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Expos gone, baseball alive in Montreal

Aspiring baseball players and history keep sport going

By Stephen Ellsesser / Special to MLB.com




MONTRÉAL -- On a Sunday morning, the corridor between Pie IX Station and Olympic Stadium is almost completely deserted.

Based on some of the crowds that came out to the Big O in 2004, the final season for Major League Baseball in Quebec, it almost seems the Expos never left.


After touring Olympic Stadium, it's almost as if they were never there.

Montréal, the world's most truly bilingual city, is known for its tolerance, but Stade Olympique may have walked away from the Expo-dus with hard feelings.


Baseball in Canada's Sin City existed long before the Expos became the Washington Nationals, and today it lives on in many different forms, some nearby and some farther away, but hardly any of it at Olympic.


A catcher, a piece of meat and a glorified Muppet form an interesting picture of the ville's offerings to the sport.


Catcher Russell Martin is bringing back Dodger Blue to Montréal, giving the city another Major Leaguer to support, along with Eric Gagne, who won a National League Cy Young Award with the Dodgers, but now comes out of the bullpen for the Red Sox.


Both played for the same high school, and both are among the greatest offerings to come from Baseball Quebec's feeder system, which remains strong, according to Gilles Taillon, the group's administrative director.

"The actual departure of the Expos had no impact whatsoever," Taillon said. "The major impact was in 1995-97, when the Expos got rid of a championship team. We experienced a decrease in our membership mainly due to the bad publicity that baseball was getting in the media."


In 1994, the strike-suspended season clipped an Expos club that was cruising along, on pace to win 105 games. The ensuing firesale disenchanted the fan base.


The team parted with Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Delino DeShields and John Wetteland after the year, and the foundation began to crumble.

By the time the Expos rolled into their final season, Montréal had lost all momentum, not to mention a considerable amount of local interest. After the Expos' fate was sealed, there was no last-minute spike of support. For the opener of the final series at the Big O, a crowd of 3,923 watched the home team fall to the Florida Marlins.


The worst part? That was only the fifth-smallest turnout of the year. Yikes. "You really can't blame them with some of the decisions that were made," said former third baseman Tim Wallach of the fans who stayed away. "When fans follow guys and they have no chance of staying when it's time for them to get paid, that turns people off."



The Expos succumbed to a combination of economic factors, all of which, Wallach said, slowly took hold after original owner Charles Bronfman sold the team in 1991.


"I feel bad because there were a lot of people who loved that team," said Wallach, who played for the Expos from 1980-92. "It was good, and it should have been good for a long time. But it went bad, and now it will never be there again."


Martin remembers fondly the Expos and their days north of the border.

"It was different for me because I loved baseball," he said. "I could care less how big the stadium was or how many fans were there, as long as I was at the stadium. I grew up going to that stadium and watching the Expos, so that was a big thing."


Montréal, with a metro-area population of 3.6 million, is large enough to support an MLB club, but what the area baseball community is most focused on is starting smaller.


"For MLB to come back, it would have to go through the Minor League route first," Taillon said. "At this point in time, efforts are being made to bring a Can-Am League team in."


The Can-Am League is an independent league composed of eight U.S.-

based teams, one road team and one Canadian club, based in provincial capital Québec City.


"It would be nice to see baseball back up there, but they would have to give it a better venue, a smaller stadium and more fan-friendly activities," Martin said.


As for the piece of meat, sometimes life is stranger than fiction.

On eBay, someone (Cirque du Soleil's founder, interestingly enough) paid $2,605 Canadian for what was billed as "The Last Hot Dog of the Expos," which was -- as one might expect -- a hot dog, which was almost a month old at the time of sale.


All of a sudden the $2,100 sale price of Montreal-Expos.com looks like a bargain.


"It was different there because there wasn't that many fans that loved baseball," Martin said. "But those that did love baseball, they were always at the stadium."


Indeed. Nothing says loving quite like a thousand-dollar piece of processed meat. But the apocalypse is not upon us yet ... proceeds went to charity.

Ignoring any discussions of shelf life, the Expo with the most staying power has been mascot Youppi!, who joined the rotation at Bell Centre, home of the Canadiens, Montréal's hallowed NHL franchise.


Youppi! hit the ice just more than a year after his team's departure put him out of work. His presence, along with that of a banner honoring the Expos' 1969-2004 existence and the team's retired numbers, makes Nos Amours more visible there than at the Big O. The luxury condos that stand where Labatt Park -- the proposed downtown stadium that would have helped the franchise stay put -- would have been built are only a couple blocks away from Bell Centre, so it almost makes sense for it to feel closer to home.


Where the sport thrives, however, is in Baseball Québec's tight infrastructure.


The organization emphasizes getting kids involved early through two main programs, Rally Cap and Winterball, which is sponsored by MLB.


In Rally Cap, players ages 4-7 are taught skills and techniques, being evaluated as they meet different performance targets. With each level advanced, they get a new hat of a different color.


"Winterball," Taillon said, "is designed to provide gym teachers with plans to initiate students in grades 3, 4 and 5 to baseball."


Prospective players are evaluated for Baseball Québec's high-performance leagues between ages 14 and 15. From there, it is Midget AAA and the Ailes du Québec program, the province's U17 team.


Those who continue play in the ABC program in the fall and winter and the Elite League in the summer. Players at this level are at the top of their game, and many are either drafted or signed to play college baseball in the United States.


Martin and Gagné are veterans of the ABC program.

One player hoping to follow in their footsteps is James Lavinskas, a 20-year-old third baseman for the Montréal Elites, one of the only shows in town for baseball fans.


A three-sport star in football, baseball and hockey at a Connecticut prep school, Lavinskas came up through the Elite League's feeder programs, and now he is heading to the United States for college ball.


Lavinskas will play for Seminole State College in Oklahoma, following once again in Gagné's footsteps.


"Guys are getting drafted every year," Lavinskas said, summing up his hopes after moving on from the Elite League.


With Baseball Québec's work, the sport's foundation in Montréal is stabilizing, with or without Olympic Stadium's help.


Aside from a single postcard and one or two minutes of a 30-minute tour, baseball's only other fingerprint on the facility stands right out front, a statue of Jackie Robinson.


After signing Robinson, Branch Rickey sent him to Triple-A Montréal. On the road, Robinson was jeered just as he would be when he was promoted, but in Montréal, fans loved their star second baseman.


Robinson batted .349 with the Triple-A Royals that season, leading the team to a 100-win season. During Robinson's final game with the team, fans gave him a standing ovation, and a second curtain call, amazing support for a black athlete in 1946.


"The fans just chased him after the game because they loved him and didn't want him to go," Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame president and CEO Tom Valcke said. "Rachel Robinson once said, 'That must have been one of the first times a white mob was chasing a black man for a good reason.' Don't tell me Montréal has bad baseball fans. They've always been great."

Even if baseball did not live on at Olympic Stadium, at least baseball left a marker of tolerance in its place, and that is worth more than a hall of jerseys and signed balls. Stephen Ellsesser is a contributor to MLB.com. Associate reporter Jayson Addcox contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.







A ballpark that never was


MONTREAL -- Labatt Park has had two deaths -- not bad for something that never actually existed.


Condos now stand where the downtown park would have been built, and after the project was canned, the model of the park was passed to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.


On one truly unlucky night in the Hall's archives, the model also met its destruction.


"They just destroyed it, the two very troubled young men," said president and CEO Tom Valcke, recalling a day he said literally brought tears to his eyes. "It could have been a stagecoach or an old ping-pong table, but they wanted to destroy whatever got in their way that night."


The 12-by-12 model, too large to be a regular fixture at the St. Marys, Ontario, museum, was in storage. Although a smaller Labatt Park model exists, the larger one (valued at $80,000 Canadian) was a sight to behold.

"It was something -- one of the showstoppers in our collection," said Tom Valcke, director and CEO of the Hall. "I've never seen anything else like it, nothing before and nothing since. The detail -- individual seats, trees, all the concession stands -- it was beautiful."


The model made an initial showing at the Hall, then Valcke put it away until a proper space could be created for it.


Less than a month after the Expos franchise began its new life at RFK Stadium, two teenagers broke into the building where the model was kept and destroyed it, adding a bizarre and somewhat ironic twist to the life of the park that never was and never would be.


Valcke said the Hall kept the pieces and that it could be reassembled, but that the task would be daunting and that it would be difficult to recapture the piece's original majesty. "We kept every single splinter of it," he said. -- Stephen Ellsesser

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Le Parc Labatt



Pour ce qui est du Baseball, je n'ai jamais cru qu'il pouvait survivre ici, en plus les Montréalais n'aiment pas les sports amateurs, donc une ligue Can-Am?


l'Impact est une des rares équipes de Divisions 2 qui survit ici et même la on pense petit, le nouveaux stade Saputo ne pourra que prendre, avec expansions, jusqu'à 15 000 sièges (à l'ouverture 12 500). Une équipe de la MSL à besoin de 40 000 pour survivre. pas beaucoup d'espoir de voir Beckham à Montréal, lol


Regarder les équipes de Basketball qui ont essayés ici, les Dragons et le Royal, regarder combien de fois ils ont essayer d'offrir du hockey junior. Le rocket, come on!!! Les Roadrunner de la Roller-Hockey league, la Machine (J'avais des billets de saison) de la WFL. l'Express à Lacrosse...


Franchement, il y a trop à faire à Montréal pour se préocupper de ça. mais je ne crois pas qu'une équipe de Baseball amateur pourra fonctionner ici. L'équipe de Québec fait très bien on dirait.

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ça me fais toujours chier quand on parle des Expos et de leurs départ!


BruB, le Nouveau Stade de L'impacte aura 13,500 sièges, et si il le veulent ils pourront augmenter la capacité à 17,500 sièges. Je suis d'accord avec toi que même à 17,500 sièges, ce n'est pas beaucoup. Par contre, regarde Toronto, leur BMO Field a 25,000 sièges, et ça semble être amplement suffisant pour la MLS. 40,000 sièges ce n'est pas nécessaire pour la MLS!


Je suis confiant de voir la MLS à Montréal d'ici 2010-2012. Joey Saputo (qui au départ disais qu'il ne croyait pas que ça valait la peine la MLS à Montréal) a depuis changer sa position, et il aimerait faire venir une équipe MLS à Montréal une fois que la restriction sur les équipes Canadiennes soit expiré en 2010!


Le Basketball ne marchera jamais à Montréal. Ce n'est tout simplement pas un sport auquel les Montréalais s'intéressent!


Je n'ai jamais compris pour l'Express n'a pas marché à Montréal. LaCrosse est un sport qui ressemble un peu au Hockey. J'aurais bien aimé voir ce sport marché ici!

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BruB: pas besoin de 40000 places pour la MLS, la plupart des villes jouent dans des stades de 25-30000 places, ou n'ouvrent que quelques sections du stade (c'est ce qu'il font a Foxboro et a New York)


Habsfan: le BMO field a 20000 places

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J'étais un des plus grands partisans des Expos. :( J'ai allé a 10 matches par année (en Box-seats -$25 ou VIP -$35)


Mais c'est vrai que le baseball existe encore dans cette ville. J'espère que le groupe du Collège Champlain peu convaincre la ligue Can-Am a mettre une équipe sur son territoire (le plan est pour une petite stade de 5,000 sièges entre le collège et le 132.

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J'étais un des plus grands partisans des Expos. :( J'ai allé a 10 matches par année (en Box-seats -$25 ou VIP -$35)


Mais c'est vrai que le baseball existe encore dans cette ville. J'espère que le groupe du Collège Champlain peu convaincre la ligue Can-Am a mettre une équipe sur son territoire (le plan est pour une petite stade de 5,000 sièges entre le collège et le 132.


Cool, je n'étais pas au courant de cela!

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MLB will be back in Montreal for sure. No one knows when but it will be back. There are several precedents to support this statement. A franchise doesn't stay in the same city for nearly 4 decades if that city does not deserve a team.


Certainly, minor league is a good way to start but CAM-AM? Not sure about that.

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MLB will be back in Montreal for sure. No one knows when but it will be back.


I wouldn'T bet 50$ on that!! Bud Selig will never let another team in this city, and I'm not sure his successor will either. The way the Expos were killed(by their owners) and then abandonned by the fans, was shamefull, not only for Montreal, but for MLB. They never want to have to relive that again.


Tell you the truth, i'm not even sure we deserve another team. Too many montrealers just gave up on the Expos. Not to mention that we would need a new stadium(close to downtown) cause the big O will not do the job anymore, nobody wants to go there!


Also, if not a single Montrealer, Québecker or a Canadian stood up to purchase the Habs(the greatest NHL team ever) do you think someone is gonna stand up and buy back the Expos??? I don't!


A franchise doesn't stay in the same city for nearly 4 decades if that city does not deserve a team.


First of all, it was 35 years, not 40...and secondly, out of those 35 years, the Expos had 4 years where they averaged more than 25,000 fans per game(or more than 2 million spectators for the season) Even at 25,000 fans per game, it would place them in the last 3rd of the league in Attendance.


Maybe a new DOWNTOWN Stadium would help attract more people, but the team would have to be competitive.


But like i said earlier, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Until someone has the balls to build a new downtown stadium, you can forget about MLB baseball ever coming back to this town!

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Why Baseball Failed in Montreal


The Last Page | August 26th, 2007


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This installment of The Last Page is by Jared Book, who writes for MVN at Les Glorieux, a look at the Montreal Canadiens. He writes about the recent history of the Expos and tries to examine why the fans stayed away. After all, after everything done to these fans, could you really blame them for staying away?


For the third summer in a row (but some would argue more) the Olympic Stadium in Montreal’s east end was eerily quiet. The gray cement uncovered, the former Expos store completely empty – except for remnants of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup held in July.


The summer in Montreal isn’t without substance. Visits from NASCAR, Formula One, the ATP, and the upcoming President’s Cup of golf keep the city on the radar to the rest of North America as well as lift the spirits of sports fans in the city, but there is that regularity of 162 baseball games, 81 of which would be held at the now-empty Olympic Stadium. The Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes and the United Soccer League’s Montreal Impact aren’t enough to fill the regular void left after the Montreal Canadiens find themselves out of the playoffs (which seems to be earlier and earlier as of late).


Today, Montreal is still labeled a non-baseball town and will probably never be considered again for a professional baseball team. It seems that professional baseball in Canada will continue to die a slow death. There have been more teams moved from Canada (3) than currently in Canada (2) and even the AAA Ottawa Lynx are facing a very doubtful future. And the irony in this situation?


The demise of baseball in Canada is not only coming at the same time that Canadian talent is starting to thrive at the Major League level, but the demise started when a Canadian team was at the top of the baseball world.

In 1994, Major League Baseball’s tenure in Canada was at its highest. The Toronto Blue Jays were coming off two straight World Series titles and the Montreal Expos had the best record in Major League Baseball. Then, on August 12, the season was halted by the strike and the season never ended, no World Series was played and the downward spiral of baseball in Montreal started.


Thirteen years after their first, and only, playoff appearance (coincidentally also a season affected by a strike) the Expos could have done it again. Instead, Expo fans were left to wonder what could have been and a team that included Moises Alou, Larry Walker, Ken Hill, Pedro Martinez and John Wetteland never got to play together again.


The different conditions


There was no single reason why the Expos didn’t work in Montreal. Instead it was a slew of conditions, some big, some small that caused fans to be turned off to the point that many no longer cared for the league or the team.


The Stadium, part one


Olympic Stadium was always at the heart of many a discussion about why the Expos failed in Montreal. Located in the middle of a small residential area about 15 minutes from downtown, the stadium was always out of the way for people to get to. But, perhaps a bigger problem was that the retractable roof, which was supposed to open, broke down – and that was after they finally got it built. The stadium was the cornerstone of the Olympic Village for the 1976 Summer Olympics. The retractable roof wasn’t even completed until 1988. After completion, it wouldn’t operate in winds of more than 25 miles per hour, and was often torn due to heavy winds. The broken roof left fans having to sit in a warm building even on the nicest days, instead of enjoying the outdoors and a game of baseball fans had to choose on or the other.


The Strike


Perhaps the most obvious one, but is just as often misinterpreted. Most fans turned their back on the team after the strike, but for all different reasons. What the strike did was took the wind out of the sails of the fans. On such a high at the point of the strike – up six games on the Atlanta Braves in the National League East division and stretching that lead with the best record in baseball – the fans had the rug swept from under them and most never returned to Major League Baseball for fear of the same thing happening again. The team never got to that point of success again, and the fans never returned except for three games in August 2003.


Ownership, part one


The strike didn’t single-handedly destroy Expos fans in 1994; owner Claude Brochu did quite a bit himself when the league restarted. Most of the players on the team would have signed for less than they ended up with (Larry Walker comes to mind), but Brochu decided instead to cut payroll and trade the core of the 1994 team, or even worse, let them walk away for nothing. The core of the ‘94 team was homegrown and knew that they had something special. Unfortunately, the owner (and the minority owners) were too concerned with the bottom line, perhaps not thinking what a successful team would have done to ticket sales. What fans weren’t turned off by the strike were turned off by the team’s owner.


Ownership, part two


When Claude Brochu sold the team to Jeffrey Loria, a lot of people actually thought it would be the turnaround for the Expos franchise. Instead, it turned out to be the beginning of the end. Loria took the team off of local television and English radio for the 2000 season. However there was one silver lining — he wanted to move the team out of Olympic Stadium and build Labatt Park not too far from the Bell Centre, the home of the Montreal Canadiens in the heart of downtown Montreal. However, the municipal and provincial governments did not want to put money into a new stadium when they still had Olympic Stadium to pay off. Failed big money free agents (Graeme Lloyd and Hideki Matsui), and the firing of longtime Expo coach Felipe Alou all but killed off the remaining fans of the franchise. If Loria taking over the franchise wasn’t the beginning of the end, the firing of Alou was.


The Stadium, part two


Many Expo fans feel that putting a outdoor ballpark in the middle of downtown Montreal would have saved the franchise. Although it has been proven in other cities that the “new ballpark revival” can fail if the team continues to struggle, there is belief it would have helped Montreal. A city that has set attendance records for Formula One, and the ATP embraces the outdoors in the summer, and there is no doubt that a state of the art outdoor ballpark would have produced walk-up crowds on summer nights despite where the team was in the standings, something that Olympic Stadium was severely lacking – even people with tickets wouldn’t show up to games.


Ownership, part three


Despite all of the above, for three nights in August of 2003, the Expos were on top of the Montreal scene. On August 25, the Expos were three games behind in the Wild Card race in the National League, led at the time by the Philadelphia Phillies and Florida Marlins. The Phillies just happened to be coming to Olympic Stadium for a four game series, with the Expos then going to Florida to face the Marlins afterwards.


The series had the most buzz than any series probably since the 1994 strike. The Expos took all four games in the series with a modest but impressive 80,000 people taking in the four game series. At the end of it, the Expos had passed the Phillies and were on top of the Wild Card chase — tied with the Marlins. At this point, now the end of August in a long season, players needed a rest and September call ups would be necessary for teams who didn’t want to miss a beat. However, Major League Baseball (by now the owners of the franchise due to the three-team trade between MLB, John Henry and Jeffrey Loria which involved the Red Sox, Marlins and Expos) refused to call up players due to the added cost. Montreal lost six games in a row, getting swept in Florida and losing a series in Philadelphia to the Phillies. This time there was no doubt in Expo fans minds that Major League Baseball did not want them to win, even more doubt that they wanted to exist, at least in Montreal.


Montreal’s bad reputation


With everything the city and the team had to go through from its inception in 1969 to their move after the 2004 season, Montreal is considered to be a second-rate sports city tied to the Canadiens and no one else.

While their love for the Canadiens is not to be denied, the city of Montreal has deep roots in baseball starting most notably with the Royales, a AAA team for the Brooklyn Dodgers and being the place where Jackie Robinson started baseball’s integration. Throughout the late-1970’s, early 80’s, baseball in Montreal was thriving and it’s hard to believe that if the team was cared about and had a committed owner, the team would have had settled for the same fate.


A lot of teams have gone through bad ownership in the past, and even currently it is not uncommon for fans to show concern with their owner’s commitment to winning. However, the Expos didn’t have an owner for several seasons, had to play 22 “home” games in Puerto Rico and had to deal with more of a handicap than even the team in the smallest market – and still managed to remain quasi-competitive.

In the end, it all came down to low attendance numbers. But, would have any city acted any differently? That will always be up for debate, and will probably never be known.


Jared Book writes about general sports at Les Glorieux.

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