Register Thursday | May 19 | 2022

Exporting the Expos

Will Washington suffer from buyer's remorse?

Summers were longer in the 1970s. At least that's how I remember them, spending the daylight hours playing ineffectual right field for any number of sub-.500 softball teams in Saskatoon. And like every other kid on the field, I wore an Expos cap-the stylized "E-M-B" easily standing in for a maple leaf or a beaver or any other national symbol. For a short time there, the Expos were "Canada's Team," and we had reason to be proud. Our country was finding the confidence to step out of America's shadow and onto the global stage. Our centennial birthday party, Expo 67, was attended by the world. Our prime ministers suddenly had spines: "I've been called worse things by better people," zinged Trudeau when it leaked out that Nixon thought him "an asshole." And starting in 1969, we were taking on the USA at its own game. Who cared if the players were all American imports? They played well enough to make the point: Canada belongs in the big leagues. Before terrorism and language laws made Quebec scary; before the Blue Jays provided an alternative; before the lackluster 1976 Olympics extinguished the last sparkle of Expo 67; before the grind of free trade eroded national optimism into regional bickering, Canada loved the Expos. The Expos were our team.

Now, owned by the league and ready to be sold to the highest bidder, they are no one's team. I haven't watched an Expos game in a decade, and, judging by the team's recent home attendance, neither has anyone else. The Expos attracted an average of just 9,356 fans to Montreal's Olympic Stadium last year, fewer than any other team in the majors by almost 7,000, and only a few thousand more than even the lowly Aberdeen IronBirds of the New York-Penn Class A minor league can expect on any given night. The Expos played in one of the most vibrant cities on the continent; the IronBirds' hometown is literally a backwater, right at the head of Chesapeake Bay in northern Maryland. It's also just over an hour's drive from Washington, DC, where, of course, the Expos are headed just as fast as Major League Baseball (MLB) can take them.

The Expos played their last game in Montreal on September 29, 2004 (appropriately, they went down to the Marlins 9-1), but we lost interest in their efforts years before. So perhaps it's not surprising that when MLB announced the team's departure, the official farewell to Montreal amounted to little more than the press-release equivalent of an extended middle finger. And it wasn't just local fans who got the brush-off. "The baseball staff are all going [to Washington] because they're American," says a stoic Monique Giroux, the Expos' erstwhile director of media relations and services, who joined the team as a student in 1968 and never left. "The administrative staff are all Canadian, and we haven't been invited." It's been years since Canada lost the cheery national optimism that made it easy to love the Expos; the baseball team is just finally catching up.

By any measure, the Expos are one of the hottest properties in sports. Baseball is resurgent in the US, due largely to a recent run of exciting World Series and home run derbies. The Expos are expected to sell for upwards of $400 million us, easily tripling the $120 million us that the league paid for the team just three years ago. Municipal interest in attracting the team was high enough to sustain MLB commissioner Bud Selig on what one cranky commentator dubbed a "traveling extortion road show," pressing city fathers from Puerto Rico to Las Vegas to Monterrey, Mexico, for lavish tribute: a new stadium for the team and the promise of risk-free profits into the future. And Washington, DC-the largest US market currently without a team, and home to more luxury-box-expensing lawyers, politicians and lobbyists than a dozen San Juans-outdid them all.

Au revoir, Montreal. Hello, Chocolate City. And you know what? I might just get interested in the Expos again. I've been living in Washington for the past four years, and it'll be kind of nice to have a hometown team. The District of Columbia has a long and distinguished professional baseball history, most notably with the American League Senators, founded in 1901, and the segregated Negro National League Grays, who played home games in Washington starting in 1937. But the city has been without a team since the Senators-preferring the whiff of oil profits to the smoke of race riots-decamped for Texas thirty-three years ago. One aspiring ownership group has taken as its optimistic slogan "returning the national pastime to the nation's capital," but baseball and the Expos are arriving to an uncertain embrace.

Washington and Montreal could not be more different. One is the capital of the United States, but possesses little innate character beyond the thin strip of official buildings and monuments that ring the National Mall; a bigger Regina with better museums. The other is the capital of nothing, but easily manages to be one of the most distinct cities on the continent. Any players who have grown accustomed to the gut-straining satisfactions of a Montreal smoked meat sandwich will find themselves sorely disappointed with DC's closest equivalent, the half-smoke sausage (a bigger hot dog, essentially, with more gristle). And if the citizens of Montreal proved to be lukewarm supporters of professional baseball, some of their counterparts in DC are downright hostile.

Take James Raymond Woodland, an intense man with tight cornrows, a greying goatee and the angry energy of Relic from The Beachcombers. Woodland is pissed off, and today of all days that really took some doing. He is a baseball fan, a fact made excessively clear by his leather jacket, nearly every inch of which is obscured by the clashing, garish logos of all thirty major league baseball teams. (The Expos can be found nestled in the left armpit.) More specifically, he is a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox (mid right arm), who won the World Series just the night before for the first time in eighty-six years. All of Red Sox Nation is jubilant, but Woodland's mood is as ugly as his jacket. "We don't need no baseball team down here," he says. "We need a hospital, we need some public works, we need to get a lot of things fixed down here, but we don't need no baseball."

We're standing just outside of Washington's city council chambers, a few hours into what is widely regarded as the most contentious public hearing in this combative city's history. The complaints will stretch on until two in the morning, lasting more than sixteen hours without ever straying too far from Woodland's central theme: the city's proposed deal with baseball is a stinker.

DC is planning to issue bonds and raise business taxes to pay for the new stadium, while signing over all the potential profit-from naming rights to hot dog sales-to the team's eventual owner. The result, says critic after critic, is that DC's (majority black, frequently poor) residents are getting ripped off to guarantee the profits of baseball's (lily white, universally wealthy) owners. Those living in the Southeast Washington neighbourhood proposed for the new stadium will be priced out of their homes-to say nothing of the ballpark-and denied essential services so that millionaire athletes can perform in a state-of-the-art arena. "We been here all our lives," says Woodland, who lives in Southeast, "but they don't want us here. The prejudice, man, it just really gets me down. They pushing the people out for baseball."

He has a point. Mayor Anthony Williams, a major booster of baseball's move to DC, has been trying to rewrite the demographics of central Washington. The stadium's proposed site is in a modestly derelict zone of light industry and scattered housing along the Anacostia River. Just a mile or two from the heart of official Washington, the area has been crying for redevelopment for years. Williams hopes that a new baseball stadium will provide an opportunity to add the area to his growing list of no-longer-scary DC neighbourhoods.

The District (as residents refer to the city) is perennially listed among the most popular tourist destinations in the US, but the city itself gets relatively little benefit from the influx of visitors. They come for the museums and monuments clustered around the central National Mall, and rarely stray into the city proper with their fanny packs and Red State dollars. Traditionally, this was because of the large numbers of bums, muggers, crack freaks and crazy people who seem naturally to congregate in the shadows of American government. Williams has been pushing hard to rehabilitate the central city in order to make it more welcoming for visitors, including redeveloping core neighbourhoods and moving homeless shelters closer to the city limits. (Then again, given the heartland's propensity to vote Republican and the twin facts that DC voted 90 percent Democratic in the recent presidential election and also happens to be America's murder capital, the new, cleaner DC might actually be even more dangerous for Midwestern interlopers.)

Most modern politicians have been accused of acting like crackheads at one time or another. Washington is the only city I know of that has a former mayor who really was one. But many District residents think that Marion Barry-who famously protested, "The bitch set me up" when he was caught taking hits off a crack pipe in 1990-makes a lot of sense when he calls the stadium financing deal "the biggest stickup since Jesse James and his great train robbery." Williams, who has wrestled DC back from the bankruptcy and chaos of the Barry years, says that he's "thrilled that the American game is rounding third and heading for the nation's capital."

Other than a weakness for mediocre metaphors, the two men don't have much in common, and you'd think that Williams would get the support on reputation alone. Aspiring local sports heroes, take note: loyalty in DC doesn't work the way it does elsewhere. Despite his narcotic dabbling, Barry was just re-elected to city council. And even though both men are African-American, Williams is regularly slammed for not being "black enough."

Criticism like that is symptomatic of a larger issue: the District's growing racial tension. It is getting hard to ignore the kids throwing rocks when my fiancée and I-as pale a couple as any you'd find in Scandinavia-bicycle through black neighbourhoods. But it's also hard to ignore the tanning salons that seem to be popping up alongside the new luxury condos in the same areas. With an African-American population of 60 percent, DC is still Chocolate City, but there's a thick layer of vanilla suburb stretching out for miles in every direction. And ever since the first Clinton administration brought a fresh crew of urban adventurers to town in 1993, the vanilla has been swirling further into DC's core with each passing year, bringing sky-high real estate prices in its wake. Baseball's detractors are furious about the Expos' lease deal, which starts at $3.5 million us per year and inches up to a ceiling of just $5.5 million us over the next five years. My rent-yes, I'm part of the vanilla swirl-jumped 33 percent this year and 20 percent last year. Childless, slothful and burdened with more books than I'll ever read, I'm not as upset about DC's notoriously underfunded schools, libraries and recreation facilities as many residents are, but I sure could use some of baseball's rent control.

Even the name of the new team has sparked racial division. Until MLB neatly blocked the controversy in late November, the city was divided into two camps. The first supported a return to the Senators, the traditional moniker of DC major league baseball franchises. But in a city where outrage over the lack of representation in the US Senate is increasingly seen as a racial issue, many people thought that another tradition would be more apropos. Before desegregation of the majors, the Washington Grays were a Negro leagues powerhouse. Choosing that name would have been a marketing coup, instantly making the Washington team's jerseys and caps the most sought-after in baseball. But highlighting that version of the city's-and the country's-history proved too much for the timid MLB, which inspired no one with yet another historical choice: the Nationals. The name has been kicked around for more than a century, being affixed to DC teams in at least three different leagues even before the dawn of the twentieth century. The American League club that would become the Senators tried to use the Nationals sobriquet as well, but fans simply refused to accept the name, adopting other nicknames until the team finally caved and officially renamed itself the Senators in 1956. But even by choosing the name that no one wanted, MLB wasn't able to quell the controversy-the team's cap will sport the old Senators' white script "W," but there is nary a nod to the Grays.

None of this is to say that the Expos won't find plenty of support in the Washington area, no matter how high the ticket prices soar. DC's commuter class, who flow into the city in a great khaki river every day from as far away as West Virginia, will supply more than enough bureaucratic Sitzfleisch to fill all the cheap seats. And c'mon, when the newly re-elected president is an old baseball owner, you can bet that every influence peddler in town is trying to figure out who to call to get as many luxury box seats as the contractors can build.

At the time of writing, the outcry of resistance to DC baseball had largely simmered down to resentment and political bickering on the city council. But it's a safe bet the team formerly known as the Expos will indeed play its home opener in DC next spring. And Woodland, almost certainly, won't be there. "Hey, look, I love baseball," he says, taking his monstrous jacket through an abbreviated runway turn to emphasize the point. "The Expos, they all right, they good. But go to games? I can't do that. I've got family up in there, and they're getting hurt by this thing. It's not about the need, it's about the greed, and I can't give them no revenue."

Woodland is right, of course. But while I'm moved by his true believer's conviction, I probably will go to a game or two-not to greet the new team, but to say goodbye to the old one. And you can bet I'll be wearing an Expos cap. How else will the other expats and sentimentalists know that I too remember when the summers were longer and the future seemed limitless?

Leaving the city council chambers well before the sixteen-hour venting has run its course, I stop another DC baseball fan. He's a small man, white, middle-aged with anxious eyes and thick ears poking out uncomfortably from beneath another nostalgic cap: the vintage red and white Washington Senators reproduction that has become the emblem of the local pro-baseball crowd. He's friendly, but declines to give his name. Learning that I'm writing for a Montreal-based magazine, he blanches, remarkably, an even lighter shade of pale. "Oh gosh, they don't see us as trying to take something that belongs to them, do they?" he asks. "I mean, the team was already leaving, right?"

It might have been nice to feel a little righteous indignation, to say we were being robbed of our team. But it isn't true-it hasn't been true for a long time. And maybe that's a good thing. When it comes to sports metaphors, after all, we can sustain belief only in those we truly need. If the Expos once made a convenient stand-in for Canada's brimming optimism, so too are they becoming powerfully linked to the deep divisions in
what Americans call their National Capital Area. Canadians may mourn the loss of our national naïveté and of our once-beloved Expos, but maybe we've overcome the need for symbolic reassurance that we are, in fact, playing in the same league as
the Americans. "It's okay," I reassure my nameless chum, resisting the desire to point out that Washington needs them more than we do. "We had them for thirty-five years. It's your turn now."