Montreal bids mournful adieu to home team

Baseball: Although expected, the Expos' departure was hard for many fans to face.

Fans' Farewell

September 30, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

MONTREAL - A baseball team died here yesterday, and it wasn't pretty.

For every fan dressed in an Expos jersey, there seemed to be another dressed in black. Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" played on the loudspeakers, along with other bitter, mournful music. Fans streamed onto the field before the Expos' final home game and stood in the outfield staring at the players warming up, as if at a wake.

Season ticket holders cried into their Molsons. Dave Kaufman, 23, sat next to his girlfriend four rows behind the Expos dugout, his eyes red and moist from crying all day. He said he planned to drink all night and hoped that would ease the pain.

"I'm sure it will be OK next week or next year. It will stop hurting," Kaufman said, not quite convincingly. "They've been a part of me since I was a little kid, and now I won't be able to do this with my kids."

He looked down into his beer. "It's just hard to say goodbye. Fenway Park is five hours away and SkyDome, though it's terrible, is five hours away. But this is mine. This is mine."

Soon, it will be Washington's. Montreal woke up yesterday to find its baseball team was finally leaving. This time was for real. Major League Baseball had toyed with Montreal for a while now, threatening the euphemistic "contraction" - otherwise known as killing a team - and then inviting other cities to bid on the team.

For years, every year was supposed to be the last. But every spring, the Expos would be back at the Big O (their domed Olympic Stadium) for another season. A malaise set in among the citizens of this modern, sophisticated city, an island nestled between the Prairie and St. Lawrence rivers. They are a tolerant people. But you can only tolerate so much.

"People were attached to this team, but when they keep saying, `We're gonna move the team, we're gonna move the team, we're gonna move the team,' at a certain point in time, you say, `Well, leave,'" said Jean Yves Fortier, 59, as he enjoyed lunch yesterday on the sun-washed plaza outside Montreal's Contemporary Art Museum.

Fortier, like others here, believes the Expos are just a little bit cursed. He mentions the 1994 season, when the Expos had the best record in the majors at 74-40, but then the Major League players called a strike and the rest of the season was canceled. Fortier says there's a rumor Americans forced the strike so the Canadians wouldn't win three consecutive World Series after Toronto won in 1992 and 1993.

Dark thoughts pervaded the city. A fan sitting on the outfield turf before the game noted that the stadium was built on the grounds of an Indian cemetery.

"It always brings bad luck," said Michel Cote, 55. "You see, it's destiny. There was nothing we could do."

Well, they could have gone to a few more games. On Monday night, the first night of the final homestand, some 3,900 people showed up to watch. On Tuesday night, 5,400 came. But Expos fans say the blame must lie with Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bud Selig.

They made those feelings clear last night. As the first words of "The Star-Spangled Banner" were sung, a chorus of boos filled the cavernous stadium. But then other fans started cheering and applauding the U.S. national anthem, and the competing noises all but drowned out the singer. In the end, the cheers won out.

Also to its credit, Montreal is not without a sense of humor about this. A glam-rock band was hired to play in the stadium lobby last night, and the young men and women in the band, wrapped in tight leather, sang "We're Not Gonna Take It." Mitch Melnick, a sports talk radio host, opened his show yesterday with Green Day's current hit song, "American Idiot."

"What's happened here is tragic. What's happened here is shameful," Melnick said in an interview before his show. "This [tease] has been going on for seven years, at least, but it's always been a false alarm. This time, it's beginning to sink in that this is it. It will hit us even more after today, when we see the remnants of 35 years being packed up."

The Expos came to Montreal as an expansion franchise in 1969, and for their first eight seasons they played in a cozy little place called Jarry Park. There was a fiddler who entertained the crowd from the roof of the Expos dugout, a fan who did the polka up and down the aisles, and another who brought his pet duck to the park.

Olympic Stadium, an alien spacecraft-looking thing that was plunked down for the 1976 Summer Olympics, became the Expos' home in 1977. The fans jammed the joint for a few years - the first Opening Day at the Big O drew 57,000 people. But then came Blue Monday, a day that some fans speak of as if it were Black Friday.

It was 1981. The Expos were on the verge of heading to the World Series. But on Oct. 19, in the fifth and deciding game of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dodgers outfielder Rick Monday hit a ninth-inning, game-winning home run to end the Expos' season.

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