The coup de grâce – September 29, 2004
Things were so bad in that final year in Montreal that I’m surprised they found enough working trucks to haul everything down to Washington in time for the start of the 2005 season. Fardi Rushdi – Bleacher Report
As ball games go, the final major league game ever played in Montreal ended early; as memories go, it produced a moment of baseball history in the city that still resonates today.
There was something poetically just about the way the day began. After months and years of speculation, team president Tony Tavares finally made it official on the morning of this last day. “I am here today,” he announced from his perch in Olympic Stadium, “to confirm the movement of the franchise from Montreal to Washington.” It really was all over – except for the crying.
When 31,395 fans poured into Olympic Stadium that night, the largest crowd of the year, they came to mourn, and to say goodbye – and for some, to vent their anger one last time. The foes were, once again, the Florida Marlins, a nemesis that just added to the melancholy of the moment. Manager Robinson, for whatever reason, either because he wasn’t aware of the significance of the occasion, or quite possibly, because he didn’t care, sent out a lineup of mostly second-string players the fans barely knew and quickly forgot. By the fifth inning the Marlins had established a 9-1 lead. Leaving little of anything to cheer about.
The winning pitcher was a ghostly reminder of the past in Carl Pavano, part of the trade that sent Pedro Martinez to Boston. Pavano improved his record to 18-8. Sun-Woo Kim took the loss, dropping to 4-6. The only bright light for Montreal was Juan Rivera who managed three hits, one of which drove home Tony Batista with the Expos’ lone run, and another, the last hit by an Expo at the Big Owe.
At some point during the middle innings fans became restless and several golf balls were thrown on the field. The umpires called time and issued a warning as Robinson summoned his players back to the dugout. For a few moments tension threatened to spill over onto the field and it seemed the game might be cancelled. But with the help of some timely music over the loudspeakers, including John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, and some heroic cheerleading by Expos mascot Youppi atop the Expos’ dugout, order was restored and the game moved ahead. When officially at 10.01 p.m. Terrmel Sledge popped out to former Expo Mike Mordecai behind third base for the final out of the final, final game, it was all over.
Now came the hard part: saying good-bye. This turned out to be a much tougher exercise than the players expected and much tougher than the fans anticipated. No one wanted to leave, at least not until the tears stopped flowing. Livan Hernandez thanked the fans in Spanish, Jamey Carroll who, as Stephanie Myles has written, became a major leaguer in Montreal at the age of 30 and was still in the Show a decade later, spoke in English, and an overwrought Claude Raymond in French. “I said a few words in French,” recalled Raymond in an interview with the Globe and Mail, “and Wilkerson grabbed me and said ‘I love you and I love these people.’ What the hell am I supposed to do? So I started crying. Then he looked at me and he started crying so I grabbed him and both of us were going. I feel like he’s my son, this kid.”[i]
They were not alone in their tears. As one by one the players came out from the clubhouse to signal their appreciation, it became evident there was not a dry eye in the house, literally. Seldom in history have there been more grown men at a sporting event weeping inconsolably on the shoulders of their loved ones than were present at Olympic Stadium on this night. “My father brought me to the Expos when I was a kid,” they would sob, in one language or another, “and I will never have the chance to do that with my kids.”
“It was kind of overwhelming, really,” said Frank Robinson following the game. “The reception makes it tougher to move on. It’s like you want to stand still right now and savour the moment because you know when you walk out of this ballpark tonight it’ll be for the last time. A lot of the players are in no rush to leave.”[ii]
But then, in due course, it truly was the last time. As the stadium authorities slowly turned down the lights, one by one we all went home.
Of course, the baseball season was not over; even the Expos had to play out the three matches still remaining, against the Mets at Shea Stadium. Perhaps propelled by the euphoria-induced hangover from the night before, Montreal took the first two games, 4–2 behind pitcher John Rauch, and 6–3 on Brad Wilkerson’s 32nd home run of the year, a three-run blast in the top of the ninth. It was the last four-bagger struck by a player wearing an Expos jersey. The season ended with the Mets winning convincingly, 8–1, on Sunday, October 3. It seemed only fitting that Montreal should lose to the Mets in the last game they will ever play: back on April 8, 1969, in the Expos’ first game that counted for something, Nos Amours defeated the Mets in that same Shea stadium 11–10, setting in motion a whole new baseball adventure for Canada.
So who failed whom? The Major League Baseball industry says the fans are to blame. The fans point the finger at club management and too-tight pockets; the players were tired of playing to a sea of empty seats – and Gerry Snyder, the city councillor whose determination brought the team to town in the first place, looked to his old bosses at city hall. “It’s disappointing to me that they haven’t had the full support of the City of Montreal, and I’m talking from the mayor down.” Snyder, who passed away in 2007, was reflecting on the club as it was preparing to leave. “The team brings in tourist dollars, it brings in tax money…and it provides entertainment for the population and gives them something to be proud of.”[iii]
Benoit Aubin, writing in Maclean’s magazine, pointed to proponents of the downtown stadium: “I stopped going to the ballpark because the Expos told me to stop going. They’ve been very stupid, quite often. Claude Brochu wanted a new stadium downtown. In a weird marketing pitch, he convinced everyone the Big Owe was a rotten venue for baseball. I decided to wait for the new digs. They never came, I never went back…”[iv] The Globe and Mail’s Stephen Brunt also turned his eye toward the owners, every one of them from 1991 on. “The truth is that in any sport, in any business, if you don’t care about your customers and tell them so, if you peddle a product that requires hope as one ingredient then squeeze out every last drop, the market is bound to die…the fans weren’t stupid in Montreal, nor were they masochists. They had limits.”[v]
The Gazette’s Quebec affairs columnist Don Macpherson plunged into the debate by blaming everyone but the fans; congratulating them for not capitulating to the pressures of Big Business Baseball when tempted to do so. “Those of us without an interest in the Expos – which, to judge from recent attendance figures, is almost all of us – should be relieved that after years of promises, Major League Baseball is finally dragging the stinking, long-dead carcass of local baseball out of town. We should be not only relieved, but grateful and, yes, even proud.” Jack Todd applied a similar Gatling gun approach in his analysis of what went wrong, concluding with a comment from Tony Tavares that he (Tavares) could imagine baseball returning to Montreal in 30 years time, as it did in Washington. To this Todd responded, “The question is: Why would anyone want it?”
Manager Frank Robinson, whom many felt had turned his back on the Expos and their fans, was gracious in his parting comments, focusing on the positive. “I think there were a lot more good times than bad times. This is where an expansion ball club grew into one of the best organizations in baseball at one time, and it’s sad…the way it is going out now.”[vi]
A Gazette editorial said it best: “There’s ample blame to go around; it wasn’t so much the failure to build a downtown stadium as it was the failure to find a downtown owner, so to speak, a Bronfman-like owner with deep pockets and a willingness to lose millions. Let’s be frank. Making baseball work in Montreal was never easy from Day 1: the new economics just made things all that much more difficult.” In this regard the editorial notes that the payroll disparity between the New York Yankees and the Expos in 2004 was $142 million – $183 million for the Yanks against just $41 million in Montreal.[vii] Revenue sharing was in the offing, but when it came it was too late to help.
Expos broadcaster Elliott Price called the final out of the final game on October 3. He repeated it on air sometime later: “A throw to first, and the Expos are history – from 1969 to 2004. We’ll be back.” He then closed his microphone, and “then we went to commercial.”
And with every passing year there are more and more fans who believe that those last words spoken by Price were prophetic, that indeed, someday, as he said, “We’ll be back.”
END-NOTES”: Death by a thousand cuts
[i] Larry Millson, “Expos make their final out,” The Globe and Mail, Toronto, October 4, 2004.
[ii] Stephanie Myles, “31,395 say goodbye Montreal,” The Gazette, Montreal September 30, 2004.
[iii] “Snyder has idea why team failed,” Canadian Press in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Sept. 29, 2004
[iv] Benoit Aubin, “Bye-bye to the Big Owe,” Maclean’s, October 11, 2004
[v] Stephen Brunt, “Washington exposed as not such a great home for Senators,” The Globe and Mail, Toronto, October 1, 2004.
[vi] Jack Todd, “A dream is laid to rest in our Field of Condos,” The Gazette, Montreal, Sept. 29, 2004.
[vii] “Montreal Expos: 1969-2004,” Editorial in the The Gazette, Montreal September 30, 2004
Bill’s book is entitled Ecstasy to Agony: the 1994 Montreal Expos – how the best team in baseball ended up in Washington 10 years later, by Danny Gallagher and Bill Young. It is available in Hudson at Pure Art and on the West Island at Clio and in the city of Montreal at Paragraphe – and at Chapters/Indigo/Coles stores everywhere…And from me! Just send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org/ for more information.