My brother Marty had attended over 1,300 Expos games going back to 1975, two years before the club moved from Jarry Park to the “Big O”. He’d collected all his ticket stubs in a small cardboard box. When someone would question his claim to being the team’s biggest fan, he’d trot out the carton and pour its contents onto the coffee table.
“There’s one missing. Blue Monday,” he would note, referring to Monday, October 19, 1981, when the Los Angeles Dodger’s middling talent Rick Monday hit a two-out homer in the ninth, denying the “’Spos” a trip to the World Series. “It’s the only one I didn’t keep. I can’t bear to be reminded of that damn game.”
Twenty-three years later, on the evening of September 29, 2004, Marty and I and were at the Montreal Expos final home game. The franchise was moving to Washington DC the next year, after a decade of sagging fan support and frequent rumblings of a sale that would deliver the team stateside.
We arrived early to watch batting practice and settled into bleachers seats with a plastic cup of Molson Ex in each hand. The crowd soon began streaming in, carrying hastily-written signs that declared undying love for “Nos Amours” and spoke of broken hearts. Attendance would climb to over 31,000 by game time, more than three times the average attendance that year. Most of the fans had bought tickets just prior to the game, only hours after the media confirmed the team’s impending departure.
“Where were all you sons of bitches when we needed you?” Marty said under his breath, his eyes sweeping across the stands.
His grumbling was overheard by a fat man a row in front of us, who turned and raised his beer in sympathy. He was wearing an original Expos cap with the undecipherable logo and the converging red, white and blue triangles.
“I was here,” he said proudly.
“Oh yeah?” said Marty. “Well, I’ve been to over 1,300 games, pal. And I got every ticket stub to prove it.”
“Except one,” I interjected.
“Right,” Marty said. He sat back and folded his arms, his point secured. “All of them except the one I tore up.”
The fat man in the throwback cap nodded appreciatively. “Glad to meet a real fan. Tell me something. Have you always sat in the bleachers, or did you have season tickets? I don’t recall ever seeing you before.”
Marty was affronted. “I always sat with the people, friend. Do I look like some sort of businessman-seat fan?” He turned his face to show the fat man his left and right profile.
The fat man’s eyes narrowed. “You look alright to me,” he said. “Tell me something. That ticket you ripped up?...”
He didn’t have to finish. Marty knew what the fat man was going to ask and nodded solemnly.
The fat man sighed. “October 19, 1981. Had to be.”
“Blue Monday.” Marty offered his hand and introduced himself. “Tom,” said the other, clasping Marty’s hand between both of his and squeezing consolingly.
The Expos took the field and began tossing balls around to warm up their arms. On the mound, pitcher Sun-Woo Kim, normally a middle reliever, unleashed a mix of convincing fastballs and tailing pitches. He looked ready.
But Marty had misgivings. “Why are they giving the start to some Korean relief pitcher who’s only been with the team for a year? They could have put in someone with a little more history with the club for the last home game!”
The first inning saw little action – little that I saw, anyway. A casual sports fan, my attention was only briefly on the play below and largely on the crowd. The sight of thousands of people captivated by a ball game, reacting to each play, fascinated me. I couldn’t understand why so many human beings invested so much emotion in the fortunes of a sports team. I always felt out of step at sporting events.
The Marlins scored four runs in the second inning and the fans grew somber. They had come with one last hope: to see the Expos leave town on a win. Now it looked like even that would be taken from them.
But Marty still had faith. “They’ll come back,” he said when I remarked on the distracted look of the fielders as they slumped back to the dugout. “Let’s order some more beer and get in the spirit of this thing. Make some noise, damn it!”
“Fucking right!” said Tom. “This game is just getting started.” Marty ordered four more beers from a roaming vendor.
They were a couple degrees above warm and a few dozen bubbles shy of flat.
“How can they charge six bucks for this piss?” I grumbled.
“You want a cold one, you can walk half a mile to the concession,” Marty snapped.
I shut up and drank my beer, and tried to focus on the game. Given Marty’s mood it looked like it would be a long night. It didn’t help matters when the Marlins added a run in the top of the third. But when the Expos scored a run in the fourth inning, Marty came round.
“Here we go,” he said. “Something to build on.”
The crowd came alive. In the upper deck, they started doing the wave, which only rippled at first but soon caught on and rolled around the stadium again and again.
“That’s…more like…it,” said Tom when it finally ended. He was breathless and sweating after struggling out of his seat and throwing his arms in the air a half dozen times.
As the fans waved pennants and chanted “Let’s Go Expos, Let’s Go,” Marty was suddenly overcome with goodwill.
“They’re really not so bad,” he said. “If fucking management hadn’t traded away all our best players year after year, there would have been 30,000 fans here every game.” He downed the last of his beer and punched me on the shoulder. “I’m going to the can. “I’ll bring back some cold ones from the stand.”
In his way, Marty was apologizing for his earlier abruptness. I might have said thanks, but the pain and mounting numbness in my arm made me feel somewhat disinclined.
Marty returned between the fifth and sixth inning with a grim look on his face. He’d seen the Marlins score four more runs while waiting in line for beer and watching the monitor.
“Looks like a blowout,” I said.
“I don’t want it all to end like this,” Tom said glumly.
Marty handed me two beers, sat down and said nothing. He said nothing during the sixth inning too, during which he pounded back his two beers and looked more and more despondent. He bought another beer from the vendor at the start of the seventh, and finished it as the crowd rose for the “stretch” between the top and bottom of the inning.
While the fans sang a sombre rendition of “Valderi Valdera he remained defiantly in his seat. Then, weaving, he stood for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” I could hear him singing softly beside me: “Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack, I don’t care…”
I looked over. He was wiping a tear from his cheek.
“It’s alright, brother,” I said.
“I can’t take any more,” he blubbered and got up suddenly. He hurried down the row, bumping knees with annoyed fans, spilling beer and peanuts in his wake. Then he disappeared down the aisle steps.
“He’s taking it hard,” said Tom. “Good thing hockey season starts soon.” “Yeah.”
Marty didn’t return for the bottom of the seventh and remained missing throughout the eighth. I became concerned.
I thought about going to look for him but quickly dismissed it. It would be almost impossible to find him in the massive dome, if he wasn’t already halfway home on the Metro. I decided to stay until the end of the game. If he showed, fine. If he didn’t, I’d always be able to say I saw the final out of the Expos last game at Olympic Stadium, while he, their “biggest fan,” had left.
There was no scoring in the ninth. With the last out of the game – a pop-up by left fielder Terrmel Sledge – the crowd rose and gave the home team a last standing ovation. The Expos players and coaches came out of the dugout and waved goodbye. Then the ovation suddenly turned to cheering as a fan jumped onto the field near third base and started running towards home plate.
“Hey, isn’t that your friend?” asked Tom, pointing to the Jumbotron. I turned to the giant screen in centre field and saw Marty in full flight, running the third-base line, dodging security guards and side-stepping a player being interviewed for TV. The crowd went wild with every feint and spin he used to evade his pursuers on his desperate bid for home plate.
“Boy’s got some moves!” Tom shouted.
“Jesus,” I said, scarcely able to believe what I was seeing.
With a final burst of speed and a headlong dive, Marty slid into home. The crowd was delirious. At last the fans had something to cheer about; they had their last hurrah. They booed as the gaurds grabbed Marty under the arms and lifted him off the ground. As he was being led away, Marty smiled and waved to the spectators, which started them cheering all over again. Hurrying to beat the crush that would soon fill the corridors, I sidled quickly past the fans in the row and jogged down the aisle steps. There was an usher standing in the tunnel to the corridor. I approached him and asked where I could find Marty – “The guy who jumped on the field. They took him away.”
The usher told me not to worry. “They’ll just give him a warning and let him go,” he said.
I relaxed and fell in with the crowd snaking through the concrete hallway. A few minutes later I was outside, inhaling the cool autumn night. I made for the Metro, hoping to beat Marty to the bar and tell the gang about his heroics so they could cheer him when he came in. Stealing home plate at the Expos last game at Olympic Stadium… It would be a story for the ages.
But Marty was waiting outside the metro entrance, grinning cockily, a case of twelve in his hand. His clothes and face were smeared with red clay dust.
“I hope you saw that,” he said.
“I sure as hell did,” I said and threw my arms around him. “Do you know if the game was televised?” he asked. “No one will believe it otherwise.”
“Yes, they will,” I assured him, brushing the dust from his shoulder. “I’m a witness. Come on, let’s go before the metro is packed. If we hurry we’ll be at the bar before midnight.”
Marty shook his head. “Nah, let’s walk. I need some time to take it all in. What a night, eh?” He looked at the stars directly overhead.
“What do you mean, walk? Very funny.” I was sure Marty was kidding.
“Look – I bought a dozen beers at the dep.” He put his arm around my neck and pulled me along, away from the metro doors. “Let’s down a few and I’ll tell you the rest of the story.”
I reluctantly fell into step and we headed west, going home. A long walk couldn’t hurt. Besides, it was Marty’s night. I’d let him call the shots. He gave me a beer and we turned onto a side street, where we could drink with out worrying about getting rousted by the cops.
“So what happened when they dragged you off the field?”
“Three security guards escorted me to the elevator. When we were inside, two of them held my arms and the third, a beefy French prick, punched me in the gut. It didn’t hurt but I gave a good groan anyway and slumped in the corner so they’d leave me alone. I told them I was from Toronto and didn’t know any better. The big guy rolled his eyes, like that explained my stupid behaviour. As he pushed me out of the elevator he said, ‘Hosti, stupide Blue Jays fan. Go home!’”
We wandered and drank, spoke little and three hours later arrived at the Westmount underpass leading to St. Henri beneath the train tracks. Beside the tunnel was a billboard with an old ad from the last federal election, Paul Martin’s grinning image above the entreaty “Vote Liberal.”
Marty stopped suddenly and eyed the sign some thirty metres away. He drained the last of his beer, then rocked back and launched the bottle towards the billboard. It flew straight and true, and with a whack drove neck-first between the prime minister’s eyes and stuck there.
I was stunned. “That’s the greatest throw I’ve ever seen.”
“I always hated that prick,” said Marty.