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MacArthur: Baseball returns to a Major League city

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Scott MacArthur
3/28/2014 9:37:27 PM
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MONTREAL - "The Rock" summed it up best.

"It feels like I haven't left," said Tim Raines, the former long-time Expo, current Blue Jays roving instructor and should-be Hall-of-Famer, just moments after stepping onto the turf at Olympic Stadium.

While Raines was referring to the memories that came flooding back, he may have meant it literally. Nothing much has changed about the Big O. It's the same ride to the Pie IX stop on the famous Montreal Metro. The walk from the station to the stadium's dimly lit concourse is no different. Then, you emerge through one of the section corridors into a time capsule. The yellow seats, so often empty in the Expos' final years, serve as a reminder of days gone by when fans would rap them up and down to make a clanging sound. The scoreboard, which still sits above the centerfield batter's eye, hasn't been updated. It's not high definition or LCD or anything else that resembles what fans enjoy in the stadia of today.

The players are different. Well, for the most part, if you consider that Blue Jays' utility infielder Maicer Izturis made his major league debut in a Montreal uniform on August 27, 2004.

Everything else is the same.

"I was joking if they wanted me to do any fan mail," said Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, a Montreal native whose internship with the Expos, which included the responsibility of answering fan mail, launched his career in baseball. "I was getting ready to go."

There was little chatter around the stadium of the 1994 players' strike, which happened at a time when the Expos were 74-40, good enough for the National League's best record. The resurgent New York Yankees were the talk of the American League that year. What a contrast, those two organizations, in the two decades since. The Expos are gone, the proverbial stick of dynamite given to that '94 team by an uncommitted ownership, the 1995 club a shell of its former self. The Yankees have missed the playoffs only twice since.

It took 10 years after the strike for the Expos, which experienced a kind of walking dead status once the likes of Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou and others left town, to die off. The fans, descendants of the people who watched Jackie Robinson play in their city before he broke Major League Baseball's colour barrier in 1947, were subjected to annual speculation about their franchise's relocation.

Finally it happened in 2005 with the city of Washington, D.C. receiving a third crack at getting baseball right (the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers each descend from failed Washington Senators clubs.)

"I think the issues were, and it's no knock against the stadium, but the location of the stadium, the fact it wasn't a retractable roof," said Anthopoulos. "Growing up in this city, like you would in Toronto but it's a lot colder here in the winter, the winters are long and any bit of summer you can get you want to be outdoors. It's a tough sell to go all the way to the east end and be indoors for a ballgame."

This is a 48-hour period for the Blue Jays and Mets to work out the final kinks before the start of the regular season. Just as importantly, it's a chance for Montrealers to experience what once was and to pay a posthumous tribute to their beloved Gary Carter, which they did on Friday night. On Saturday, it's the '94 Expos turn to feel the love. Larry Walker, Moises Alou and future Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez will be among those on hand.

One can only hope this weekend serves to exorcise the demon just a little bit.

Luis Rivera, the Blue Jays third base coach who played his first three big league seasons with the Expos from 1986-88, doesn't forget.

"The crowds, they were loud and there was a lot of whistling, which I do a lot," he said. "It was about sometimes 20-thousand, 30-thousand, 40-thousand. I remember when Pasqual Perez used to pitch it was a packed house."

Tim Raines, The Rock, he remembers too.

"It's a very good baseball town," said Raines. "My first 10 years here we averaged two million fans a year. They don't just leave. I think ownership back in the day, right at the tail end, played a big part of the lack of success that they had here."

Warren Cromartie, the former Expos great, has said the exhibition weekend is the first step toward the return of Major League Baseball to Montreal.

Maybe he's right and one day we'll be able to say, "Les Expos sont la!"

Maybe he's wrong and this is nothing more than a pipe dream.

For the moment, it's just nice to be back at Olympic Stadium.

Blue Jays vs Mets (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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