Holding out hope for Expos’ return

On Aug. 28, 2003, “Believer Fever” was driving one last push for the future of baseball in the city of Montreal. At 71-64, the Montreal Expos, a franchise that had been on life support for nine painful years, were tied with four other teams for the National League wild card lead.

113,009 fans had just turned out for a four-game home sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies – a respectable average of more than 28,000 per game – that included a game with a remarkable comeback from 8-0 and 10-3 deficits for a 14-10 Expos win.

That’s when Major League Baseball, which owned the Expos, issued an edict that would hamstring the team’s chances of reaching the playoffs for only the second time in history. They decreed that when league rules allowed for an expansion of rosters on Sept. 1 to a maximum of 40 (from the usual 25, known as the “September call-ups”), the Expos would not be allowed to expand, explained away as a cost-saving measure.

The fans who had been blindsided by the 1994 strike, at a time when the Expos were the best team in baseball, had been blindsided once again. Playing against teams with more roster depth, the Expos went into a tailspin, losing their next six in a row and nine of their next 10, and going 12-15, eight games out from the wild card slot.

The following season ended a decade-long funeral for the franchise. After 10 years of mismanagement by three different ownership groups (at times a matter of incompetence and others of malicious intent), economically difficult conditions and the inability to move from an oversized, overpriced, outdated, broken, inconveniently located stadium, the team pulled up stakes and was moved to Washington, D.C.

But while MLB may have tried to kill Believer Fever 10 years ago, there’s definite evidence that it survives even to this day. Expos Nation (exposnation.com/en), a grassroots effort led by Montreal native Matthew Ross, recently brought 1,000 fans to a game in Toronto to advocate for baseball in Montreal, an event which was commented on positively by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper via Twitter. The Montreal Baseball Project, led by renowned Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie, seeks to explore the feasibility of a new or relocated franchise in Montreal, including the possibility of a new baseball stadium.

From Jackie Robinson and the first MLB franchise outside of the United States to the renaming of a street near Jarry Park as Rue Gary-Carter this past May, the past and the present in Montreal still bear a unique role in baseball’s legacy. There’s a reason the Expos were called Nos Amours – “our love.”

It’s just as relevant for North Country residents. It used to be an hour’s drive from Plattsburgh to take the kids to see some of the greatest ballplayers in the world. Today, it’s at least five hours to Boston, New York or Toronto. The Expos’ departure nine years ago tore a hole in our ability to enjoy the national pastime, even if it was in a different country.

Expos Nation is now running a season ticket drive at their website to demonstrate the willingness of fans to embrace the sport as they did in the 1980s, when the team frequently ranked among the highest draws in the league. Support from North Country fans is just as important in that endeavor as support from Canadian fans – we have always been a part of the larger Expos Nation.

Thanks to a resurgent Canadian dollar and MLB’s improved revenue-sharing formula, a franchise in Montreal with competent management and a modern stadium built for baseball would have more than a fighting chance at survival today. If the money and the fan support is there, a return would not be out of the question, but the latter must come before the former.

When the Expos moved in 2004, we were told that baseball would never return to Montreal. For years, return was considered impossible. A few years ago, The New York Times declared that there was “no hope.” Today, pundits are saying that chances are “slim.” Maybe they’re right.

But with any luck, next year it’ll just be “unlikely,” the next step toward “reality.”

Tom Reale grew up in Ticonderoga and loved going to Expos games in his youth. He currently resides in Rensselaer.