When I decided to buy a ticket to this past weekend’s exhibition games at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, I wasn’t expecting to get much out of the actual baseball. Spring training baseball is never about the baseball, and I expected that to be the same in Quebec as it is in Arizona.
But everybody, even the foreigners like myself, could tell as we filed into the stadium and the sections deep into the outfield and deep into the top deck filled up that this was a little more than an exhibition game. By the middle of the first inning most of the 45,000 fans in attendance were parked in their seats. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this game counted.
I don’t speak any French, so I didn’t get much out of the fan reactions except for the occasional “Oui!” But there is no language barrier large enough to confuse the energy in that building Friday night. Late in the game, after the Blue Jays removed Jose Bautista from the lineup and the Mets appeared to be cruising to a 4-2 victory, the Blue Jays got a rally going, With runners on second and third and two outs, Edwin Encarnacion stepped to the plate with a chance to tie the game. Just listen to the crowd.
That energy remained as Munenori Kawasaki hit a leadoff double as the winning run in the ninth. It swelled until Ricardo Nanita, a 33-year-old outfielder without a single major league plate appearance, hit a jam-shot single up the middle to score Kawasaki for the winning run. Expos fans were able to cheer for a win. It didn’t matter what the name on the front of the jersey said. They had baseball again, for the first time in 10 years, and they cheered.
It was a fascinating moment for me, a child of the 1990s who has no memory of the 1994 strike (my first memory of baseball on TV, I think, is of the Yankees clinching the 1996 World Series over the Braves). My only connection to the Expos was their awesome roster on Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball for Super Nintendo. That game was not licensed by the MLBPA, and so Dennis Martinez was “M. VITA,” Moises Alou was “B. SUMNER,” Delino DeShields was “I. BROWN,” and so on. Apparently these are names taking from the Manchester, England music scene. My only other real memory of the Expos was seeing an empty Stade Olympique on SportsCenter as a teenager in the early 2000s.
So I didn’t exactly get the Expos, or why they ever existed, or why anybody ever thought baseball could possibly succeed in Montreal. The idea of baseball in French Canada didn’t make sense to a sheltered Midwestern American kid growing up amongst people with enough disdain for French speakers to invent the absurdity that was “Freedom Fries.”
Olympic Stadium is not and could not be a long-term solution for a team. All the “Rays to Montreal” or any comparable calls are silly. I saw Olympic Stadium’s soul, but the problems with indoor concrete stadiums should be clear to anybody who ever saw a game at Minnesota’s Metrodome, or has attended a game at Rogers Centre with the roof closed. Baseball it at its best under natural light and with fresh air, or at the least one of the two. As I entered Olympic Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and it looked and felt exactly the same at 1 PM as it did at 10 PM the night before, I understood why fans were reluctant to support the Expos franchise, especially as it spent much of its final decade in Montreal in the cellar.
But the problem most certainly was not the people of Montreal, who showed such an incredible joy for baseball over this past weekend. It didn’t matter that the baseball didn’t count, or that both teams were playing minor leaguers and never-has-beens. The Montreal fans just wanted baseball. This past weekend was a tremendous cathartic experience for those fans, and I am glad to have been able to see it in person and finally have a little appreciation of what the Expos used to be for myself.