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The Baseball Notebook

An opening month for the Expos worth forgetting

The 2004 Season Opens

May 1--Opening Day is supposed to mark a beginning, the first paragraph in a story to be written over the next seven months. It’s a day that serves up flashes of what’s ahead, vague shadows that gradually gain definition.

But not in Montreal at the 2004 home opener. The night of April 23 doesn’t feel so much a beginning as a middle, if not a harbinger of the end. On this night, the patterns have already emerged.

Seated in Olympic Stadium are 30,112 people, ready to watch their team take on the Philadelphia Phillies. It’s the smallest home opener crowd since 1986, third smallest since the team left bandbox Jarry Park in 1976. Less than half that many will attend the next two games--the last to be played in Montreal in April.

Of course, the Expos have already played a series in which they came to bat in the bottom of the inning, but that’s not the same thing as being at home. I won’t subscribe to the fiction that my team is at home in San Juan, where they will play twenty-two games for the second consecutive season.

The Expos take the field tonight with a 4-12 record, the worst in the majors, and equal to the worst start in their history--in 1970, their second year in existence. The club is already 7.5 games behind the National League East leading Florida Marlins, farther back than any other team in any division.

On this night, Expos fans scramble for fonder memories of home openers past.

Since 1998, all Expos openers have been at night, but it’s just not the same as the traditional mid-week day game. There’s a particular gleefulness in a crowd of people who’ve snuck out on their responsibilities for a day. Offices are decimated by flu. Schools mysteriously empty as--one by one, or in small, inconspicuous groups--the kids flee. How better to signal that, whatever else might be going on in their lives, on this one day being at the ball park is the most important thing they could be doing?

And in Montreal, it was always best before the roof sealed the stadium like a coffin--even when snow flurried onto the field and you had to pull mittens off after every play to mark it in your scorebook. Hitters had to brace themselves on each swing. The cold-shock vibrations rippled through their hands, up their arms and into their chest cavity whenever they had the misfortune of hitting the ball. Fielders absorbed the frigid sting whenever the ball found their gloves. Pitchers had to crank their shoulders anew with every pitch, like car engines reluctantly turning over after a long night outdoors. It was in this initial shared discomfort that a bond was forged between fans and players.

Over the past decade, with every homecoming, the Expos resemble a reunion of old soldiers: a few more familiar faces that you’d hoped to see again are missing. This time, the missing include pitcher Javier Vazquez, traded to the Yankees, and outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who signed as a free agent with Anaheim. The bats brought in to take up the slack--first baseman Nick Johnson, acquired in the Vazquez trade, and outfielder Carl Everett, a free agent from the White Sox--are both on the disabled list. Where the Expos’ inability to compete financially against big market rivals becomes most apparent is when players get injured; the team simply does not have the resources to go out and replace those who have already been bought and paid for. We end up watching a patchwork, make-do lineup.

The Expos are in the unprecedented position of being owned by nobody, and thus everybody. Major League Baseball, the consortium of the other owners, owns the Expos. Each of their on-field competitors owns the Expos. The team’s budget is set by those who benefit from a few timely wins at the team’s expense.

The Phillies, favourites in many quarters to go all the way to the World Series, came into Montreal nursing their own disappointments, off to a 5-9 start.

Only seven pitches into the game, however, they are up 3-0, after Marlon Byrd leads off with a single, Placido Polanco walks, and Bobby Abreu homers. Five pitches later, Jim Thome makes it 4-0 with a home run. The fans are numbed--even with the stadium’s roof guarding against the cold--and pitcher Claudio Vargas is stunned.

In the sixth inning, when all hope seems lost, the Expos string together five hits and plate four runs to tie the game 5-5.

But middle relief is largely neglected on teams with limited payrolls. There is no money in reserve for those marginal pitchers whose value is in bridging the barren territory between when a game sails out of hand and when it might be pulled back within reach.

One of baseball’s golden rules is that you have to get out of the half-inning following a rally without giving the opposition hope of recovery. In the top of the seventh, the Phillies play like contenders, while the Expos reveal their weakness. Abreu leads with a double off rookie lefty Chad Bentz. Bentz hangs tight against slugger Thome and strikes him out. Righty Jeremy Fikac takes over as Pat Burrell steps up, only to advance Abreu to third with a wild pitch and then walk Burrell and Mike Lieberthal to load the bases. When David Bell grounds into a fielder’s choice that retires Lieberthal, Abreu crosses the plate with what will be the winning run. Philadelphia later adds another two to win 8-6. 

This opening day revealed a team without the depth to call upon as situations demanded. When forced to dig into the bullpen, or pull someone off the far end of the bench, the Expos will lose far more often than they will win. And lose they did for the rest of the opening month, closing out April with five consecutive losses in San Diego and Los Angeles, finishing with a 5-19 record, and a .208 winning percentage, the second lowest in team history--only in May 1969, when they went 4-19, or .174, did they fare worse. However, back then there was the promise that better was yet to come. Now, there’s the unwelcome sensation that the best has passed us by.