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Baseball's Stone Cold Tomb

I attended the Phillies-Expos game in Montreal on Wednesday, August 27, 2003.

I wanted to see a game in Montreal before the light of professional baseball in that great metropolis is extinguished forever, courtesy of bumbling Bud Selig and his myrmidons.  The game promised to be hotly contested, too, as the coveted wild card was at stake.  Montreal and Philadelphia are among the many National League teams that are lurching toward the postseason by losing half their games.

The Expos, as everyone knows, are dying on the vine.  They’re a competitive club on the field, skillfully run by general manager Omar Minaya and field manager Frank Robinson, with star power in shortstop Orlando Cabrera, second baseman Jose Vidro, and right fielder Vladimir Guerrero.  But they’ve got no owner (the team is administered by the league), and no broadcast network is willing to televise their games.  The press scorns them.  Their attendance is the lowest in baseball, with most of their “crowds” well below 10,000.  This year they’re playing 22 of their “home games” in a tumbledown shack of a stadium in Puerto Rico, which is about as “bush league” as it gets.  The franchise is going to be relocated; the only question is where.

I felt like calling the ticket office to ask what time the game got started, just to see if they’d reply, “What time can you get here?” But why rub it in? I drove to the arena and anted up the $12 they were asking for parking.

My first surprise (there would be many others) was meeting actual ticket scalpers outside the ballpark.  Was I dreaming? Hadn’t these guys heard that tens of thousands of Expos tickets are going begging, at face value, every night? Or did they believe that Expos fans are world-class suckers? Although several of these would-be “entrepreneurs” (as the French say) were selling, I was reassured to see that nobody was buying.  What, I thought, could be more pathetic, more hopeless, than a Montreal Expos ticket scalper?

Perhaps a vendor of Montreal Expos souvenirs.  There wasn’t a great variety to choose from, and nobody seemed interested in these either.

To enter Stade Olympique is to breathe a life of gathering gloom.  I felt like I was seeing “musique concrete” in three dimensions.  The place reminded me of one of those hollowed-out mountains in Colorado where nuclear waste is stored.  The bare grey walls are hideous, the lighting harsh.  Nothing appeared to have been cleaned in weeks.  The restrooms, although a step up, I’ll admit, from a mere hole in the ground, are distinctly on the primitive side.

As always, I wanted to sample the ballpark food.  Although many local concessionaires were represented, I was disappointed not to encounter a stand selling St Hubert chicken, Quebec’s own equivalent of KFC.  Someone was, however, offering a “hamburger au poulet.” A chicken hamburger? What could it possibly have tasted like?

The province of Quebec prohibits the display of any sign in the English language.  Because I neither speak nor read French, I found myself bewildered at the food stands.  There were plenty of items to choose from, but what were they? The French word for “hot dog,” apparently, is “hot dog,” so I could have played it safe and asked for one.  But what fun would that have been?

I wrote down some of more exotic-sounding choices:

Animelles au poivre vert
Arachides (arachnides?) en egale
Barbe a papa
Barbotine Boisson gazeuse
Bretzel “jumbo”
Cornichon “dill”
Foies de volaille aux concombres
Lait fouette
Mais souffle
Rognons de mouton grilles
Rondelles d’oignon
Salade de choux
Sandwich viande fumee

I took a chance on the latter, probably because I felt competent to translate at least the first word.  It turned out to be a pastrami sandwich on French bread.  The sandwich was no bargain at $7 but delicious nonetheless, tastier than any ballpark hot dog I’ve eaten anywhere.  The meat was lean, there was plenty of it, and the tangy moutard they slathered on it was the perfect complement.  And the bread was nice and crisp.

I paid $6 for a “carte de pointage” (scorecard) and headed for my seat.  In the 4th row behind the Expos dugout, facing first base, I was well satisfied with the view.  I could have sat anywhere I wanted, though.  There seemed to be no ushers (a cost-cutting move?), and the place, as expected, was not overrun with spectators, although a well above-average number (20,105) eventually showed up.  Incidentally, the club doesn’t bother to sell its upper-deck seats anymore.

My $38 field-box seat was made of hard plastic, narrow and uncomfortable, although my discomfort was somewhat mitigated by the fact that nobody was sitting on either side of me.  If the sitting was tolerable, the breathing wasn’t.  Stade Olympique is a domed, not open-air, facility, and it has emphatically not instituted a nonsmoking policy.  The air was as murky as a Saturday night poker room.  Plainly the stadium authorities concede the futility of asking Frenchmen not to smoke.

Waiting for the game to start, I was entertained by the rather halfhearted antics of Youppi, the Expos’ mascot (who looks a lot like the Phillie Phanatic, but orange), and by previews of Hollywood films on the Jumbotron, dubbed in French.  Anything but baseball, I guess.  I preferred conversation, but the fans around me ceased to be friendly the moment I opened my mouth to address them in English.  To my distress, all the Quebecois I met seemed to regard the sound of English as insulting.  An apology for my inability to speak French only made things worse.

The irony of it is, they all speak English as well as French.  But, as I learned, they hate being obliged to do so.  I had hoped to ask the Montrealers I met about the factors that have killed baseball in that city, but what I found instead was that no discussion was possible.  Perhaps I would have given less offense if I had spoken my apology in French.  I should have had the sense to memorize the right words before I arrived.

Once the game began, the Jumbotron began flashing a phrase, “Le fievre des series,” which I still don’t know the meaning of.  It seemed to excite the onlookers, though.  For me, at least the baseball was comprehensible, although performed on a carpet of worn-out astroturf.  The Phillies pitcher was Brett Myers, proud owner of baseball’s best eyebrows.  Ever-volatile Phillies manager Larry Bowa was ejected before his team ever got to bat.

Vladimir Guerrero, though limping noticeably from back and leg injuries, provided a full measure of thrills.  “The Impaler” made a superb running catch to save a run, then clouted a massive homer.  The Expos jumped out to a 6-1 lead.

In the 7th inning the Phillies put a couple of men on base, so manager Robinson replaced Montreal starter Tommy Ohka with Danny Almonte.  Almonte proved he’s too young for the big leagues by serving up a run-scoring single, followed by a Marlon Byrd grand slam.  That blow tied the game, but the Expos’ Joey Eischen and Rocky Biddle shut the Phillies down after that.  A timely pinch single by Joe Vitiello regained the lead for the home team in the bottom of the inning, and they ended up winning the game 9-6.

The greatest revelation? The much-maligned (by ignorant sportswriters) Expos fans! They proved to be tremendously enthusiastic, intensely involved in the action from the first pitch to the last, cheering loudly for every Expo.  This small crowd generated a major buzz of excitement and positive energy that I could see the players responding to.  This, clearly, has been a factor in the Expos’ over-500 record.

I read a quote from Vitiello in next morning’s paper: “I wish we could have this type of crowd here every night.  It just fires us up, and we just want to go out there and give everything we’ve got.”

These fans were having a wonderful time, and it was a pleasure to sit among them.  Here’s the story of Montreal baseball that I’d never read or heard before.  It’s not the quality of the fans that is lacking in Montreal; it’s just the quantity.  Why aren’t there more of them? The explanation is obvious: too-high prices and an ugly, dingy, dirty ballpark.  What a sad betrayal of the best, yet most ill-served, of all the fans I’ve ever seen in four-plus decades of going to baseball games.

A tip of the hat to Roy Chvat and John Henry Hopkins.

When in Montreal, dine at the Café Anubis.

September 2003