For many baseball fans, the lasting image of the Montreal Expos is a cash-strapped team that played before mostly empty seats in a sterile stadium known as the Big Owe.
Steve Rogers prefers to remember the good times, when the continent’s most European city was as giddy over the national pastime as anywhere in the United States.
”It was a really great baseball city,” Rogers said Friday when reached by phone, ”and a different kind of baseball city.”
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Montreal hasn’t had a major league team since the Expos left Quebec after the 2004 season, moving to Washington and becoming the Nationals.
It’s time to rectify that wrong.
Give us the Expos II.
French-speaking Montreal is making a push to regain a team, and the interest certainly seems there. A pair of exhibition games between the Toronto Blue Jays and Cincinnati Reds drew a total of more than 96,000 fans to Olympic Stadium in early April. The city’s mayor, Denis Coderre, met with Commissioner Rob Manfred in New York on Thursday, asking MLB to consider playing regular-season games in Montreal next season. According to Coderre, six or seven teams are interested in playing a series at the Expos’ former home.
Rogers, who spent his entire 13-year career with the Expos, was a star pitcher during the franchise’s glory days in the late 1970s and early `80s. He also attended those April exhibition games, which gave him a firsthand glimpse at Montreal’s continuing love affair with the game despite the ugly way it ended 11 years ago.
”I was sad to see the demise of the franchise,” Rogers said. ”Baseball thrived there for four, five, six years in a row. It was a lot of fun.”
Actually, the Expos were a box-office success from the very first pitch in 1969, even though they spent their first eight seasons playing at a temporary home that wouldn’t even pass for a suitable minor-league stadium these days – 28,000-seat Parc Jarry.
Back when 1 million in attendance was considered the mark of a strong fan base, the expansion Expos reached that milestone their first six years in the National League – even though didn’t have so much as one winning season.
Just when attendance started to wane, the Expos moved in 1977 to the new Olympic Stadium, which was converted to baseball after hosting the Summer Games.
It was a big step up but hardly ideal.
For one, Olympic Stadium was supposed to have a retractable roof, to help cope with Montreal’s frigid weather early and late in the season. But the technology didn’t work, so the stadium remained open to the elements. Also, there were still remnants of the athletic running track in foul territory, making it clear the designers hadn’t really given a lot of thought to a suitable home for baseball.
Throw in the fact that the stadium was never really popular with the locals, located about 5 miles east of downtown and costing more than six times as originally projected (hence the nickname, the Big Owe). The debt was finally paid off more than 30 years after the Olympics – and two years after the Expos bolted to Washington.
Despite its flaws, Olympic Stadium definitely provided the Expos with a home-field advantage.
”It was rocking in there,” Rogers said. ”The acoustics in Olympic Stadium were and are horrendous. You really can’t hear unless you’re sitting right in front of one of the speakers. The noise just reverberates all over the stadium. But when the crowd was going nuts, it was one of those deals where the reverberation … made it a very special place to play.”
There was plenty to cheer about, with a farm system that produced star players such as Rogers, Gary Carter, Andrew Dawson, Tim Raines and Larry Parrish. From 1979-83, the Expos drew more than 2 million fans four out of five years, the only exception being the strike-shortened `81 season when they made their only playoff appearance.
Of course, it didn’t last.
In 1990, the team wound up with owners who had no interest in spending any money. After one last run at the playoffs in 1994, when the Expos were leading the NL East before a labor dispute ended the season, the team dumped all its top players and essentially spent its final decade in limbo. There was one last attempt to build an open-air downtown stadium that might have saved the franchise, but it never went anywhere.
Major League Baseball wound up taking over the franchise, and even moved some home games to Puerto Rico over the team’s last two seasons. There wasn’t much of a fuss when the Expos played their final game.
Plenty of issues must be addressed before baseball can make a successful return to Montreal. Solid ownership is the top priority. Right behind that is a new ballpark, though Olympic Stadium could likely serve as a temporary home. A retractable roof would be ideal, though that would likely require a sizeable investment from the provincial government – not exactly a popular position in times of budget cuts.
Let’s hope they work it out. Tampa Bay has shown no desire to support the Rays, even during a run of playoff appearances, and no willingness to help build a suitable replacement for hideous Tropicana Field.
It’s time to figure out a way to move the Rays to Canada.
Bring on the Expos II.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963