Expos gone, baseball alive in Montreal

Expos gone, baseball alive in Montreal

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."

 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

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.