Baseball melting away in Montreal

Rob spent a day in Montreal, where baseball is slowly melting away into nothing.

Originally Published: June 24, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- What does one do with a June Saturday in Montreal? Most would sample the city's sumptuous cultural fare, from the magnificent Botanical Gardens to the spectacular International Fireworks Competition and everything in between.

But if you're a baseball writer, you spend your Saturday hunting for baseball in chronological order, and so I started with Montreal Stadium (also known as de Lorimier Grounds), home of the International League's Montreal Royals from 1928 through 1960.

Beginning in 1946, the Royals won six pennants in a dozen years, and a man named Jackie Robinson led them to the first of those pennants. Robinson batted .349 during the regular season, then spurred to the Royals to a victory over Louisville in the Little World Series (which pitted the International League champs against the American Association flag-hoisters). Montreal won the sixth and deciding game at home, after which fans lifted Robinson to their shoulders and paraded him around the field. When Robinson left the ballpark, fans chased him down the street with their well wishes, leading sports scribe Sam Martin to write, "It was probably the only time in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind."

I wanted to see where all this happened. Unfamiliar with the city and having little luck deciphering my map, I cheated, asking a taxi driver to deliver me to the corner of de Lorimier and Ontario, which he accomplished in less than 10 minutes. There is, I'm sad to report, virtually no sign that Robinson or anybody else once played here. At the corner of Ave. de Lorimier and Rue Ontario, not far from where Jackie himself would have stepped to the plate, there is a pedestal in the shape of an elongated home plate. The pedestal contained four cavities in which the supports for a plaque might be placed. But if there was ever a plaque, it's been removed.

Behind the pedestal squats an asphalt running track, and behind the running track is a high school (Ecole Secondaire Poly Valente Pierre-Dupuy). But nary a mention of the old Royals, not even a small plaque on a wall. In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, Ian Frazier wrote about the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. There, tucked away in an obscure corner, is a home-plate shaped plaque commemorating Metropolitan Stadium, which once stood on the site and served as the Twins' home for 22 seasons. Writes Frazier,

A book tour is not a good opportunity to let your mind wander ... But when I saw the home-plate plaque, I forgot about that for a moment and sat down on a rustic log bench nearby. In the plaque's immediate airspace invisible fastballs, curve balls, and sliders went zipping by. My mind fell into flashback mode, with few hard facts to go on (though later research supplied them). Before the Twins first moved here, they were the Washington Senators, a team usually described with the epithet "hapless," as they sat year after year at the bottom of the league. ... In the Twins' first ten years in Minnesota they improved a lot from when they were the Senators, and also led the American League in attendance.

I tried to imagine fastballs and curves and sliders, too. But the cars were too loud, and of course I don't have any actual memories of Montreal Stadium. So all that came to my mind was the usual background noise (along with the wish that I had a more active imagination).

Next stop: Parc Jarry, first home of the Expos. Or so I thought. While walking along Rue Rachel I came across Parc Lafontaine, where I could make out, past the wading pool and through the trees, what looked like a ball diamond, a sight so sorely missing just a few minutes earlier. And since I could also hear the metallic thunk of bat meeting ball, I went to investigate.

The field was occupied by a dozen or so adults practicing their softball skills. At second base was a middle-aged man wearing an Expos cap -- the first I'd seen all day -- and, like Jose Vidro, this fellow still needs some work on his double-play technique. The pitcher was a tall man about my age (as it happens, I turned 36 Saturday), a dark green A's cap perched atop his head.

After a few more minutes of this, everybody came in and stood around as three captains chose teams; with 14 players, there were two sides of five and one of four. Well, I may not have graduated from college but I do know that four doesn't equal five. I took a seat in the third row of the bleachers and tried to look nonchalant. A few minutes later, the guy with the A's cap -- I soon learned that his name is Francois -- came in from the field and asked me something.

"I'm sorry, I don't speak French," I replied.

"You know how to play?"

And so I found myself playing softball in Montreal with 14 French-Canadians, which was a wonderful way to spend two hours of my birthday (even though I got assigned the dirty job of catching two-thirds of the game). A lanky player on one of the other teams was wearing a Kansas City Royals hat, so when he came to the plate, I asked him about it.

"The Kansas City Royals," he said, taking his right hand from the bat and pointing downward with his thumb in a gesture that cuts across most languages. "Maybe when George Brett was there, but ... I just like the royal-blue color." Afterward, I resumed my long walk to Jarry Park (Parc Jarry), where the Expos played from their birth in 1969 through the 1976 season. That name referred to both the ballpark and the city park around it.

A few weeks ago a reader asked me, with "dome baseball" on the wane and the Expos drawing small crowds anyway, why don't they play their home games at the old ballpark? That way, fans could at least enjoy Montreal's pleasant summer evenings.

The answer: "Because it's impossible."

Jarry Park, which has been renamed du Maurier Stadium, was completely renovated in 1996 and now has only enough room for 11,132 fans. Tennis fans. Stade du Maurier hosts major tournaments, and nobody's going to rip everything up for a baseball team. I walked a complete circuit around du Maurier (which was empty Saturday afternoon), but just like at the former site of Montreal Stadium, I could find not a shred of evidence that big-time baseball had ever been played here. For an echo of the past, I had to look outside the stadium, and outside the locked chain-link fence that surrounds the tennis area, to a large public swimming pool. It's said that long home runs to center field used to occasionally land in the drink, which must have startled the children not so unlike those who were enjoying the water on this hot June afternoon.

Here's something a lot of people don't know: from a distance, Olympic Stadium is beautiful. From an airplane landing at Doval Airport, it's easily the most fantastic sight, and the most impressive Montreal postcards are those depicting the stadium. Unfortunately, these are the only views that many out-of-town baseball fans ever see. The best way to get from downtown Montreal to the ballpark is on the Metro: you get off your train at the Pie-IX stop, and walk up a short tunnel to the ticket windows and main gate.

Then you're inside, and the inside of Olympic Stadium is every bit as bad as you've been told. There are three good things about the ballpark, though. One, the ushers are almost uniformly friendly and female, and of course they have those accents that are guaranteed to melt the heart of any American male. Two, the out-of-town scoreboard, which rings the facing beyond the outfield fence, includes space for the Expos' top minor-league affiliates. It's odd, isn't it, that minor-league scores would be displayed in the one city that must have the fewest fans who care about what the minor leaguers did this evening? And three, there's a statue of Jackie Robinson and two children just outside the main entrance. Jackie's handing one of the kids a baseball, and both are looking up at him with a "Gee, whiz!" (or perhaps "Sacre bleu!") expression on their faces. There was a plaque with a long inscription, but it was in French so I didn't copy the text (a decision I now regret).

If you take the tunnel from the Metro stop to the gates, and then head back home the same way, you'll miss both the Jackie Robinson statue and one of the most dramatic sights the city offers. So if you make it to Montreal this summer, when you get off the Metro turn right instead of left, and exit the station at the corner of Pie-IX and Pierre de Coubertain. Head uphill (north) on Pie-IX until you reach Sherbrooke. Now look back at Olympic Stadium, and you'll see something the likes of which you've probably never seen before and never will again.

The Stadium itself looks very much like a gargantuan white flying saucer, resting gently - OK, parked -- on the ground, or perhaps held there by a tractor beam emitted from the sublime inclined tower that looms over the saucer like a threatening record needle. It's not until you look closely that you notice the stadium's roof looks like it's been attached with duct tape and chewing gum. Which isn't so far from the truth, because Olympic Stadium has been a giant boondoggle from the very beginning. But it's a fantastic giant boondoggle, and if you're going to see it, you should really see it.

Same goes for the Expos, whose days are obviously numbered. While there are still some fans, most of them speak English first and French second (if at all), but it's the French who dominate the city. I went into one large bookstore not far from downtown, and couldn't locate even one book about baseball. I just don't think there's enough interest any more to support a team, no matter what kind of ballpark it called home.

And then there are the signs at the ballpark itself. Many of the advertising signs inside Olympic Stadium aren't actually bringing in revenue. There are signs extolling the virtues of Canada, of Quebec, and of montrealexpos.com; in the advertising business these are called "house ads," which means that nobody's getting a check. There is one real souvenir shop, and a great deal of the space is devoted to selling souvenir T-shirts from the Expos' spring-training site in Florida. What happened is that all the stuff that wasn't sold in March was shipped north, because of course there probably won't be another chance to sell them down there. Meanwhile, there is very little typical Expos merchandise available. You'd like to purchase a cap in the original three-color style? Great, but there are only six left and they're all the same size.

The shop does maintain a good supply of T-shirts that read

    WHY NOT US ... ?

    WHY NOT NOW ... ?

Unfortunately, while that slogan -- which as near as I can tell, hasn't caught on -- is presumably meant to refer to the Expos' pennant chances, I suspect that it might more accurately be used to describe Commissioner Bud's nefarious plans. Because this year, "us" is him.

So what happens to Olympic Stadium when the Expos cease to exist? As the city's most famous landmark, it's not going anywhere soon, and of course there will always be boat shows and home shows and monsta-truck shows. But while the physical landscape of Montreal may not change, the same can't be said of baseball's landscape, which won't be nearly as interesting without a team in this city that feels like Europe.

Les Expos, you will be missed.

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