Montreal fans left with sadness, anger

Originally Published: September 29, 2004
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- When it was over, they stood in the middle of the infield and waved good-bye, then picked up some baseballs and threw them into the crowd.

Just like that, the Montreal Expos are gone.

Expos Fan
A Montreal fan lets commissioner Bud Selig know how he feels about the Expos' impending move to Washington, D.C.
It was a decade coming down the tracks, but the train wreck finally happened. The last life of a team once passionately known here as "Nos Amours" [Our Loves] was sucked away in the murky cesspool that has been their existence at the hands of scheming local owners and Major League Baseball, which has owned the club the last three years.

On Wednesday night at the Olympic Stadium, they turned the lights out on the Expos, a franchise that just 14 years ago was named the best in the game, an organization that set the standard in developing talent.

The circle will be completed this weekend when they go on the road for three more games in New York, the city where the Expos played their first game in 1969. Then it appears it will be all over, except for the packing for Washington, D.C.

The circle will be completed -- and it looks like a noose.

There are still hurdles to overcome. Some former limited partners are proceeding with legal action against former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria to try to block the move, but that's not stopping the lords of baseball, the lure of big cash and a free stadium in Washington in their sights, from going ahead.

It appears Le Grand Orange, Jonesville, The Dancer, Parc Jarry, Stoney's no-hitters, Willie Stargell's hitting them in the swimming pool, Ron Hunt's getting hit by a pitch (again), Coco Laboy, Carl Morton, The Spaceman, Rodney Scott, Val-De-Ri, Val-De-Ra, the grace of The Hawk, the energy of The Kid, Stan Bahnsen, Mike Schmidt, The Rock, The BUS Squad, Gentleman Jim Fanning, Larry Parrish's batting helmet flying off (and his catching it behind his back), Eli Wallach, Blue Monday, Jeff Reardon, Cro and Ellis Valentine will be reduced to trivia status for Expos seamheads.

A rich history, for anybody who was paying attention.

Get one thing straight: Montreal wasn't a bad baseball town. It was a baseball town that had bad things done to it.

Claude Raymond's eyes told that story.

Raymond, a former pitcher and now roving coach who has been with the club since 1969, could not conceal his sadness, bitterness and disappointment.

The 66-year-old's eyes welled up as he stood on the field after the 9-1 loss to the Florida Marlins apparently closed out the Expos' existence here.

"I never thought I would see this day," he said. "When Montreal got the franchise, I was so proud of my city. I was with Atlanta then and I was telling everyone what a great city and a great baseball town it was. In August of '69, I got traded to the Expos. The Braves were in first place and I was going to an expansion team, but I was the happiest guy in the world."

Raymond had 20 saves for the Expos in 1970 and finished up his 12-year major-league career (46-53, 83 saves) with the Expos.

He said the franchise started on a downward spiral when original owner and founder Charles Bronfman sold the team in the early 1990s.

He said "bad administration" turned off the fans.

"I'm telling you, the fans are still there," he said. "They've been burned before and I don't know what it would take to get them back, but now it's too late.

"I still can't believe it, but I guess I better get to the conclusion that it is happening. It's hard. This has been my life. I've been in baseball for 50 years and you just don't throw them out the window like that."

The sad truth is there are probably about as many explanations for the slow demise of the Expos' franchise as there were people in the stands for much of the last few years.

Take your pick:

  • After Bronfman saw where baseball was going and sold the team in the early 1990s, a succession of owners undercapitalized the team, letting key players go and turning off fans.

  • With the Expos riding high with baseball's best record in 1994, the strike canceled the season and the World Series, killing the prospect of an Expos-New York Yankees fall classic and sending away many disgusted fans, never to return.

  • The next spring the Expos' owners were unwilling or unable to keep the team together. Canadian Larry Walker was allowed to walk as a free agent and, in the same week, they traded stars like Marquis Grissom, Ken Hill and closer John Wetteland, among the best players in the league at their respective positions. It is known here simply as "The Fire Sale."

  • Too many promises that weren't kept. There was talk of an stadium downtown, but it evaporated when the government of Quebec refused to commit funding and the Claude ownership group didn't have deep enough pockets.

    "It was a litany of things," said Expos president Tony Tavares. "You can't look at one event and say it's the reason. You can look at '94 as a big event. The stops and starts with the new stadium. Every time something was promised and then they didn't do it, it affected the fan base. There's a litany of reasons why there was never a spike in attendance, not the least of which is we were on life support."

    Former Expo Tommy Hutton, a key utility player on the first Expos team to become a contender in 1979, probably has it right when he points out there is enough blame to go around.

    "I've been coming in here for the last eight years, and I've seen how bad it's been. I don't know what could have been done to save it," said Hut ton, now a broadcaster. "It's just too confusing for everybody. It's ridiculous."

    As it usually does, it came down to money.

    "We made $6.5 million in revenue in this market," said . "Even stubbing our toes, we should be able to make at least 10 times that in D.C."

    The Expos once packed the Olympic Stadium to the rafters. Fans sang and danced in the aisles.

    There was a touch of that in the finale as a crowd of 31,395 turned out to say good-bye. Apart from a couple of golf balls getting whipped on the field in the top of the third inning, the fans were relatively well behaved. The riot squad was ready to go under the stands after the game, but there was no need for it.

    Some fans wept openly in the stands.

    Flashbulbs twinkled during the final by Expo Terrmel Sledge. Expos star Brad Wilkerson cried as he walked off the field.

    "It was a lot more emotional than I anticipated," said infielder James Car roll, who addressed the crowd after the game. "I was Asked before the game if I'd like to speak. I wanted the people to know what was on my mind and in my heart. The fans have been great to me. This place made my dream a reality."

    Car roll said it was difficult Wednesday seeing people who are losing their jobs because of the move.

    "You see the people you see every day and you know it was a tough day for them," he said. "When something is here for 36 years, it becomes a part of your life. Next year, when it comes to spring time, baseball won't be here. It's not fun when change happens."

    "Any time a franchise moves, it's sad, because you are saying you failed," said Expos manager Frank Robins on. "Evidently, this was a good place for baseball because it lasted for so long."

    Kate Hones, 48, wearing an Expos jersey and cap, cried as she watched her team leave the field for the last time. A holder since the Expos moved to the Big OF in 1977, she hung on through Blue Monday, the strike in '94, the fire sale and the sad circus that has unfolded over the last couple of years.

    She wishes she could have been like some of her fellow fans and walked away. She points to the strike of '94, when the Expos had the best record in baseball only to have the World Series canceled, as the point of no return.

    "I wish I could have ripped up my season tickets into a million pieces to make a point, but I can't," she said. "I have a friend who is a rabid fan like me. He never came back after that. To love something and be so crushed.

    "We didn't lose because of something on the field, because the manager made a decision or Steve Rogers threw a cookie down the middle. We lost because of a decision. I can't believe the World Series was canceled and it wasn't because of a war. Where is the outrage?"

    Instead, there were just tears and grim resignation.

    Chris Stevenson writes for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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