The extraordinary past—and possible future—of major league baseball in Montreal
I attended the very first home opener of the Montreal Expos, and for the next decade I never missed another. From 1969 to 1981, when I left my hometown for New York, I saw them all—a better attendance record, albeit more easily accomplished, than I had managed at any of my other schools. For the first eight years, the home openers, always in a wintry Montreal April, were played outdoors in Jarry Park: small banks of weary snow, crusted with black grime, ran right around the warning track in the outfield. Later, the games took place in the endlessly maligned Olympic Stadium, where the snow floated in through the vast hole above centre field; eventually, the “retractable” roof got stuck in place, hovering sadly in the air.
To say that I loved the Expos hardly describes it. The first piece of mine to be published in The New Yorker, the great event of my professional life, was about them—about the (invented) difficulties of being an art historian, as I was pretending to become then, and an Expos fan. In fact, I shut my eyes, and I think, God help me, that I can actually summon that opening-day lineup from forty-five years past. Let me try (no googling or post hoc emendation, I promise): first base, Bob Bailey; second base, Gary Sutherland; shortstop, Bobby Wine; third base, Coco Laboy; right field, Rusty Staub; centre field, someone like Don Hahn; left field, Mack Jones; catcher, John Bateman; pitcher, Mudcat Grant. How did I do? Let me see…not too badly, though it is strange I forgot it was Maury Wills—the only original Expo who had any kind of shot at the Hall of Fame—who actually started at shortstop. Strange and perhaps significant: I edit out their small chance at excellence, because we didn’t really ask that the Expos be excellent. They were merely special, in ways that I suspect the far more successful teams—I almost wrote “franchises”—were not.
When they died in 2004, ten years ago this October, and found a new life as the Washington Nationals, the part of me that took its identity from baseball died too, and left me with little love for the game. (I have never been out to the new Citi Field in New York, and only once to the new Yankee Stadium.) Not long ago, I learned that there was a movement—an actual, credible-sounding push, fronted by one-time Expos first baseman Warren Cromartie—to bring the team back to Montreal, just as the Jets came back to Winnipeg. It got me thinking about the Expos, and what they meant to me, and to Montreal. I realized that my love for the city I still think of as my hometown, and some other, more complicated things about my adolescence and my relationship with my father and family, were, weirdly enough, tied up in my feelings about this lost ball club. I went out and talked to people who knew truths about the Expos that I did not.
What made the Expos special? First, and most important, it was their look, their logo. Jerry Seinfeld said, memorably and accurately, that when we root for pro sports teams we’re really rooting for clothes, since the players have no real connection to the teams, and they change allegiances at the flick of an additional zero. But to say that we are rooting for laundry is to say, in another sense, that we are rooting for flags. Team colours—the Dodgers blue, the Yankees pinstripe, even the Maple Leafs maple leaf—are the heraldry of the cities in which they play. Since cities are the largest unit for which we can credibly claim the emotions—love, attachment, patriotism—that nationalists annex to nations, the laundry our hired athletes wear assumes an outsize symbolic importance. The uniforms of teams become the flags of towns.
All of this to say, simply, that the Expos had a great flag. Their tricoloured uniform and cap—red, white, and blue in neat pinwheeling form—remain hugely popular to this day, long after their demise. A circus cap, a bowling team logo—everything that was said against it was part of what gave it charm. It was the rare heraldic symbol that refused to take itself entirely seriously. And yet, truth be told, from a pure design perspective it wasn’t all that hot. It was a kind of triple pun: a stylized evocation of a ball and glove, which also spells out M-B-E, perhaps indicating “Montreal,” “Baseball,” and “Expos,” but also seeming to suggest C-B, the initials of Charles Bronfman, the majority owner and Seagram heir. Still, the logo didn’t have to be articulate to be affecting. Whatever it meant, it meant Montreal.
The team’s colours were the same as those of the Canadiens: Montreal, like Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine, was a planet with two suns, and the Habs were always much the brighter. But where the Canadiens’ colours evoked turn-of-the-century amateur athletic clubs, on the Expos they had a pleasingly elementary look, like a kindergarten’s collective ideal of a baseball cap. The Expos always acted as the happy-go-lucky younger brother to the Habs’ grim older one, burdened as the Canadiens were with the eldest sibling’s duty to win, and win again. The Habs were serious; the Expos were not.
In those days, the Habs were more of a church than a club. Tickets to the Forum were as hard won as tickets to an audience with the Pope, and the atmosphere inside the arena was quiet, brutal, and expectant. I still recall, having somehow found a ticket for a game in 1971, jumping up and down when Claude Larose—Claude Larose!—scored; a man one row back asked me, in French, never to do so again. No one had trouble finding a seat for the Expos, and no one minded when you jumped up and down, even if it was for no reason at all.
And then there was a certain magic to the choice of the name, which was part of the legacy of Expo 67 itself, and redolent with the charm of a certain moment in Montreal history. The hangover of Expo 67 was more than merely positive—Expo was the last great world’s fair, the finale in a great sequence that began in the mid-nineteenth century and briefly turned mercantile cities into celebratory ones. Even in the mid-’70s, the nationalist pop band Beau Dommage could still sing of Expo positively: “En soixante-sept tout était beau / c’était l’année d’l’amour, c’était l’année d’l’Expo / chacun son beau passeport avec une belle photo” (“In sixty-seven everything was aglow / it was the year of love, it was the year of Expo / everyone had a beautiful passport with a beautiful photo”). Everything at Expo worked, and everything was wonderful. The Expos name carried that triumph onto the ball field.
At the time, the city was officially in crisis. The October Crisis itself, of course, took place a year after that opening game, and there was always the slow, creeping sense that the anglophone side of the city was collapsing. Head offices closed; friends fled to Toronto; the English-language Montreal Star would shut down a few years later. Of course, no teenager can ever cheat his own teenage years of a sense of excitement. With that truth told, however, Montreal in those years really was a unique mix of small town and big city. Neatly divided by boulevard Saint-Laurent, the two solitudes nonetheless leaked into each other as much as they rubbed against each other: my younger brothers and sisters, for instance, all went to a French-speaking school. (By a predictable irony, this meant I was the only one who later became a passionate francophile.)
Yet the American cliché of the city as “French” in some MGM-backlot way was wildly misleading: It was no more like Paris than it was like Baltimore. Its special quality was not polished elegance but off-centre eccentricity, and this at a time when most of the great cities of North America were in a decline from which there seemed to be no escape. My own birthplace of Philadelphia had turned desolate; the New York to which I already imagined immigrating was—in movies, at least—a bitter, resistant landscape of steaming manholes and shuttered shops and pornography grind houses.
In that company, Montreal seemed dreamlike even to those who were awake in it. There was a thriving downtown. To shop mooningly in the Ogilvy department store, still Scottish in feeling, with its Christmas windows unchanged in a quarter century, was to feel in touch with the old Empire. To have lunch—which my expensive, old-fashioned girlfriend (now my expensive, old-fashioned wife) loved to do—at Eaton’s, with its ninth-floor recreation of the dining room of the SS Île de France, was to inhabit the kind of happy, bourgeois civilization that had already been atomized in “safe” cities elsewhere. You could also spend a night on rue Saint-Denis, which, though not Parisian, was French, or go to any of the thriving Hungarian cafés, and feel something more than a touristic taste of an older, Middle European culture. A summer night at La Ronde, or a winter morning skiing on Mount Royal—there was a gentleness to Montreal then, which was, I suppose, largely inseparable from its provincialism. (This was true provincialism, that born of a language group enclosed from a larger world; the Québécois provincialism was extended, as much by indifference as benevolence, to the smaller provincialisms, Jewish and Hungarian and Haitian, that it superintended.)
Montreal was what I can only call a naive city. It had a naïveté of tone, an earnestness of spirit, that I still recognize in things from there—Cirque du Soleil to Hugue Dufour’s cooking. What they share is that they have not soured on the simpler kinds of pleasure. It was a sweet place, and even those of us who dreamed of a larger horizon and more varied flavours sensed how sweet it was to live there. The Expos were part of that sweetness.
Against all that charm, my father and I—when we examined the Expos’ roster that first spring, over our usual breakfast of Saint-Viateur sesame bagels, or my mother’s hyper-dense, artery-clogging croissants—had to balance one huge deficit: they were to be managed by Gene Mauch.
Mauch played an outsize role in our family’s baseball heritage and among our family hexes. My father, born and raised in Philadelphia in the ’40s and ’50s, was a baseball fan of a kind that is now fading from existence. For him, a blue-collar kid who became an Ivy League intellectual, baseball was not one game among many but the only game worth watching. Oh, he liked basketball, of the slow, patterned, set-shot variety. (Today, living on a farm in rural Ontario, he is still indignant at the changes in that sport: “That’s travelling!” he says, as some acrobat launches himself from mid-court, dancing three or four steps to the basket.) We enjoyed football together, and he was swept up by the Habs and hockey, though not as entirely or religiously as his son.
Baseball was first among his sports, though, and Gene Mauch had been the sole author of the greatest single disappointment in Phillies history. In September 1964, with the uncharacteristically distinguished Phillies leading the National League by six and a half games with twelve games remaining, Mauch had collapsed under the pressure of a pennant race. He sacrificed his two best pitchers, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, in panicked, short rotation, with predictable results: the Phillies blew the lead, and the pennant, losing ten games in a row. They wouldn’t right it until years later when, in one of those ironies that make Greek tragedy such good reading, they did so at the expense of the Expos, to which my entire family had switched its allegiances.
Why sports played a role second only to politics, and equal only to literature, in my large and strange Jewish-scholarly family is a good question, with an answer so obvious it is not really an answer: every family of our kind was like that. Meeting Philip Roth, my father’s exact contemporary, many years later in New York, I recognized in him the same predilections: as eager to talk about Bernard Malamud and Henry James as any newly minted freshman, as though college had just started weeks ago and he was trembling on the dangerous brink of declaring himself an English major; his eyes lighting up still brighter when the subject turned to the Yankees and Dodgers of the mid-’40s and ’50s. That the entire generation found salvation in English literature and transcendence in North American fandom is strange but consistent.
I wrote once that the genius of a culture resides in those places where people feel safe both joking and not joking, at the same time, about a single subject. My father’s generation was like that about baseball. Sufficiently detached not to take it entirely seriously—and sufficiently knowledgeable about the rapacity of capitalism to be skeptical of every owner’s motives—they still embraced the pleasure of pro sports. It was a common language they could both share with their lower-middle-class relations (and their own fathers, for that matter) and pass on to their kids. Following sports was a way of obtaining the pleasures of patriotism, of belonging, without the corruptions of chauvinism. For a moment, you could share an emotion with several million other people, without either selling out your values or diminishing your hard-earned distance from your own past.
In any event, Mauch was a throwback—the Little General type. He had a kind of hypnotic fascination with a particular kind of bad baseball player, no longer extant: the pasty, small, scrappy white guy with doggedly acquired skills and no particular athleticism, and he brought a couple with him from Philadelphia to Montreal. Still, his version of small ball, dull though it could be, did not alter the beauty of the ballpark. The Jarry Park stadium, intimate and open to the elements, became and remains a landmark of the park itself. A tiny place that seemed to have been folded as origami rather than built by a construction crew, it seated just over 28,000 fans and felt makeshift and minor league, without enclosed bullpens or a deep-set clubhouse. I was sitting there when man landed on the moon—they did a stick animation on the scoreboard to illustrate it.
Here, however, I have a shameful admission to make: though everyone talked in those days about the wonderful sightlines and immediacy of Jarry Park, and I have spoken of them since, I never quite understood it. It turned out that I suffered, unbeknownst to me, from severe myopia; home plate looked a long way away because everything looked a long way away. That no one spotted this may seem strange, but that was the way it was in my, so to speak, oddly focused family, in which you were expected to have an opinion on Nabokov at the dinner table but had to be walking straight into walls, like a nearsighted silent comedian, before anyone thought to check whether you needed glasses. So: I loved Jarry Park, but its legendary, jewel-box dimensions were mostly lost on me. I watched games, I realize now, mostly by feel. It didn’t diminish my enthusiasm. Nothing could.
The team wasn’t much good back then, but that particularly relaxed and high-spirited Montreal way of celebrating their not-much-goodness drew many people to the park. Fans came, of course, but so did out-of-town journalists. Stunned to discover that the language spoken in Montreal was different from the one spoken in New York, and was said to be French, the reporters would also offer a vastly amusing dictionary of baseball terms—the left fielder, hold your sides, is called the voltigeur de gauche! A 1970 Sports Illustrated article announced: “ ‘We do not hope our Expos lose the game tonight,’ a portly fan explained before a recent game the Expos lost to the Cincinnati Reds, ‘but we do not quite expect them to win the game, either. We come out here to have some fun, drink some beer and, of course, to see our Rusty hit the baseball.’ ”
Then the team got good. Mauch was gone by 1975, eventually replaced by the crusty Dick Williams, and, from around 1978 to 1984, when they stupidly traded their all-star catcher Gary Carter to the Mets, they had as good a team, and as good a chance of winning the World Series, as any in baseball. Not just a good team—potentially a great team, better than any that Canada has seen since, with two no-questions-asked Hall of Famers in Carter and Andre Dawson, and a third, Tim Raines, who should be in the Hall. (His unhappy flirtation with cocaine—he would slide headfirst into second to avoid breaking the vial in his back pocket—and his playing with the under-reported-on Expos hurt his chances of induction.) There was also a fine supporting cast, including the multitalented Cromartie, the fine pitcher Steve Rogers, and the sadly forgotten Ellis Valentine, who was ruined, as Raines luckily was not, by the sport’s drug epidemic.
In those years, the supposedly hostile and forbidding Olympic Stadium filled up, averaging more than two million fans each year for around five years—an enormous number back then. Indeed, far from being the mausoleum of legend, Olympic Stadium was a lively, animated place, with fans singing that strange “Valderi, valdera” song and, truly, dancing in the aisles. With my sister Morgan and her husband-to-be, Tom, I went to thirty or forty games each year. (I had written the piece that appeared in The New Yorker for them, a few years earlier, as a wedding present.) We even had a family softball team that played up on the McTavish Reservoir against another anglophone family whose names, weirdly, we never knew or demanded, but who showed up reliably, Sunday after Sunday, over some three summers. Montreal was like that, then.
The key, saddening question all Expos fans ask is: Why did they miss? And they did miss, never making the World Series and only once playing in the National League Championship Series. There were internal issues—their starting pitching, Rogers aside, was never quite as solid as you might like; the track meet–running game they played, thrilling though it was to watch, was an inefficient way to operate an offence—but mostly they suffered from plain bad luck. That was never more true than on “Blue Monday,” the 1981 October playoff game in which, with the National League Championship Series tied at two games each (they played best-of-five in that period) and the Expos at home, Rick Monday, batting for the not-terribly-frightening Los Angeles Dodgers, hit a late home run off Steve Rogers, who had been awkwardly pressed into relief.
Manager Jim Fanning’s decision to have Rogers pitch in the ninth instead of going to either of two relievers—Jeff Reardon or Bill Lee—standing in the bullpen bewildered Expos lovers then, and bewilders them now. As Jonah Keri relates in his fine, sad, well-reported history of the team, Up, Up, and Away, the ever-direct Lee never had any doubt that he could have done the job: “I tapped my hat, and he brought in Rogers. He gets the first two guys, lefty’s coming up, and Fanning leaves him in. Monday ain’t gonna hit me. I’m gonna throw him a fastball, then he’s gonna foul it off his foot. I’m gonna throw him another fastball, then he’s gonna foul it off again. I’m gonna throw him a breaking ball away, he’s gonna wave at it, inning over.…Fanning, he can’t pull the trigger. He has a really nice gun, but he’s got no fuckin’ bullets in it.”
The post-mortem of that inning never ends for Expos fans, but we tend to forget that the series was, after all, tied at two-two, and a Dodger victory was hardly impossible. The truth is the Expos were just unlucky. We edit out pure luck as a cause in sports, and two whole professions, sports writing and statistical analysis, exist to explain exactly why and how things happen as they do. But a whole profession of stock pickers exists, too, and they have been shown time and again to be no more proficient at picking stocks than a chimp throwing darts at the quote pages. We consistently underrate the role of chance, of what just happens, in sports, as we do in life. The Expos, as nearsighted as I was, kept walking into walls.
I watched the Blue Monday game from a basement apartment in Manhattan, about thirty blocks away from the office building where I met Charles Bronfman, the Expos owner through those years, a few months ago. Even Bronfman cannot remember who exactly came up with the Expos logo: “It was a design firm in Toronto and—I can’t recall his name—but he came up with the cap. I showed it to Gene Mauch, and he was shocked. That’s not a major league cap! he said. I said, Gene, it may not be a major league cap, but we’ll sell a million of these things in the first year. And we did. It’s astonishing—the cap is still selling after the team is gone!” Bronfman, now a genial, surprisingly unguarded eighty-three-year-old, lives mostly in New York and Palm Beach, Florida, though he spends “a couple of months in the summer” back in Montreal.
He is frank about what went right, and even more so about what went wrong. “That damn stadium. We were never consulted. We didn’t get a word in about it. I said, Don’t you think that you should be consulting with your primary tenant, who’s going to be in the damn place for the next thirty years, as much as you’re consulting with the Olympic committee, who’ll be in the place for two weeks? But, of course, he”—Jean Drapeau, the mayor of Montreal and the Olympics’ hysterical godfather—“insisted that they had to have room for 80,000 people, or whatever it was. Well, it doesn’t say they all have to be seated, I said. They could stand on one another’s shoulders.” Bronfman laughs abruptly. “Okay, that wasn’t realistic. But a baseball crowd is 30,000, 32,000—not 80,000. We were going to have a half-empty stadium from the start.
“And once the roof was down—well, Montreal is a cold-weather town, and baseball is a pastoral sport. There’s no point in coming out to a ball game unless you can sit out in the summer air. I said to Robert Bourassa, when he was running for premier in 1985, Robert, you’re going to win. Why not just put a package of dynamite under the damn thing and be done with it? Generations of Quebecers will thank you for it. But he couldn’t.”
Bronfman thinks, and most historians agree with him, that the location of the stadium, in Montreal’s largely francophone east end, was essential to the peace of the city; a more lucrative spot downtown, near where the Bell Centre is now, was not politically plausible then. “The nice thing in the good years was how much fun it was, how open-hearted the fans were. They were just happy to be watching baseball,” he continues. “It was nothing like hockey in Montreal, which was so serious. I remember thinking, actually, when this gets serious it won’t be this kind of fun.”
I had assumed that, seen from the owner’s box, the little vagaries and chances that fill a fan’s head would look touchingly unrealistic—that the fan’s conviction of the significance of the small triumphs and disasters of the field would seem, to the sports tycoon, naive. I half-expected Bronfman to subvert my own excited Expos mythology, replacing it with a detached businessman’s view of the inevitabilities of profit and loss and changing entertainment environments.
So I ask him a little shyly if he actually remembers any of those painful season endings. “Remember them? ” he howls. “I recall Blue Monday like it was yesterday.” He leans forward. “We had Steve Rogers pitching—a fine pitcher, but he wasn’t a reliever. Jeff Reardon couldn’t pitch; he was supposedly injured. I can still see the pitch come down and in, and I thought, That’s good! Then Monday swung and I thought, Oh, no, it’s not.
“Would that one pitch really have changed everything? Oh, absolutely. We would certainly have defeated the Yankees in the World Series—they weren’t a strong team that year. I think the Dodgers defeated them in what? Five games? ” It was six, actually. “Had we had that championship, everything would have changed. A World Series championship guaranteed attendance for another three to five years, which would have given us a chance to start a new ballpark.” He shakes his head. “It just stopped being fun. At the beginning, if you had a bad year, you lost, I don’t know, $100,000 or $200,000. Later, it was $10 million. That’s no fun at all.
“I remember when it”—the fun—“ended in ’91. I said to my business partner—you see, we had a date to go to the ball game. We were getting tiny attendances then. I said, Let’s go out to dinner instead of to the ball game, and he said, That’s a good idea. So we went—some Italian restaurant on Metcalfe or the like; I remember you had to walk up a long staircase—and we sat down to dinner and I said, You realize what this means, don’t you? And he said, I do. And we clinked glasses.” He mimes the clink. “And we knew it was over.”
warren Cromartie insists the troubles that plagued the Expos’ final years can all be reversed. “What’s the difference between now and ten years ago? ” he asks, with rehearsed rhetorical energy. “Well, now we have revenue sharing, which we didn’t have ten years ago. Now we have Internet marketing. Now we have a wild-card team, which we didn’t have ten years ago. Now the US and Canadian dollar are comparable. Now we have television and radio markets in two languages, with dedicated sports networks, which we didn’t have ten years ago. Dave Van Horne”—the Expos’ longtime play-by-play guy—“had to do the games from his house, because we had no radio contract. Those things are 360 degrees different now,” he concludes, with more passion than geometric precision.
Two major league exhibition games were played in Montreal back in March (in the aged Olympic Stadium, of course), and they were widely considered a success. Almost 100,000 fans came to watch the games between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets, with the Jays filling in, however awkwardly, as the home team. “Baseball Fever Returns!” was the tabloid Journal de Montréal’s headline. There were tributes to the late Gary Carter, now enshrined in the Hall of Fame in that tricolour cap, and to a couple of surviving Expos, too. The Montreal Baseball Project, the organization that Cromartie fronts, called the games “a grand slam for Montreal.” Though Cromartie is bashful about who exactly the financiers of the “project” are, rumour has it that they include Stephen Bronfman, Charles’s son.
The hurdles remain enormous: People like old-fashioned ballparks, but if the new Expos ever did get into the playoffs, it would be too cold to play in Montreal, given the ridiculous late-fall scheduling of the World Series. Movable or part-time domes do exist—they have one in Arizona, where the parallel problem of summer heat governs the city’s existence, and there is, of course, that one in Toronto—but it would add yet another expense to the already costly business of building a new stadium downtown. Whoever did it would need deep pockets, and it seems unlikely that the provincial government would dip that far. I fear that if the Expos did come back—with the old name and the old logo, both of which now belong to Major League Baseball—they would remain a perpetual source of worry. Montreal is once again a thriving place, but not, in truth, a growing one.
There is a secret, though, about the Expos’ legacy, one that everyone feels but no one acknowledges. It is this: in many ways, the serious Canadiens have become the happy Expos. As I see with some shock, on my family’s annual pilgrimage to the Bell Centre, Habs fans today are more like Expos fans than they are like the Habs fans of the past. The smoking gun pointing to this transformation is the presence of Youppi!, the Expos’ fuzzy orange mascot, whom the Habs have adopted; he would have been as unimaginable at the old Montreal Forum as an oompahpah band. For intensity of attachment, the Bell Centre throng remains one of the best sports crowds in the world—only FC Barcelona and the Pittsburgh Steelers, in my limited experience, command the same degree of attention and regard from their cities—but it has little in common with the old Forum masses. I can recall the rhythms of sound at the Forum perfectly: tight silence for long periods, the sudden exhalation of “Oooh!” with the slice and swish of skates, and even the thud of the puck audible throughout the building—and then the sudden explosion of sound when the Habs scored.
Today, the Bell Centre audience cheers, it sings in unison, and everyone wears a red jersey (few wore Canadiens sweaters to the old games). This is the Jarry Park crowd—passionate, hopeful, high-spirited, more accepting of loss—and the Jarry Park rituals, transferred to a new place. It derives from, or repeats unconsciously, the rites and rituals of Expos fandom, with jubilation at just being present. At a moment when Montreal’s stature as a second city—a provincial capital like Barcelona or Manchester, proud to be the first city of a subculture—has become accepted, even celebrated, it makes sense that the Canadiens have become the Expos. They are Montreal’s soul-team, with close now close enough.
For a long while, I kept all the Expos opening-game ticket stubs as trophies; they’re probably still somewhere in our New York apartment. My sister Morgan is now an ocean scientist, with a Ph.D. from Duke University in North Carolina; her husband, Tom, is a government lawyer in Washington, DC. Both are members of what seems to be, to those who belong to it, the vast anglophone diaspora from Montreal. They are devoted Nationals fans, and see the Expos’ defection to Washington as a slightly sad but mostly welcome incident in their lives.
I doubt that the Expos are really coming back. But if they do return, I’ll be there at the opening game. I imagine a small, perfect ballpark within sight of the Bell Centre; one of those chilly Montreal April afternoons; and, perhaps, in the manner of the new stadiums, local food—smoked meat and poutine—in place of the old park’s homogenized hot dogs. I hope to bring my dad, and my sisters, and maybe a child of my own. That other family from the reservoir will show, greyed but ready. We may even, at long last, learn their names.
This appeared in the October 2014 issue.