By Denis Lagacé
As then Expos President Tony Tavares said on Wednesday September 29th 2004 during a small press conference, “the sun was setting in Montreal and rising in Washington DC.”
The long agony of the Montreal Expos that had started in the mid 90’s had finally come to a pause and the team was being moved to the American National Capital.
The team lost its final home game of the season. Ironically, they lost to the Florida Marlins (now Miami Marlins); who were then and are still owned by Jeffery Loria…(no, I won’t go there). They then played the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, a series they won 2 games to 1. The last one was the only loss of the series. An 8-1 stinger with only 5 hits and an error. The winning pitcher, Thomas Michael Glavine aka Tom Glavine, the same guy who had hurt the Expos a bunch of times in the 90’s when the Braves were the cream of the crop (except for one season).
Some remember that last out. Some don’t. Some had their eyes watered up. Some didn’t flinch. We all have our own little memory.
Most Expos fans prefer to say the franchise was put on a hiatus instead of being completely over or transferred. The same bunch chuckled at the fact that the Washington’s Nationals all time Franchise Four, which was announced just before the 2015 All Star Game, were all former Montreal Expos. Believe me, they were all proud, but the most hardcore fans of the Expos think the Nationals and Expos have no affiliation. The Expos are frozen in time as if the Quebec winter had taken over the memories and had iced them in our heads.
On March 28, 2014, it had been 3467 days between the final game of the Expos 1.0 in Montreal and a pre-season game at the Olympic Stadium. Evenko had announced, a few months earlier, that the Toronto Blue Jays who promoted themselves as Canada’s Team, would face the very first and very last MLB opponent of the Montreal Expos 1.0, the New York Mets. For them, two meaningless games that were seen as a final warm-up,
Not many of us saw the possibility of a new beginning, a slight glimpse into a potential awakening. Evenko, which is the entertainment branch of the Montreal Canadiens saw it as a break-even. They might take a loss, they might make money. Worst-case scenario, they have 10,000-15,000 fans for both games, call it expected and after a few years we’ve all forgotten about it.
Most people don’t know that the pitching mound at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal isn’t a truckload of dirt that is dumped, slopped and ready to go. Like most multi-sport stadiums the pitching mound rises up from the underground when a series of levers are activated. At Rogers Center, it partially floats on water before being locked into place. When the water is drained from the well, the pitching mound lowers in the ground. For those games, the stadium needed to be prepared to not only accept the thousands of spitted sunflower seeds, but it also needed to have a playable surface. Thanks to the Montreal Impact, the soccer (or football depending on where you are from) playing surface was modified to resemble a baseball diamond.
A few weeks before the two games, it became clear that it would be slightly better than a break even. In the final days leading up, it would be a success. In the final hours before the game Evenko had themselves a money maker. There was a hype. 96,350 people showed up for the 2 game series versus the Mets and Jays. The following year the Cincinnati Reds also played two games versus Toronto Blue Jays at the Big O, which drew a little more than the previous year.
What Evenko and the Blue Jays didn’t expect is that the old (and still) fans of the Expos, the ones who were playing baseball 15-20 years ago, now all have income coming in. Their kids are now at playing age and there kids are contributing to the current raise in baseball registration all over Canada. Their parents, who were also at the game, were baseball-playing age when the Expos arrived in town. It was the perfect mix of baseball experience, knowledge, nostalgia and history.
I remember being in Punta Cana when those last two games took place. I was struggling to find wi-fi in the lobby to see the final attendance of both games. A few days earlier my Expos hat, which was covering me from the hot Dominican Republic sun, got some attention from a guy who worked in Real Estate in New York. We chatted Expos and I was telling him about the willingness to bring another team back to Montreal. Later on a worker at the resort asked me if he could get my hat. At first I refused since that hat had a sentimental value attached to it, but after chatting a couple of times with the worker, I knew he was a baseball fan. We talked Pedro, Vladimir, Moises and Felipe. Knowing that so many greats ‘Spos came from the DR, I gave in and simply put my hat on his head on my last day at the resort. I told him to wear it with pride, especially when a team comes back.
In 2016 with the Boston Red Sox in town the expectations are big. But they will be even bigger in 2017. The Boston Red Sox even have a special event in the tickets section for the Sox fans who would like to make the trip to Montreal. The special event ticket packages are usually reserved for special away games. Teams who were at first reluctant to come to Montreal are now willing to do everything it takes to come. Just think that both pre-season games in Montreal are among the top games when it comes to attendance in 2015 and 2014. With the openness of MLB and the new commissioner, with regular season games played in Puerto Rico to honour former Montreal Royal Roberto Clemente and with a mayor who already opened up the channels with MLB, the possibility of regular season games being played in Montreal in 2017 are more than a possibility.
Denis Lagace is a longtime Expos fan and a guest contributor. If you are bilingual writer and would like to contribute, email firstname.lastname@example.org.