For a weekend, Montreal is a major-league baseball town again

The Eh Game

MONTREAL – It is, in its own way, reminiscent of a high-school reunion – 20 years on from when everyone was young, full of hope, with a full head of hair, when life's tribulations, wrinkles, and heartbreaks were still to come at some point in the distant future.

And as the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets take the field Friday night and Saturday afternoon before expected crowds of 40,000-plus at much-maligned old Olympic Stadium, all the talk and the memories will be of another uniform, another logo, another time.

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The pair of meaningless exhibition games is merely the ruse, the backdrop for what this weekend is really about – a 20-year celebration of The Best Team in Baseball™, the young and hugely successful 1994 Expos squad that was robbed of a shot at the franchise's best chance at a World Series by the baseball strike that August.

The Journal de Montréal put out a 32-page special section Thursday (worth nothing, of course, that the Canadiens did not play the previous night). La Presse had one page.

The English-language Montreal Gazette, which unlike the French media continued to follow the team on the road until the bitter end back in 2004, had one small story. Another story, about the Blue Jays' final spring-training cuts, actually took up more space.

TSN 690 afternoon drive host Mitch Melnick, as dedicated a baseball fan as you'll find in the city, has devoted much of his airtime this week to the sport that is, always will be, his great passion.

Blasts from the past have been making their way to town the last few days to celebrate that team. Former players who have since become icons of a sort, as the city's baseball fans needed something to grab onto during those final, painful, incomprehensible years.

They're older, a little wider, a little greyer, but not in the mind's eye of the fans who loved them so.

Ellis Valentine. Marquis Grissom, Rondell White. Tim Raines. Cliff Floyd. Felipe Alou. Kevin Malone. All will be honoured in a ceremony before Saturday afternoon's game, and a gala later that evening.

Before Friday night's game, the late Gary Carter will be honoured.

How bizarre is that going to be for the current major leaguers wearing other uniforms, standing on the field?

Two books are on the shelves: former Montrealer Jonah Keri's "Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos," is being officially released this week. Another, by Bill Young and Danny Gallagher called "Ecstasy to Agony: the 1994 Montreal Expos", came out last Christmas

That the turnout is expected to be in excess of 40,000 per game is not all that shocking; Montreal is, has always been, an "event" town. And this is an event. With the winter seemingly eternal this year, it's a little jolt of spring to liven the spirits.

It's not as though a baseball-starved city has turned to either the Jays or the Mets, or the Red Sox or Yankees – the baseball franchises within driving distance of Montreal – in great numbers in the years since the Expos' departure.

But here's the thing: everyone in baseball misses Montreal. From the visiting players who were well entertained by the city's night life, to the media who marked the trips to Montreal in red on their schedules before every season, it was a destination. For some, it was about as exotic as it was ever going to get: a different country, a different language, a different joie de vivre.

As the Gazette's baseball beat writer for the final seven years of the franchise's existence – not the seven seasons anyone would have chosen given their druthers, I'll grant you, but still an unforgettable ride – I still hear from baseball writers around the league, mourning the relocation of the team to D.C.

This weekend of nostalgia will spike the talk of major-league baseball returning to Montreal, of course. It's an ongoing conversation, wishful thinking for the most part.

Here's one noteworthy details, though, from a Montreal perspective (and it's a familiar one): if you're not at the stadium this weekend, there's little chance you can see it.

Friday night's game isn't on French-language RDS, nor RDS2. The main network had live tennis from Miami scheduled; after a default, there was no live tennis. Only stale old documentaries. The game could be seen on "Sportsnet 360", formerly The Score, which isn't even on the high-end Videotron packages, and isn't available in HD in Quebec. Even the radio broadcast doesn't feature any of the longtime local baseball broadcasters; it's the regular Blue Jays announcers.

That's a statement.

There are people out there trying to make a return to Montreal happen, most notably the Montreal Baseball Project group, whose public face is enthouastic former Expo Warren Cromartie.

The problem was, is, and forever will be this: those who want most fervently to bring a franchise back to town are lacking the one big element that could make it happen: big bagfuls of cash.

It would take bagfuls and Brinks trucks and stuffed mattresses full of it. And with every year that goes buy, you can add another Brinks truck.

The Canadian dollar may be much stronger versus its American counterpart than it was in the dark years. The potential broadcast rights revenue opportunities may have increased since those days because of the proliferation of sports channels.

But as a city, we remain smarter than those suckers down in Miami, their public multi-millions ripe for the taking by that ownership group Montrealers are so familiar with.

And in the interim, public-infrastructure issues have evolved – crumbling overpasses, a main-artery bridge that needs rebuilding – that make the excuses of a decade ago for not putting public money into a downtown ballpark, like schoolbooks for children and the arts, seem almost fanciful by comparison.

The biggest companies in town put in token sums back then to save the Expos. There was one cheque, and no more. They did it because the public backlash for not doing it was worth the small investments they made. But it was a pittance; lip service, really.

In the end, the city survived the loss of baseball. Other than the baseball fans, which are a small group, there aren't too many Montrealers who will tell you that summer in Montreal has suffered irreperable harm from the departure of the Expos. After awhile, that disposable income merely was spent elsewhere. The city remains a great place to be in the summer months, and there is plenty to do.

That "perfect" downtown ballpark location just south of the Bell Centre has long been filled up by some boxy, ugly looking condo buildings.

To our politicians, in the middle of an election campaign and with far more pressing issues on their plates, baseball is just a distant memory – sort of like a pesky fly that buzzed around them for awhile that they kept having to wave away, but which has now flown off to bug the hell out of someone else.

Local big businesses have shown little inclination to jump on board, any more than they did a dozen years ago.

In the end, any movement to revive baseball in Montreal needs one big thing: a benevolent billionaire with a serious baseball jones, willing to open his wallet, build a new ballpark with overwhelmingly private money (we're talking a half-billion dollars, at minimum), pay a huge franchise transfer fee (assuming a franchise is available) and open the wallet again to sign contracts with big-name players.

It's hard to imagine that back in the early 1980s, original owner Charles Bronfman got out of the baseball business partly because he was appalled at the size of Carter's new deal: eight years, $16 million.

With a 31-year-old like Miguel Cabrera just having inked a 10-year deal worth nearly $300 million, you know what kind of ballpark figure – pardon the pun – we're talking about these days.

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