Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

Exposed: The Last Temptation of Youppi!

Did baseball fail Montreal, or did Montreal give up on baseball?

Perhaps because it is the most unfashionable thing to do in Montreal, I enjoy going to an Expos game. It’s peaceful there, and there’s plenty of room to stretch your legs and contemplate the abstract patterns that the stadium lights throw on the plastic tent that covers the hole in the roof. The atmosphere is not exactly electric, in the conventional sporting-event sense, but neither is it entirely unpleasant. There are no lines for hot dogs, or beer, or anything. Occasionally, a rustle of interest from the handful of other fans will draw my attention back on the field, where two jauntily attired ballclubs dutifully ply their trade for a tiny audience.

The official attendance tonight, a beautiful cool summer evening at Olympic Stadium, is a little over 6,000, and perhaps half of those ticketholders are in the building. If I felt like it, I could count every one of them, the fans scattered in lonely knots throughout the lower portion of the seating bowl. When the inter-batter P.A. music is cut off, I can hear them sneeze and cough and shift in their seats; the echoey murmur is not unlike the one that preceded Sunday mass at the jumbo-sized suburban Catholic church I attended growing up.
Did baseball fail Montreal, or did Montreal give up on baseball? The question gives the few fans and journalists who still have a stake in the fate of the Expos something to talk about as they wait out the franchise’s presumed finale. But from my usual seat here on the third-base side, it’s difficult for me to tell if the Expos were ever really here.

When I first moved to Montreal from Baltimore in the summer of 2000, the team that was said to reside in the city seemed barely a rumor. They were ghosts: invisible on television, unheard on the radio. No children passed on the streets with little tricolor Expos hats, no Expos schedules were posted in the bars. The only evidence of their existence was the small story that would appear, almost apologetically, in the newspaper on the day after games. I marveled at the attendance figures—could there really have been only 4,300 tickets sold for a major-league baseball game in a metropolitan area with over 3 million people in it?—and wondered what on earth could have happened to a once functional, if never precisely thriving, baseball franchise.

After a year and a half in North America’s most impenetrable city, and after taking in much more than my fair share of Expos games, I found the usual answers: a history of mismanagement, a villainous commissioner, a too-long stretch without a playoff appearance, a strange and unlovable stadium. I heard that the attendance, as bad as it was, still didn’t yet approach the historic troughs of the woeful mid-70s Oakland Athletics and the pre-Jacob’s Field Cleveland Indians. I heard about the team’s infrequent but heartbreaking flirtations with greatness—the Blue Monday of 1981, the strike that stole a World Series season. I heard about the city’s sterling baseball heritage, its embrace of Jackie Robinson in 1946, the hardy fans of Jarry Park. I heard that once, in living memory, the rafters of the Big O shook with lusty song from baseball-mad Montrealers cheering Nos Amours. And, most unlikely of all, I heard that it could all happen again, if only the team could get a new downtown stadium, a bilingual GM, a few winning seasons, a league salary cap and profit-sharing agreement, a dramatic upturn in the Canadian dollar, and perhaps a new mascot to replace this odd Youppi! fellow.

But I don’t believe it. The indifference that the city now shows towards its castoff baseball team seems far deeper than the usual passing disgruntlement with management and facilities that bedevils other markets. Montreal isn’t merely uninterested in the Expos; it is all but willing them into oblivion, as if the team were some invalid relative slipping into ever more humiliating decrepitude with each passing year. News of the team’s proposed contraction in November 2001 was greeted with something resembling relief by most Montrealers I knew who were still capable of summoning an opinion at all. The fact that Major League Baseball stuck a new feeding tube into the now-orphaned franchise for the 2002 season was cause only for muted dread. How low can they go?

Civic leaders who tangle with reluctant taxpayers over the expenses involved in the care and feeding of a hungry professional sports franchise will eventually end up citing the so-called “intangibles” that the team will bring: the fellowship of fandom that can unite a divided populace, the blush of municipal well-being that a winning team bestows on an otherwise troubled town, the sweet distraction of an occasional playoff run. Montreal now enjoys intangibles aplenty from its Expos, of course, but less desirable ones: American audiences who get their only glimpses of Montreal via televised Expos game see a city of lethargy and decline in that silent sea of empty yellow seats. The unseemliness of having its major-league franchise outdrawn by six minor-league teams last year was enough to inspire The Sporting News to declare Montreal the continent’s “Least Best Sports City” in 2001, to the consternation of a handful of local sportswriters — and very few others.

Baseball in Montreal isn’t exactly like trying to stage NASCAR races in Paris, or it shouldn’t be. But despite the legitimacy of baseball’s past in this part of the world, the game does now seem an uncomfortable fit in a city and province that work so hard to maintain their quasi-European distinctiveness from the general North American blare. (It makes sense that the biggest sporting event in Montreal involves a sport that the rest of this continent is only dimly aware of—Formula 1 racing.) In rejecting the Expos, Montrealers also reject the game’s corndog Americana, its hillbilly pitching coaches and jowly sluggers, the tobacco-spitting and anthem-singing tackiness of the entire enterprise. And it also rejects the generation that brought baseball here in the first place and named the history-making team, the first to play outside U.S. borders, after the exposition that seemed to mark the city’s emergence on the global stage. This new city is a very different one, one that now prefers to cultivate its own singular pleasures. While Montrealers spend their summers parading about the city’s chic quarters or rollerblading down Mont-Royal, the ballpark and its game is left to old men and children, and fewer of them every year.

Baseball belongs in Montreal about as much as I do, in other words, which is perhaps why I’m so often drawn back to Olympic Stadium. I enjoy the contrariness of it, and the affordability: with swift and easy public transportation and $5 seats readily available from a scalper, Expos baseball is one of the great bargains in professional sports history. I enjoy the hot dogs and beer, and the way I can stretch my legs on the seats in front of me. I even enjoy the much-maligned Stade Olympique itself. Planted like a derelict spaceship that crash-landed in the wrong part of town, the Big O’s space-age shabbiness seems the perfect stage for the team named, with heartbreaking optimism, after a long-forgotten 35-year old world’s fair. (Do they still even have world’s fairs anymore?) There’s a kind of grandeur here still, whether you’re looking up at the mighty hole in the roof or watching the lonely little men on the field. Squint a little and you’ll still see what the 21st century was supposed to look like, swoopy lines looking towards a future that didn’t turned out exactly the way anyone thought it would.