Now there’s talk of baseball returning to Montreal in a bizarre format that would have the Tampa Bay Rays splitting a season’s schedule between Florida and Montreal. Major League Baseball’s executive council last week granted the struggling franchise permission to begin exploring the option. It’s hard to imagine fans in two different cities and countries taking joint custody of one team.
Former Expos fans may have yearned for baseball’s return to Montreal, but it’s too early to get emotionally involved. Pardon me for being wary of committing to a new relationship.
I don’t think anyone loved the Expos — your future Nationals — more than I did as a kid.
I was about to turn 6 when major league baseball arrived in Montreal — and Canada — for the first time with the 1969 season. Rusty Staub, who earned the nickname Le Grand Orange in Montreal because of his hair color, became my first sports hero. I still have a Staub bobble-head figure on my desk at home.
Some of my fondest childhood memories were created in the left-field bleachers at Jarry Park, cheering on the Expos and hoping Staub, who died in last year at 73, would hit a home run over the right-field fence and into the public swimming pool behind it. I’m pretty sure I cried when the Expos traded Staub to the New York Mets after the 1971 season.
There were other great players who came along over the years, including three who would be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame wearing an Expos cap: Gary Carter, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines.
Raines, however, was the only one who actually chose to wear an Expos cap for his Cooperstown, N.Y., immortalization; Dawson wanted to go in as a Cub and Carter as a Met, but they were overruled by the Hall of Fame. When Vladimir Guerrero — arguably the greatest Expos player ever — was inducted into Cooperstown last year, he was given the choice of cap to wear and went in as a Los Angeles Angel.
The most memorable moment in Expos history was also a devastating one: Blue Monday. That was the day in 1981 that pitcher Steve Rogers gave up the game-winning home run to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Rick Monday in the deciding game of the National League Championship Series at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. It was the closest the Expos ever came to playing in a World Series.
Like the unlucky in love who just never learn, fans were beside themselves with excitement in 1994 when Nos Amours went into August with the best record in baseball — and then the players’ strike killed the season.
Expos’ ownership held a fire sale before the start of the 1995 season, shipping out much of the talent, and attendance sagged. Montreal has earned a well-deserved reputation as an event city that will support only a winning sports franchise — unless it plays on ice and is named the Canadiens. The Expos franchise limped along for almost another decade. Before finally decamping for Washington, the team tried a split-season arrangement in 2003 like the one that Tampa Bay is proposing: Montreal played 22 of its 81 home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
I can imagine big crowds showing up at Olympic Stadium for the first few Rays games — or the Ex-Rays, as some have suggested for a new name — because it would be an event. But I can’t see it lasting, especially if the team isn’t winning. Plus there’s a whole generation of Montreal kids who have now grown up not watching or even playing baseball, as diamonds around the city and suburbs have been replaced by soccer fields and, more recently, basketball courts, with the Toronto Raptors becoming “Canada’s team” and winning their first NBA championship.
Montrealers who were thrilled by the Tampa Bay news should be warned that some observers suspect that the split-season proposal — and the implied threat that the Rays might move to Montreal if all goes well — is just a ruse to gain local political support in Florida for replacing the nearly-30-year-old Tropicana Field. The Rays averaged about 14,2300 fans a game last year, the worst in the American League, and closed the stadium’s upper deck before this season.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg denied using the Montreal proposal to “gain leverage” for a new stadium, saying he wanted see “baseball thriving in both places” by 2024. But former Expos fans should know by now that if you don’t get your hopes up, your heart can’t be broken.