No Pro Baseball in Montreal, and Little Hope of Any
By ALAN SCHWARZ
Olympic Stadium, where the Expos played for almost 30 years, now hosts only special events like soccer matches and an occasional high-profile concert.
MONTREAL — The game resembled baseball as best an 8-year-olds’ skirmish can. The Beloeil Braves and the Boucherville Seigneurs smacked grounders and attempted double plays in full uniform, with batting gloves dangling out of their back pockets. Just like the pros.
But if Braves Manager Dany Després wanted to take the tykes to a ballpark to see actual professional baseball, Montreal had no options. The Expos’ demise confirmed that the Montreal market was not major league; yet six years later, the city, whose long baseball tradition includes Jackie Robinson’s first minor league home, has yet to attract even a low minor league team.
Montreal remains by far the largest city in the continental United States and Canada without a professional baseball franchise. Some entire leagues serve hamlets that barely add up to Montreal’s 1.6 million citizens — many of whom remain connected to the Andre Dawsons and Larry Walkers of the Expos’ not-so-distant heyday.
Després almost tears up when his son, Simon, cannot name one player who played at Olympic Stadium. The Boucherville manager, Pascal Tremblay, said baseball in and around Montreal was withering, in part because there was still no minor league team to rekindle its affinity for the sport.
“Soccer is the easiest decision for parents,” Tremblay said. “They don’t have to wonder if their kids are going to stand there in the outfield picking up grass. I’m sure if there was a minor league team, people would go with their kids. They’d get 4,000 people. Of course, that’s what they had at the Big O at the end.”
Olympic Stadium today looks like a roadside U.F.O. waiting for weeds to consume it. The cavernous stadium bowl still holds its 56,000 yellow and blue seats — somewhere in the upper deck is the one Willie Stargell smacked with a mammoth home run — but life left the place long ago, and it hosts only special events like soccer matches and an occasional rock concert.
It is easy to forget that from 1977 to 1983, the Expos drew crowds among the National League’s largest. Their ancestors, the Montreal Royals — whose most famous rookie was Robinson in 1946 — were one of the jewels of the Class AAA International League. When the Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005, the only good news for Montreal was that it instantly became the most promising minor league market around.
But there is no place to play. Olympic Stadium echoes with failure; the Expos’ former home, Jarry Park, is now a municipal tennis court. Not even one college field can be retrofitted for professional use, said Marc Griffin, a former Expos minor league outfielder and broadcaster who for years has tried to bring baseball back to Montreal.
A new stadium would have to be built, at a cost of about $10 million, some of which would need to be publicly subsidized.
But as Griffin said: “The Expos left a bad taste in people’s mouths. All you heard about in the final years were owner disputes and which players were going to leave. It kind of makes sense to let some time go by — but we can’t wait much longer because it will die.”
Visa problems have led major league teams and their 30 sprawling farm systems to quietly abandon Canada — the nation now has only Toronto’s Blue Jays and, among what most people consider the minor leagues, the Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League. The Edmontons and Calgarys jilted by Organized Baseball have since been scooped up by independent leagues that employ fading professionals and subsist on 2,000 or 3,000 fans a night.
Montreal would fit perfectly in the Can-Am League, which has revived pro baseball 160 miles northeast in Quebec. The league plays only during the fine weather of May through early September, and teams can make their own personnel decisions — meaning a Montreal club could hire several former Expos (where have you gone, Boots Day?) as coaches and field some local French-Canadian players without big-league interference.
But there is no place to play.
“It’s a lot different from the U.S. — Canadians don’t believe in publicly built stadiums,” said Miles Wolff, the commissioner of the Can-Am League and owner of the Quebec franchise. “A hockey arena would be different.”
Griffin, who grew up in Quebec and played on Canada’s 1988 Olympic team, said he had found a perfect stadium site — across the St. Lawrence River in the eastern suburb of Longueuil. It is essentially an underused college parking lot, near a Metro station, and could easily house a 4,500-seat ballpark.
“Getting 4,000 fans to come is the least of my worries,” Griffin said. “The politics are the hardest part.”
While memories of the Expos’ demise encourage some to question French-speaking Canada’s interest in baseball, in the 1970s the province supported three teams in the Eastern League alone: in Trois-Rivières (where Ken Griffey Sr. and his toddler son Ken Jr. spent one summer), Thetford Mines (Willie Randolph played there as a Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand) and Quebec, which supplied the Expos with future icons like Gary Carter, Steve Rogers and Dawson.
As late as August 1994, the Expos held first place with a team of All-Stars — Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou and more — when the strike wiped out the season and the playoffs. Attendance never recovered, ultimately leaving the remaining fans even emptier than the Big O.
“People are angry about the Expos — they’re still mad at ’94,” said Fred Page, the vice principal of a Quebec high school. “If you go from a major league team with great talent for so many years to a minor league team, people are insulted.”