Expos' fans ready for two nights at the ballpark
By Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, March 28, 2014 11:54AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, March 28, 2014 1:26PM EDT
MONTREAL -- For one weekend, it will be like the Montreal Expos never died.
The neglected National League team that left town a decade ago will be feted and remembered during two pre-season baseball games featuring the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets at what promises to be a packed Olympic Stadium on Friday and Saturday.
The timing is right.
It was 10 years ago that the Expos broke the hearts of their sadly dwindled fan base by moving to Washington, D.C., and becoming the Nationals, and 20 years since the club saw its best chance at a World Series wiped out by a lockout.
Several players from the 1994 team will attend the games, which are aimed as much at gauging interest in getting a team back in Montreal as they are at showcasing the Blue Jays. Organizers said Thursday that just over 75,000 tickets have been sold for the two games.
It is fitting that this week saw the release of the first comprehensive history of the team -- "Up, Up, & Away" by Jonah Keri. The author grew up in Montreal witnessing the Expos become very good, then very frustrating, and then gone like a Vladimir Guerrero liner over the left centre-field wall.
Keri's book tells the story of the team from its beginnings as one of former big-thinking mayor Jean Drapeau's projects to its rise as a contending team that never quite won it all, to its demise amid empty seats and resentment.
It is a chronological history, but a tribute to Keri's skill is that it never reads like a textbook.
Thoroughly researched and based on extensive interviews with the key owners, managers and players in the team's history, it is given a personal touch with Keri's own recalling of events he saw as a teenager at the Big O, which slip surprisingly well into the narrative.
"My editor (Paul Taunton) wanted first-person stuff," Keri said this week. "He said 'Make it as much about you as the interviews.' "
One of the touching scenes involved the first major league hit by outfielder Curtis Pride, who was deaf. The crowd gave him a huge ovation and made sure there was enough sound that he could feel it through the turf. Keri was among the noise-makers.
"My pinnacle of joy as an Expos fan was that Curtis Pride double," Keri writes. "The deafening noise all around, as 45,757 of us yelled so loud we lost our voices, and our minds. . . In all my years as a baseball fan, this was the moment I wished I could stick in a bottle and keep forever."
Keri's first baseball book "The Extra 2%" was about the Tampa Bay Rays' unlikely rise as an American League contender.
Then he was asked to do a book about the Expos, which was a more demanding task than simply recounting his days as a fan.
He was born in 1974, five years after the Canada's first major league team played its first season at the hastily constructed Jarry Park, a terrible ballyard that nonetheless still elicits weepy nostalgia from many old-timers.
He started going to games in the early 1980s, after the team's one and only trip to the playoffs in 1981, when Los Angeles Dodger Rick Monday crushed the city's hopes with the game-winning home run that kept the Expos from reaching the World Series. The day is still known as Blue Monday.
He needed information on the team's beginnings, and his first interview was done in New York with Charles Bronfman, the club's first majority owner whose influence shaped the team and its history in many ways.
Bronfman was remarkably candid, and he is quoted extensively in the book.
Keri said getting Rays people to speak openly was difficult for his first book because they didn't want to reveal secrets. But talking to Bronfman and others who were there at the start was different because "the Expos were dead, so there was nothing to lose."
The opening chapter about Drapeau's wheeling-and-dealing and Bronfman's initial skepticism gets the book off to flying start.
Then there are all the players who made the Expos memorable, from Rusty Staub and Mack Jones at the beginning to Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Larry Parrish, Steve Rogers, Ellis Valentine and others who gave them their first taste of being a contender.
In those days, more than two million fans crammed under the Big O dome to watch a team that was at least as popular as hockey's Canadiens.
Then there was 1994, when Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland and the rest had the Expos at 70-44, the best record in baseball, only to see the season and playoffs cancelled.
Then came the fire sale of top players and the consortium of local owners who didn't want to risk any more money than they'd already put in to keep the team together.
Then there was outside owner Jeffrey Loria's brief ownership, and the failure to convince governments to build a new downtown park.
And finally, their was Major League Baseball taking over the team for its last seasons before moving it to Washington.
All that will be remembered this week at a pair of exhibition games in which the Blue Jays, with strong ownership and a competitive payroll, wind up their pre-season schedule against one of the Expos old NL East rivals.
Former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie will be in town leading the Montreal Baseball Project, a group looking to bring the game back to the city.
There is no deep-pocketed owner in sight with the billion or so dollars it would take to acquire a team and build a stadium, but Cromartie's movement is being taken seriously in business circles in the city and has revived at least a glimmer of hope among fans.
Enough that they will pack the stadium to show the world that Montreal loves baseball and can support a team.
"Three years ago I would have said a team is impossible," said Keri, who now lives in Denver. "Now I would upgrade that to unlikely, but possible."