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Vladimir Guerrero

Je me souviens

As the Montreal Expos play out what may be their final season, loyal fans’ memories rewind to the year that never was

By Stephen Leon

Observing that my two young sons were wearing their new Montreal Expos T-shirts, the hotel bellman asked, hopefully, if the Expos were their favorite baseball team. Although “yes” would have been the politic answer, naive honesty prevailed: Jackson, 4, solemnly announced that the New York Mets were his favorite, and Denis, 6, in a more deliberately contrarian spirit, declared his support for the Boston Red Sox. “The Red Sox!” exclaimed the bellman, feigning disapproval. “Yes, I believe the last time they won the World Series was, oh, back in 1918?”

I’m not sure why I chose to do what I did next—perhaps I was subconsciously preparing Denis for the years of schoolyard verbal sparring to come—but I leaned over and whispered into his ear, “Tell him the last time the Expos won the World Series was never.” This juicy comeback Denis repeated all too gleefully, and I believe a look of genuine sadness momentarily passed over the bellman’s face.

And after a second or two of reflection, he wistfully summed up 34 years of frustration for fans of Montreal’s luckless baseball franchise: “We would’ve won it the strike year.”

To most baseball fans in the United States, it is a nearly forgotten footnote to the strike-shortened 1994 season that the Montreal Expos finished that year with the best winning percentage in the major leagues. When play stopped on Aug. 12, the Expos stood atop the National League East with a sparkling 74-40 record, six games ahead of the Atlanta Braves and seemingly on a collision course with the American League’s New York Yankees and their emerging late-’90s dynasty. (What many New York-area fans remember about that season’s player strike is that it ruined the best opportunity for the great Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly to play in a World Series; his final chance, in 1995, would be snuffed an 11th-inning loss to Seattle in Game Five of their first-round playoff series.)

Throughout the ’90s, the Montreal organization has shown a remarkable ability to develop young, talented players into certifiable stars (ones whom the Expos, ironically, can no longer afford once they qualify for free agency). But in 1994, Montreal boasted a terrific lineup that included future MVP slugger Larry Walker, along with Moises Alou, Wil Cordero, Marquis Grissom, Rondell White, Sean Berry and Cliff Floyd, as well as top-flight pitching in starters Pedro Martinez and Ken Hill and closer John Wetteland. The small-market, small-payroll Expos were poised to show the baseball world that money doesn’t always rule; but as fate would have it, money overruled. Players and owners failed to negotiate a settlement to their contract dispute, and the bitter and bewildered Expos fans watched their team’s glorious season fade into a question mark that would haunt them for years to come.

The game of baseball and the city of Montreal are not the likeliest of bedfellows. If there is a prevailing culture of Montreal—and though I am a frequent visitor, I don’t pretend to understand very many of the societal nuances of this complex, bilingual, historically divided city—it seems resolutely distinct from the culture and attitudes of English-speaking North America. To a great many Montrealers, the Expos—who, according to Major League Baseball’s master plan, will be dissolved at the end of this season—seem at best an afterthought to the city’s myriad cultural experiences, and at worst an intrusion of crass Americanism. I have attended a number of games at Stade Olympique over the years (including last Thursday afternoon’s contest between the Expos and Mets), and typically, when I mention to Montrealers I know, or strangers with whom I’ve struck up conversations, that I have tickets to an Expos game, their response is one of odd surprise, as if I’ve told them I traveled all the way to Montreal to shop in a mall. To put it another way, I seriously doubt that following the Expos is a pastime favored by the city’s Quebecois separatists.

Unlike much of Montreal, which prides itself on its sophistication, Stade Olympique stands in comical contrast to storied old U.S. ballparks like Chicago’s Wrigley Field or tasteful new ones like Baltimore’s Camden Yards. An indoor stadium featuring synthetic turf and a retractable roof that doesn’t retract, Montreal’s stadium feels oppressively artificial. Watching games there reminds me of any number of outdoor activities transplanted to indoor imitations, like playing simulated golf in a theme bar. That visitors can go directly from certain hotels to the subway to the stadium without ever stepping outside—seemingly a credit to conscientious urban planning—only serves to further undermine the ballpark’s connection to a game our memories associate with the summer sensations of grass, dirt, sky and fresh air.

When the Mets played the Expos here on a Thursday in April, only about 4,500 fans showed up. If the Montreal franchise had indeed entered its final season, the city’s collective reaction seemed to be one of characteristic indifference. (You can almost hear a French-accented voice commenting, “Baze-ball. . . . It ees not impor-tant.”) But then a funny thing happened: The team started to play well. By early July, the Expos were very much in the race for the National League’s wild-card playoff spot, and lo and behold—instead of shedding their most expensive stars, as might have been expected—the team began acquiring talented players like pitcher Bartolo Colon and all-star outfielder Cliff Floyd. Another recent addition was infielder Wil Cordero, who, like Floyd, played for the Expos back in the glory days of ’94. Together with all-stars Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro and a capable supporting cast, the Expos suddenly were an exciting team to watch—and little by little, Montreal fans began to respond.

Though nowhere near their average of 30,000 a game back in the early ’80s heyday, attendance has crept up to over 10,000—occasionally over 20,000—for recent games. On Thursday, July 18, almost 14,000 turned out for an afternoon game against the Mets. The crowd was lively, and long lines stretched from the concession stands, almost as if the vendors hadn’t expected the mild surge in attendance. The newly acquired Colon gave the local fans plenty to cheer about: Whenever he pitched himself into trouble, he artfully pitched his way out of it, and the home team carried a 1-0 lead into the top of the eighth. When the Mets rallied to tie the game, threatening to take the lead, the sixtysomething gentleman seated next to me—who couldn’t help but notice that my family and I were cheering for the Mets— turned and asked, pleasantly, if we were from New York.

“Albany, New York,” I responded. “Did you come all the way here for the game?” he inquired, and momentarily confusing his tone with those who find baseball a waste of time, was tempted to tell him we came for the shopping malls.

With the bases loaded, Colon struck out Rey Ordonez to end the eighth, and in the Montreal half of the inning, Guerrero put the Expos back on top with a monstrous home run that drew a thunderous ovation. Half an inning later, when Colon pitched the game’s final out, the crowd again burst into raucous applause, and I turned and exchanged smiles with the man next to me, whose delight at the outcome momentarily overshadowed the bitterness I had observed at various moments during the game.

At one point, I had asked him whether he comes to game regularly. “Not as much as I used to,” he replied. “I used to have season tickets—until 1994.”

The Expos may or may not be gone next season; their fate may be determined by a bizarre lawsuit filed by 14 former partners who claim fraud in the recent, byzantine shuffling of the team’s ownership. Meanwhile, a recent slump has dimmed the team’s chances of making the playoffs. Amid all of this uncertainty, it is not clear what place the Expos will hold, overall, in Montreal’s collective memory. But for the team’s most loyal fans, one thing is certain: The year they will never forget is 1994, the one that was taken away.

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