Saturday, March 29, 2014

Je Me Souviens

 Baseball, in some marginal form, returned to the Great City of Montreal Friday evening, when the Mets squared up with the Toronto Blue Jays in the former home of the Montreal Expos for the first of two exhibition games. The second came this afternoon. For the teams involved, at least, they're just two exhibition games. For the city of Montreal, a city I've visited twice in the past year and each time come away with an even more enhanced opinion than I entered with, these are Exhibition Games, with capital letters for the entire city.

The results of the games, both Mets losses, were sideshows to the fact that the games were happening at this locale at all. It harkened back to an era where the Mets would come to Montreal for no less than 9 games a season, my formative years as a fan when Montreal was a vibrant Baseball town, the Expos always boasting the kinds of players that would give the Mets trouble. What happened to the team doesn't need to be revisited, but ten years after the city of Montreal was dismissed as a wasteland for Baseball, over 96,000 fans showed up and packed Stade Olympique for these two games. 

These were less Mets/Blue Jays exhibitions as much as they were celebrations of the city of Montreal and a tribute to the Expos and the players that played there. Friday night, Gary Carter was honored in a ceremony that included his former teammates Tim Raines, Steve Rogers and Warren Cromartie, in a nod to a wonderful era of Expos teams in the late 1970s and early 1980s that ultimately ended heartbreakingly short of greatness. This afternoon, the marvelous Expos team from 1994 was given tribute, with many members of a team that seemed destined for a deep October run before the strike hit, on hand.

It's easy to forget, particularly when you consider just how much of a disparate wasteland Montreal became for Baseball in its final years, just how good a Baseball town Montreal can be. I don't believe that fans of the Expos can be blamed for the failures of Ownership and Provincial Government to invest in the Expos. Perhaps they can be blamed for not showing up, but it's never good for fan morale to have to continually go out and see a team that its own ownership won't support. I think as Mets fans we can slightly identify with that sentiment (though our team isn't going anywhere, fortunately). The stadium itself was one of many problems; Stade Olympique was miscast as a Baseball stadium in its heyday, and now age and years of deferred maintenance have turned it into an outdated, leaky relic. But for the return of Baseball this weekend, Montreal didn't care. They showed up anyway.

It's proof that although the Expos are gone, they are certainly not forgotten. When I visited Montreal last Summer, I was a bit taken aback at how little the Expos appeared to be remembered. Not so. The passion lies within the hearts of the fans. I returned to Montreal in early March, knowing that these games were going to be played at the end of the Month (and although I would have loved to have the chance to go to these games, timing was not in my favor), and the city seemed to have a buzz for the impending return of Baseball. Where I barely saw any Expos representations in the Summer, it was much more prevalent around the City in March. Montreal was excited to have Baseball back. A faction of fans, the appropriately titled "Expos Nation," seemed to treat these exhibitions as a crusade to put Montreal back on the MLB Radar. Sunday, they've teamed up with many former Expos Players, led by Cromartie, to hold a rally in support of MLB returning to Montreal.

Expos Nation is not alone in their crusade. Many former Expos, among them Tim Raines and Larry Walker believe Baseball can thrive in Montreal. Keith Olbermann has gone so far as to float a particular proposal to move the Tampa Bay Rays there (and I strongly considered listing the Rays as the "Montreal Expos" in my AL Preview, but decided against it). Certainly they, or the Mickey Mouse Marlins ought to be likely candidates to move to Montreal—their current fan support is about as miserable as any of the Expos' worst seasons. That's not to say moving a team there would be easy. Much needs to happen, most notably a new stadium and an ownership group that can adequately fund the team. But I'd like to think that these two games this weekend helped to serve notice that there is a place for MLB in Montreal. At worst, perhaps, these Mets/Blue Jays exhibitions can become an annual event. Certainly, 96,000 voices proved that there remains an audience and a voice for Baseball in this wonderful city.

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