Nation, a nonprofit organization of fans. “People don’t really care. They just want their team back, and that’s the end of the story. … Everyone here loves Tim Raines, even if they never saw him play here, so they kind of go, ‘Oh, that’s nice, but whatever.’ I don’t think it’s anger. More indifference than anything.”
The joint franchise records, on the other hand — those graphics earlier this season of Zimmerman closing in on Dawson — annoy Ross, the same way they annoy so many hardcore Washingtonians.
“That I have more of a visceral reaction to than the ceremony,” he said. “If Zimmerman’s the all-time home-run guy, it’s because he’s a National, not because the Nationals used to be the Expos. The Expos records should just stay in Montreal.”
This is all pointless, of course, like so much of … well, of my professional career, anyhow. The three Expos are already in the Nats Park Ring; they aren’t coming down. You can just tune out the talk of Expos records if you choose. Raines and his family got to have a nice time during his first actual trip to Washington in his entire life. Why even pick at this scab two days later, unless you’re actively trying to make Nats officials mad at you, dummy?
Here’s why, I guess: because it turns out that the one group of people that best understands the unique torments of D.C. baseball fanatics might be Montreal baseball fanatics. They’re all trapped in the same confounding construct, linked with another city they like just fine but have no interest in being linked with. Nats fans mostly weren’t Expos fans. Expos fans mostly aren’t Nats fans. But they sure do get each other.
“What connection does Washington have to Montreal? Absolutely nothing,” said Giannias, who couldn’t stop himself from watching Monday’s ceremony and marveling at the small crowd. “The proof is in the pudding. The fans of Washington don’t care. If your own fans don’t care about Tim Raines, Andre Dawson and Gary Carter, why should we care about you honoring them?”
“God,” he finally said, “I get so revved up over this subject.”
So this, too, is kind of sweet in the end. Because so many Nats fans feel exactly the same way.
(Dear Nats front-office officials: I know you are just being nice! I still love you all. See you back here next year, when we have the same discussion about Guerrero.)