September 29, 2004—I could rush down to the clubhouse and join the scrum of journalists asking members of the Expos how they feel having just played the last major-league game in Montreal.
But I won’t.
I know what they’ll say. That it’s a shame. That they feel bad for those fans who supported them. That they’ll really miss Montreal. Then they’ll pack their bags and head off to their winter homes. Come April, they’ll be in DC, saying how great it is that baseball’s back in the nation’s capital. That they’re happy for the fans. That they really like Washington.
So, no, I’ll just sit here a moment with my thoughts. Because I’m more an Expo than anybody currently with the team. I’ve been here since 1969. And I’ll still be here come April.
I was in Jonesville, the fabled left-field bleachers at Jarry Park, during April games played in swirling squalls of snow. I grew up idolizing John Bateman and Gary Sutherland and Pepe Mangual, Steve Rogers and Boots Day (if only because of his name). Back then, you didn’t keep track of the wins and losses. You simply cherished every visit to the ballpark.
Along with all Montrealers, I got impatient with the team in the late 1970s, when they failed year upon year to play even .500 baseball. In 1979, I was rewarded for my loyalty when the club won ninety-five games—more than they would ever win again—and finished in second place.
I was in a downtown brasserie in 1981 when they faced off against the Dodgers in their only post-season appearance. When Rick Monday came to the plate, and manager Jim Fanning brought starter Steve Rogers in to relieve, I cheered Fanning’s logic. Yes, bring in your best for the most crucial situation. I was devastated when Monday smashed the most notorious home run in Expos history, eliminating them from World Series contention.
I was in the upper deck of the Olympic Stadium in 1982 for the one and only time the All-Star Game was played there.
I kept thinking the strike of 1994 would be settled before it was too late. Baseball wouldn’t allow the World Series to be cancelled. Not when Montreal held the best record in the majors. Not when the franchise had finally assembled a remarkable collection of young stars who could bring home a championship. But it did.
I didn’t desert my team as player after player fled for more money and better futures. I ignored the yearly rumours predicting the team’s departure. I endured the humiliation of listening to home games broadcast out of Puerto Rico.
But tonight, the end is official. It must be, because 31,395 people have packed the Stadium. They aren’t here to watch an Expos–Marlins game. They’re here for the sense of occasion. Had the team’s marketing people succeeded in creating this atmosphere on a more regular basis, we surely wouldn’t all be here tonight.
The contest was decided early on. Florida established a 4-0 lead in the second inning, and the demoralized Expos are not the sort of team you look to for stunning come-from-behind rallies. By the fifth, it was 9-1 for the Marlins. Carl Pavano, a prospect Montreal acquired from Boston for Cy Young Award–winner Pedro Martinez, is finally exhibiting the talent that once made him a hot commodity. But he’s doing it for Florida, racking up his eighteenth win and solidifying himself as a Cy Young candidate in his own right.
Old highlights were shown on the scoreboard to the clichéd strains of Sinatra’s “My Way” and Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” and Jann Arden’s “Will You Remember Me.” Fans cheered and cried. They stood through the ninth inning, reacting to every pitch from rookie reliever Chad Cordero as if something precious was on the line. And something was. The memory they would preserve of these moments. It was not to be a funereal gathering, but a celebration of the franchise this city once adored.
For the trivia buffs, it all ended on Terrmel Sledge’s pop-up to former Expo Mike Mordecai at third.
In 1971, the Washington Senators had to forfeit their final home game during the seventh inning because unruly fans kept disrupting play. The Expos left with far more dignity and class than that. When the game was over, every player returned to the field to accept the cheers of the crowd and to toss balls into the stands.
Nobody wanted to leave. For the first time in many years, people wanted major league baseball in Montreal. Too late.
Tod Hoffman is watching the 2004 Major League Baseball season from the stands of the “Big O” in Montreal.