On Sept. 5, 2004, the Montreal Expos beat the visiting Atlanta Braves, 4-3 in 12 innings. It was a fun game, but the Expos players were not the exciting, familiar heroes I remembered. I know, because I was there.
Montreal’s not a “baseball town,” they say. Well it was to me. Sure, the trip out to the Olympic Stadium, the “Big O,” as we called it, was a schlep. Sure the stadium was ugly, with ugly Astroturf, an ugly roof and ugly seating. But I never minded.
It was home to me. Home to me and thousands of other loyal fans who made the trek, five, maybe 10 times a year. You could sit wherever you’d like for less than 10 bucks Canadian for most of the time I was growing up. Cheaper than a movie, I’d say, and certainly cheaper than a Montreal Canadiens hockey game.
And the Expos were my team. Our team. Nos amours. If we fans weren’t at the stadium, we were watching the 40 or so games that were televised at home. The French announcers fell in love with Rondell White, partly because he was a great player, but mostly, I believe, because “Rondell” means hockey puck in French. But when Rondell would hit one and Expos announcer Rodger Brullote would shout “Bonsoir, elle est partie! Ronnnndelll! Ronnnndelll!!!” real baseball fans, like myself, jumped with joy.
Then there was the 1994 team. That’s what most American baseball fans talk about, if they ever mention the Expos. Too bad they had the best record in baseball, but the strike put an end to their season. Too bad they couldn’t afford to keep Ken Hill, or John Wetteland, or Larry Walker, or Marquis Grissom, who all made the playoffs the following year with their new teams. A “what if,” at best.
But 1994 was more than that. Many remember Fred McGriff’s game-tying home run in the All-Star game. The National League finally ended its Midsummer Classic drought. But Montrealers—we remember the five Expo all-stars. Hill pitched two scoreless innings. Cordero threw a runner out at home. Grissom homered off Randy Johnson. Darren Fletcher caught the top of the tenth. And Moises Alou doubled home Tony Gwynn to win it in the bottom half.
But an even more compelling moment occurred earlier, in a late-June series at the Big O against the soon-to-be-overtaken first-place Braves. After winning the first game, the Expos trailed 7-6 in the ninth of game two, but came back to win it 8-7 on a bases-loaded single from Cordero. I remember slapping a high-five with a middle-aged Japanese man standing next to me, as 40,000 some-odd fans cheered, mocking the Braves’ tomahawk chop. I know, because I was there. But 1994 was not the end. By 1996, the Expos had recovered and they stayed in the wildcard race until late September. I went to about 25 games that season, watching Henry Rodriguez set a then club-record of 36 home runs while being showered with Oh Henry bars on the field.
Of course, the baseball gods still refused to smile on them, scheduling EIGHT of the Expos last 11 games against the first-place Braves, beginning with a FIVE-GAME stint in Atlanta. Who plays a five-game series against the Braves in Atlanta in late September? The Expos won the first one, but lost the next four, took two of three in Philly and then headed home for the final three game set against the Braves.
The Expos lost the first game and were eliminated before the second one even began, with a Padres victory on the West Coast taking the hearts out of thousands of Montreal faithful at Olympic Stadium watching on the jumbotron. Still, 30,000 fans showed up for that final, meaningless game, which the Expos won 6-3. Vladimir Guerrero, then an untested rookie, hit a single. I know, because I was there.
The 1997 Expos were not a good team, but Pedro Martinez was a good pitcher that year—a damn good pitcher who won his first Cy Young award. He recorded his 300th strikeout in his final start of the year as 12,000-plus cheered him on. I know, because I was there.
As recently as 2003, the Expos were a good club. They even landed themselves in a three-way tie for the wildcard after sweeping the Phillies in a four-game set in late August in Montreal. The Expos averaged 20,000 fans per game in the series. I know, because I was there (except for Game 3).
But then they collapsed because, at their core, the Expos were overachievers. Whenever they won, except for 1994, they always overachieved, because their ownership never had the means or incentive to compete—especially in 2003 when they were owned by Major League Baseball and forced to play 18 “home” games in Puerto Rico.
Yet with Felipe Alou and later Frank Robinson at the helm they found ways to win, sometimes. Good sports fans root for either the home team or the underdog, and in the Expos, Montreal had both. I—we—loved them for it.
I still love Vlad. I still love Pedro. I now love the Red Sox, who play in the best baseball city on earth. But I will not love the Washington Expos, or Senators, or whatever they will be called.
We don’t choose who we love, and I loved the Expos. And I was not alone. Expos fans painted their chests, danced with Youppi, shouted in English and French, and cried in their seats when the Expos lost. I know, because I was there.
—Staff writer David A. Weinfeld can be reached at email@example.com.