June 16th, 2004, isn’t a date that lives in infamy for Expos fans, and the names Brian O’Nora and Luis Rivas won’t send shivers down your spine the way that Rick Monday does, nor the way that that ‘94 forever will. It was the date of a meaningless interleague game, with zero importance in the grand scheme of a long season. Yet, as a fan that was there that night, it still rankles.
The box score says that 3,763 fans were in attendance, the second smallest crowd up to that point in the season. Many had left in the 9th inning after Chad Cordero gave up 2 runs and blew his first save opportunity since officially taking the job from Rocky Biddle. By the time the play happened I’d say there were no more than a couple of dozen people left in my section, right above the 1st base dugout.
It was the top of the 11th inning, The Expos and Twins were tied at 4. Jeremy Fikac on the mound, Luis Rivas leading off. On a 2-1 count Fikac delivered, and Rivas hit a towering fly ball just left of the left field foul pole, over the fence and off the back of the wall, where the ball bounced, shaking the foul net that acted as a pole at the Big O.
O’Nora, the third base umpire, called it a fair ball, and a home run. Rivas, who hadn’t run up the line to first, saw the ump and started to circle the bases. Pandemonium ensued very quickly.
Brad Wilkerson, the left fielder, started to jump up and down and wave his arms uncontrollably. Frank Robinson came charging out of the dugout quicker than a man half his age, and lost it. By the time he was kicked out by head ump Phil Cuzzi he had made several choking gestures in O’Nora’s direction.
I think that after seeing Robinson so upset that he was ejected, the small but suddenly rabid pack of fans took their hostility up a level. It was great to see a man so often remembered as a passionless figurehead of MLB’s front office actually sticking up for an injustice against his team.
People were livid. Fans mocked every foul / fair call for the rest of the game, no matter how fair or foul the ball was. Fans moved closer to the field so that they could be heard when screaming at the umps. The elderly couple in front of me, sitting in the front row, did what they did whenever there was a blowout- the wife took the newspaper out of her purse, and they both started to read. I yelled and screamed so loud that it hurt to talk.
The game ended 5-4, and the Expos had gotten completely hosed by a blatantly missed call. After the game, three fans were escorted out of the building by Olympic Stadium security guards after they slipped into the bowels of the Big O and were seen banging on the door to the umpires room.
The umps refused to speak to the press, but Robinson told the media that O’Nora said he had seen the foul pole shake and thought that the ball had hit it. The problem was that the “pole” was a net hanging from the roof that could shake from someone blowing on it.
It would be four more years before baseball would allow fair/foul instant replays, and I often wonder if the O’Nora call stuck with Frank Robinson, who’s now a special assistant to Bud Selig and probably would have been consulted on the new instant replay rules.
The fans who were there that night were witness to yet another infamous game in the history of the franchise. An ump blew the call and then blamed it on one of the many quirks that make baseball purists continue to pine for the return of baseball to the Big O.
Maybe if the Expos weren’t 20-43 at the time it would have been a bigger deal. Maybe it was worse because they were so mediocre and it felt like the deck was always stacked against them. Whatever it was, the ‘Rivas Game’ meant a whole lot to me at the time. And I still wonder what would’ve happened if those fans had gotten past those doors and into the umpire’s room.