With baseball playoffs underway, baseball fans across North America are watching with keen interest. For some however, it is a constant reminder of “what if”, an annual pinch of salt thrown in a wound that doesn’t want to heal, even after eight long years.
PENTICTON, BC. — As the Yankees are proving season after season that they are the best team that money can buy, Major League Baseball is far removed from the issues faced by NHL fans, forced yet again to go without their favourite sport due to another lockout. The interest is thriving in most cities in preparation for the October rush towards the World Series. Fans will put on toques and mittens at the stadium, while millions of others will grab a drink or two and a few munchies, sitting comfortably at home or at the pub, watching teams battle it out for baseball supremacy.
To think that it could be us…
Whether you are from the generation of the old Jarry Park Stadium with Rusty Staub, the team’s first superstar, or the Olympic Stadium cheering the likes of Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Gary Carter and company, or the last generation idolizing Larry Walker, Dennis Martinez, Pedro Martinez or Vladimir Guerrero, the Expos are in your blood and the memories are omnipresent. Once an Expos’ fan, always an Expos’ fan.
So many players made the MLB All-Star games over the years, with many of them being key contributors. You see, the Expos were the poor guys who couldn’t keep their players, unable to pay them. They were the Edmonton Oilers of Major League Baseball in some ways. But the young talent that they’d get in trades in return for their high profile players would allow them some hope to be the Cinderella team once in a while. Their player development was one of the best in the Majors and young players were always well supported by a good group of seasoned veterans to teach them how to become a professional baseball player on and off the field.
I personally don’t remember the early years, but my interest for the sport grew while watching the team in the mid-70’s and their first peak in 1981, the team’s first real chance at making some noise in the playoffs. With a team managed by Jim Fanning and Dick Williams, carried by Gary “The Kid” Carter, Warren “Cro” Cromartie, Larry Parrish, Andre “Hawk” Dawson, Tim “Rock” Raines, Tim “Eli” Wallace, Ellis Valentine and Terry Francona (amongst others), and with a pitching staff which included As Steve Rogers, Charlie Lea, Bill Gullickson, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, old farmer Woodie Fryman and the bearded closer Jeff Reardon, the hopes were high. The Expos hype in the playoffs was at its peak, with the Olympic Stadium packed with 50,000 strong, schools were showing the game to the students on what has is now known as Blue Monday, crushing our hearts when Rogers, brought in a rare relief appearance, allowed the game-winning homerun to Rick Monday, pushing the Dodgers to the next round.
I can remember first baseman Al Oliver winning the team’s first batting title in 1982, and legendary Charlie Hustle (Pete Rose) joining the team in 1984, reaching the 4,000 hits plateau in the Expos’ uniform. Who can forget the emergence of Andres “the Cat” Gallaraga digging everything thrown his way on first base? The 1994 season brings back some good and some bad memories to Expos’ fans as with the team sitting comfortably in first place with a 74-40 record, Donald Fehr and the players went on strike, cancelling the World Series at the same time. With a team managed by Felipe Alou and filled with great players like Wil Cordero, Cliff Floyd, Mike Lansing, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker, and with a pitching staff led by young Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill and veteran Jeff Fassero, and set-up man Mel Rojas and top end closer John Wetteland, the Expos may have missed their best chance at bringing home a championship that year.
But not all was rosy for the franchise. Fans are still sour with the team trading away young promising Randy Johnson for then star pitcher Mark Langston, who didn’t live up to expectation and left the following season, signed a lucrative deal with the California Angels. The turning point of the franchise, however, came when the Expos first and only owner, Charles Bronfman, sold the team to a group of local investors led by Claude Brochu. This led to the involvement of Jeffrey Loria with the Expos, further driving the franchise in its downward spiral. Who can forget Loria buying the Florida Marlins and winning the World Series, further infuriating Expos’ fans. And we know the rest, with the team eventually moving to Washington.
In spite of the negative ending, the Expos are not forgotten, far from there, and one doesn’t have to look far to realize it. Over 153,000 people “Like” the Montreal Expos Facebook page and the Expos Twitter account is closing in on 12,000 followers. Believe it or not, there is hope on the horizon as former Expos Warren Cromartie, who has been working hard on bringing baseball back in Montreal, had this to say:
“A lot of things have changed [since the Expos moved], and a lot of things have changed for the better,” Cromartie said. “We understand that Montreal has a lot of proving to do. We understand that. We plan to have our guns loaded to make this happen. We understand there are some skeptics, there is some caution. We also know that Montreal is a great city. I want to be just like Magic Johnson. I don’t have the pockets like Magic, but I’ve got the smile and the personality like Magic. And I would think baseball would like to see another black owner, especially in Montreal where Jackie Robinson started his career. This is an ambitious project. I understand that, but it’s a journey. Washington had three chances, and they’re doing well with it now. They look like a playoff team. We’re hoping that somewhere down the line, MLB will give us a second chance.”
I have not followed Major League Baseball since the Expos moved to Washington. I don’t really care about baseball anymore. But if a team comes back to Montreal, I will most certainly follow them and cheer for them. They took our team, but they didn’t take our spirit, our memories.
En français: L’année où les Expos sont morts