Montreal Radio Blog

Sunday, October 3, 2010

In Memory of the Montreal Expos, 1969-2004

It was six years ago that the Expos played their last game. The news of the team's move was announced only hours before they were to play their last home game of the year at Olympic Stadium. It would turn out to be their last game ever in Montreal. It was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because for over a decade you would be bombarded by predictions of when the Expos were going to leave town.

Montreal fans were constantly picked on, and unfairly so. It's better to look beyond the simple attendance numbers in the 2000s. After all, it was a team that was losing 90+ games and actually telling their fans that baseball had no future in Montreal. Those 3000 people in the park who attended games in 2004 had to have been the 3000 best sports fans anywhere to have been there at all. For those who were also there ten years earlier, surrounded by 48,000 fans watching a team taking the baseball world by storm and destined to make post-season, it must have seemed hard to believe you were sitting in the same facility. What a difference a decade of mismanagement can make.

The misconception that the Expos had no fans, or that somehow Montrealers or Quebecers didn't like baseball is a blatant misrepresentation of history. In fact, Montreal has always had a rich baseball tradition. This city was home to a minor league baseball team as far back as 1890. And of course, the Montreal Royals were a huge part of the Montreal sports scene during two separate incarnations.

For most of the Royals more recent existence, and up until they folded in 1960, they were a Dodger farm club. Who hasn't heard about Jackie Robinson starting his climb to Brooklyn with the AAA Royals? There was a long stretch of time when the Royals were hugely popular in Montreal. The Royals relocated to Syracuse after the 1960 season, and for most of the next decade Montreal had no professional baseball.

The Expos began play in 1969 and Montreal once again fell in love with baseball. It may seem hard to believe now, but for a time in the early 80s, the popularity of the Expos was on par with, or even greater than that of the Montreal Canadiens.

But something happened once the 80s came to a close... Baseball was starting to price itself into insanity and teams began to look for new sources of income. The greatest source of income for a franchise outside of a huge media market was a new ballpark.

At the start of the 1990s, the Expos had a tremendously talented group managing their on field operations, but had an equally uninspired group running the off field operations. This became especially true once Charles Bronfman sold the club to a local consortium.

The consortium bought the Expos as a civic gesture to keep the club in Montreal. They were going to operate the team in survival mode. That was the beginning of the end. Amazingly, despite ownership's new direction, the on-field product thrived from 1992 on, culminating in the now legendary Expo team of 1994. Their true potential was never realized. In all honesty, nobody expected them to be that good going in to the season. All the stars seemed to be properly aligned to make the playoffs for the first time since 1981. Or so it seemed... The players went on strike in August and the season was cancelled shortly after. It seemed typical that MLB's only cancelled post-season would come when the Expos probably had their best shot at winning.

After the strike, the team was dismantled. That should have chased the fans away, but it didn't. They still drew about 1.3 million fans in 1995 and 1.6 million in 1996. But then, for the first time, the penny pinching began to affect the franchise's performance on the field. Even if they still had several high-profile and talented players coming out of the farm system like Vladimir Guerrero, the team as a whole would begin to struggle big time on the field.

The slide in performance coincided with the Expos' attempts to finance a new ballpark that was badly needed for the team to remain in Montreal. The provincial government was far less generous back then than it seems to be today. The province used some very timely political posturing to refuse to help finance a stadium in an tangible way. With the stadium deal dead and the franchise performing poorly on the field, the writing was on the wall.

There was a brief glimmer of hope in 1999, when the now infamous Jeffrey Loria and David Samson came to town. It seemed that maybe it could be done after all - but that was short-lived. What followed was a series of events that devastated the franchise and chased away what was left of the fan base. Nobody wanted to broadcast the team, nobody wanted to sponsor them - nobody wanted to be associated with them... Once MLB took over control of the franchise it became a disaster. With the exception of a few flashes, the final 5 seasons were painful to watch.

Some people claimed that all the fans had left town. That was not true. The Expos had their best attendance numbers in the early 80s, after all the political turmoil had already passed. Others claimed that Quebecers didn't care for baseball, and that Montreal is simply a hockey town. That may the case today, but it wasn't that way for most of the Expos' existence. They comfortably co-existed with the Habs, and were actually the top sporting draw in Montreal most years. Nowhere does it say that you cannot be a fan of more than one sport in your town!

But it must be said that Expos fans were found all over Canada, and around the world. To this day, there are people in far away places who still feel the pain of having lost the Expos. The greatest example of this under-appreciated fan base could be found in the late 1990s on the Internet at a site called baseballboards.com. That site would change its name to Fanhome.com. The site's Expos board exists to this day.

The Fanhome Expos board is now a shell of its former glory. However, back in the late-90s and early part of the new millennium, people would marvel at the high traffic the board would draw. Before there was such a thing as Twitter, there were discussion boards where threads would expand by the minute... The Expos board was so popular, that it out-posted most other baseball boards combined. So how could this happen for a team that supposedly nobody cared about? Because people did care. If you are feeling nostalgic now, you can join the Expos group on Facebook. It now boasts just under 60,000 fans.

There has been a deep sports void in Montreal since the Expos left. You never know what you've got until it's gone. The sad part is that as the years go by, a new generation will grow up in Montreal without having seen the Expos. That is too bad. After some initial apathy, a lot of people now seem to think we should never have let the franchise slip away. Unfortunately for Montreal, nobody stepped up to the plate to save them, and it is now too late.

In 2000, when things seemed very bleak, the FanHome Expo board moderators decided to start a thread that would allow fans to express their feelings about what the Expos meant to them and how they wanted the franchise to be saved. The "Save my Expos" thread's contents would then be sent to MLB, Expo ownership and to media outlets. I conclude this special blog entry with some particularly poignant excerpts from that thread:
 

The Montreal Expos are a part of my life. Among my most treasured memories are the times I rode the bus and Metro to Jarry Park, paid my dollar and got my fifty cent piece back, and sat like a sardine in the left field bleachers drenched in sunshine and the joyful atmosphere of bilingual baseball; an organist who played real music, and the announcer introducing John Boc Abellllllaaaaa!!!!!! I grew up listening to Dave Van Horne broadcasting games from the west coast, with the transistor radio under my pillow, hoping I wouldn't fall asleep because the world was a perfect place back then and there! -- Posted by There Since Jarry (August 2000)
We deserve a fair chance, and we, the teenagers of Montreal, look forward to attending MLB in our city for many years to come. And nothing would mean more to me than to be able to bring my son to watch the Expos, just like my dad did with me. -- Posted by big_huge_expo_fan (August 2000)
I have a great relationship with my father, I think the Expos have something to do with that. My father tells me old stories about the Expos all the time. If there's nothing else to talk about, there's always the Expos. It keeps us close when sometimes there isn't much else to share. -- Posted by JeremyExpos (August 2000)
I just hope that when I have kids, there will be a baseball team in my town that I can love with my son. It is hard to watch as the saga goes on. But please, don't move our Expos! -- Posted by DreamibngofLabattpark (August 2000)
April 1969... My friends and I take the bus and rushed over to Jarry Park. While on the bus, we were listening to Dave Van Horne and Russ Taylor on our transistor radio. We saw our first MLB game. I remember seeing Curt Flood, Bobo Gibson, Mack Jones, Coco Laboy, Jim Mudcat Grant and many more for the first time. I remember the smells of MLB: hot dogs, popcorn, real grass. I remember what baseball was and should be like. - Posted by xmtlr (August 2000)

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