Saturday, March 29, 2014
Montreal Hits A Grand Slam
It was a weekend of looking back and also ahead for those hoping to bring Major League Baseball back to Montreal.
More than 96,000 fans poured into Olympic Stadium for two pre-season games between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets.
It marked the brief return of Major League Baseball to Montreal for the first time since the troubled Expos franchise left the city after the 2004 season.
Fans rooted for the Blue Jays, who didn’t disappoint, sealing both of their victories late in each game with a 5-4 win on Friday evening and a 2-0 victory Saturday afternoon. The crowd chanted “Let’s Go Expos!” during the games and flung their arms up into the air for the wave several times. Many seemed in no hurry to leave the stadium when Saturday’s game ended.
The official attendance was 50,229 for Saturday’s game, which followed a pre-game ceremony honouring the 1994 Expos. That team had the best record in baseball when the season ended in mid-August with a players’ strike.
Fans stood and cheered as Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, John Wetteland and other members of that team walked onto the field. One of the loudest ovations was for former Expos manager Felipe Alou. Former mascot Youppi! was with them wearing an Expos jersey on top of a Canadiens one.
“It’s very emotional. We were all a very close-knit group,” former Expo reliever John Wetteland said before the game.
“And it went beyond playing the game together. We honestly did stay in the clubhouse for an hour or two after the game, talking about the game,” Wetteland said.
“We loved learning about the game. We were all young. We were all in the same boat. We all didn’t really know how good we all were. We just went out and under Felipe’s leadership kicked everybody’s (butt). And we loved that.”
Rondell White expected to have goosebumps, walking through the tunnel and hearing his name called out.
“It feels great. Good to see everybody,” he said prior to the tribute.
He also called it bittersweet, “thinking about the ’94 team and what could have happened. But it’s great. It’s great to see everybody.”
The wistful what-if questions were inevitable for a team that was on a tear in the shortened 1994 season.
Walker acknowledged he has wondered many times what could have happened if they played the entire season and stuck together afterward. The Expos traded key players in a controversial salary dump after that season and Walker signed with the Colorado Rockies as a free agent.
“It’s all hearsay and just make-believe. But I think if the strike lasted two weeks like it was supposed to and what we were told, then I don’t know if baseball would still be here, but I can tell you right now there would have been some helluva good teams that would have lasted a little bit longer. It seemed that kind of put a crush to our dream and after that the team split up. It would have been nice to see what would have happened.”
It was fun to be back, Walker said.
“It’s fun to see the guys, looking forward to going on the field and looking up in the stands today.”
A gala was also planned for Saturday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1994 team.
For some, the two exhibition games organized by promoter Evenko were a chance to show Major League Baseball that Montrealers miss the game.
“We understand folks this is going be a little journey,” said Former Expo Warren Cromartie, who has been spearheading the Montreal Baseball Project, a grassroots group that’s trying to bring baseball back to the city.
“Right now, we’re right in the middle of it. We’re making some noise. We’re doing the right protocol,” Cromartie said.
“As you can see the city of Montreal really, really miss their baseball. I think they recognize just how much they really love their ‘nos amours’,” Cromartie said.
“This is a stepping stone to the ultimate, which is to bring baseball back here in Montreal,” he added.
John McHale Jr., executive vice-president of administration with Major League Baseball, didn’t expect such large crowds.
“I was certainly willing to call success an average of about 25,000 fans per game. This is astonishing,” said McHale, whose father John was the Expos’ first president.
“There is a fire that burns brightly here for Major League Baseball and that’s a message that I’ll be proud to carry to the commissioner.”
His mandate from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was to come to Montreal and assess for him “the state of avidity for baseball, to see how the facility looked and how the games were staged and to report to him on the general level of enthusiasm,” McHale said.
“I’m going to tell him that things were better than even I expected and that I was very, very, favourably impressed,” he said.
McHale cautioned it would be a mistake to try to draw conclusions from what he plans to tell the commissioner.
“I know of no situation which should encourage anybody to think there is going to be expansion in the near future. And as to relocation ... those are issues which have to be dealt with by local clubs. It’s not up to us to instigate that nor would we ever be provocative in that regard.”
It would be great to bring a baseball team to Montreal and see it succeed, Walker said.
It was a tough time the years leading up to 1994, said Walker, who added it was hard to fill the building. But when any franchise doesn’t win, “it’s tough to ask people to come out and support a team that sucks,” he said.
“That’s kind of where we were. Then ’94 came along,” Walker said. “To this day, I’ve played in a lot of ballparks and this is by far the noisiest ballpark when this place is full.”
“You get to first base and you can’t even have a conversation with the first baseman because it’s so damn noisy, and that’s a great thing.
“Good memories like that are what need to be talked about and the bad memories and people not showing up and stuff, throw that out the door and let’s start over,” Walker said.