MONTREAL — The first thing you need to know about the world’s grandest museum dedicated to the Montreal Expos is that it’s also the world’s only museum dedicated to the Montreal Expos.
You could spend all day searching the streets and walls of this city and not find one statue, plaque or monument dedicated to the days of Les Expos. It’s as if residents were so disheartened by the team’s departure in 2004 that they vowed to wipe its history from their collective memories.
Perry Giannias went the other direction. A lifelong fan, he began collecting everything Expo-related. Hundreds of game-worn jerseys. Balls, photos, cleats, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. Some items so rare that baseball’s Hall of Fame has borrowed them for exhibits. All this glory and sorrow discreetly tucked away in one man’s basement on a tree-lined suburban street.
So who will do that for the Tampa Bay Rays?
The question is not out of line. Many people see owner Stu Sternberg’s proposal to share the Rays with Montreal as a precursor to leaving Tampa Bay altogether. In Montreal, they are conspiratorially theorizing that the half-season plan will eventually become a permanent relocation.
Which leads to this interesting conundrum:
The only people left in North America who can possibly understand the pain of losing baseball are some of the same people who would see the Rays snatched from Tampa Bay.
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Sister cities is what Sternberg called them. Put Montreal and Tampa Bay together, and two imperfect baseball markets become an ideal split home for the Rays.
Now, the feasibility of that plan is still a long way from being certain. Or even being plausible. But the idea of Montreal and Tampa Bay sharing some common baseball ground is not so outlandish.
Here’s the history of the Expos in 52 words:
An expansion team that started off with 10 consecutive losing seasons. An unattractive stadium built in the wrong part of town. Constantly trading away its best players when they became too expensive. A proposed downtown stadium that died on the drawing table. A wacky idea to play home games in Puerto Rico.
Jonah Keri, a native of Montreal who has written best-selling books about the 2008 Rays and the history of the Expos, does not want to see Tampa Bay continue following those maudlin footsteps.
“As much as it would be cool to see baseball back here I would never, ever, ever wish a fan base to lose a team,’’ Keri said. “It stinks. Forget about (Evan) Longoria and (Carl) Crawford. What about Damian Rolls and Dewon Brazelton? Fans had to suffer through all of that to get to this exciting team that wins 90 games. From a fan’s perspective, it’s painful and it doesn’t go away. It leaves a void.’’
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For several days after Sternberg’s announcement, talk of the Rays dominated newspapers and radio airwaves. It’s understandably waned, and now seems too far off in the distance to seriously contemplate.
Sports bars show MLB games on TV, but no one seems to be paying attention. An informal tour of five different sporting goods stores didn’t turn up a single Tampa Bay Rays item.
At a Boutique Lids store in the downtown Eaton Centre mall, they are selling baseball caps of more than 20 different MLB teams. The Athletics are there. The Rangers, Pirates and Braves, too.
There’s not a Rays hat in sight.
When asked if they have something with a Tampa Bay logo, a clerk says the store has never carried the expensive, fitted hats for the Rays.
“We might have had some dad caps,’’ she said. “But that was a long time ago.’’
By the time the Rays turned the corner in 2008, baseball had already disappeared here. Montreal might have a 100-year history with baseball dating back to the minor league Royals where Jackie Robinson and other Dodgers Hall of Famers came through, but the city and game seemed to drift apart.
Sitting in an outdoor café just off St. Catherine street near downtown, longtime Montreal radio host Mitch Melnick talks of how fans buried their emotions for years after the Expos left.
It was the death of Expos favorite and baseball Hall of Famer Gary Carter in 2012 that seemed to rekindle an interest, and led to various groups forming with the intent of bringing baseball back.
“To me, that was the trigger. There was a lot of emotion in the air and I think everybody realized how much we missed baseball,’’ Melnick said. “I was a baseball junkie. I knew every player, every stat and it just disappeared from my life … I never thought we’d see baseball again.’’
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There is one major difference in these baseball tales. Montreal was once a model franchise.
For several years in the late 70s and early 80s, the Expos were winners on the field and the box office too. They were drawing more than 2-million fans a season, topping teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals. The Rays have never approached that level of sustained success with crowds.
“There is a certain panache about being Major League and for a town like Montreal that had been going through some (political upheaval) being Major League was a very big deal,’’ said original Expos owner Charles Bronfman, whose son Stephen is leading the current ownership group. “They talked in French about Les Expos Nos Amours, which means our loved ones. And it was a love affair, pure and simple.’’
The love affair turned sour for a lot of reasons, many that would sound familiar in Tampa Bay.
Olympic Stadium, built for the Summer Games in 1976, is far from downtown in a less affluent and less developed area of Montreal. The city never consulted the team during the construction process so it was designed, in essence, for two weeks of Olympic Games instead of 30 years of baseball.
It’s a mass of concrete with little curbside appeal or access. The interior was not configured with baseball in mind and the retractable roof, that was added later, never worked.
Major League Baseball has already made it clear that no regular season games will ever be played there again.
And the stadium was just one of Montreal’s problems. The Expos were also hurt economically by the weakening Canadian dollar, and lost TV revenues when the Toronto Blue Jays were born.
And Montreal never caught a break on the field. It had good teams, but always seemed to finish inches from glory. The culmination came in 1994 when they had baseball’s best record but a work stoppage cancelled the World Series.
Sitting downstairs in the 1909 Taverne Moderne attached to the Bell Centre arena with a massive video screen showing the Rangers-Astros game, Matthew Ross laments the circumstances that doomed a franchise and soured a fan base.
“The story of that team was bad timing,’’ said Ross, a communications specialist who has helped lead the current baseball effort with his group ExposNation. “If there was a wild card in ’92 or ’93, we might still have a team here. The entire history of the organization is bad timing on the field, bad timing with the strike, bad stadium location.’’
* * *
Much of the Expos’ demise is traced back to when Charles Bronfman sold the team in the early 1990s. The next ownership group had little money, and that began a downward spiral of cutting costs, re-selling the team and, eventually, moving to Washington.
Montrealers, by that point, felt betrayed and disillusioned. Crowds at Olympic Stadium had dwindled to embarrassing levels, and there was almost a good-riddance factor to the team’s departure.
This time, they feel they’re doing it right. Whether Sternberg is involved or not.
“Every night the question I hear is, “Will they be called the Expos?’ I don’t know that answer,’’ said Rodger Brulotte, who joined the team in 1969 and was eventually part of the Expos French language broadcast team. “That’s not important now. What’s important is getting baseball back. And that is happening. I don’t know all the details, but Montreal will have a team again.’’
That sentiment is not universal around here.
Stephen Bronfman’s ownership group has vowed to build a stadium entirely with private money, seeking only infrastructure funds from the public. The unanswered questions are what those infrastructure funds will cover, and how much is needed.
“The current (mayoral) administration would have a lot of problems with this. It’s not the type of thing that appeals to their voter base,’’ said Marvin Rotrand, the dean of the Montreal city council. “I don’t see how it can be done. I don’t know how it gets built. You add the legal entanglements of getting out of Tropicana Field and I just see the whole idea as a trial balloon. I don’t think anybody is taking it seriously enough for it to be a major public discussion in Montreal.’’
If there is one thing everyone here does seem to agree on, it is that Montreal got a bad rap when the Expos left. There’s a sense around Quebec that MLB manipulated circumstances so the team could be moved to Washington. Even Stephen Bronfman suggested as much in Keri’s book Up, Up & Away.
Montreal fans believe they deserved better. They held up their end of the bargain whenever the team was winning, and the franchise’s last half-dozen seasons were beyond their control.
“You know what makes me, sort of, not feel bad for Tampa Bay? You guys win. You won a pennant, you went to the World Series, and you still don’t support the team,’’ said Giannias, the memorabilia collector. “Don’t compare the two because we’re totally different. We never won anything. You can’t look at the attendance figures and blame the fans here. We went through too much crap to blame us.
“But I will say this: It sucks to lose a team. You don’t feel it right away. Tampa fans might be angry about the stadium, might be angry about the owner. But after a while the anger fades.
“And it just really hurts.’’
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.