Words: Ben Fraser
Photography: Adrian Knowler
From 1969 to 2004, the Expos called Montreal home and were at the forefront of Canadian baseball culture. The Expos predated the Toronto Blue Jays by eight years, and for a period of time before the Jays’ glory years in the late 80s and 90s, were known as “Canada’s team”.
It’s been 15 years since the Montreal Expos shipped out to Washington to become the Nationals. Yet, to this day the Expos figure prominently in the culture of Montreal, with Expos memorabilia sold in practically every sports store across the city. Perry Giannias, founder of Exposfest, an annual charity gala to raise money for an incurable brain tumor that claimed the life of his niece, says the reason the Expos’ legacy endures is the city’s love for the game. “Montreal is a baseball town, I don’t care what the die hard hockey fans say.”
In 1991, Charles Bronfman sold the team to Claude Brochu. Giannias says that under Brochu, in the late 90s, the Expos went through massive spending cuts that eliminated any chance for the Expos to compete. “After [Charles Bronfman] sold the team, it was a downward spiral into hell.”
Fans also began to resent Expos’ ownership after they traded many of their most talented players during the 1994-95 offseason, despite the Expos being in first place when the ‘94 season ended due to a lockout. According to Giannias, that is where the Expos died.“It was a weird thing, it left a lot of bitter taste in everybody’s mouth. That was the end of the Expos. It wasn’t ‘94, it was ’95.”. He says the economic hardship of the shortened season combined with an ownership group that was unwilling to spend money on the team, dealt a fatal blow to the franchise.
For many years after the Expos left, fandom for the team was practically nonexistent in Montreal. Former Expos beat writer and Baseball author Danny Gallagher says that for a period of time, it was like the Expos were never here. “From 2004 to 2012 this kind of excitement [that exists right now]didn’t exist in Montreal,” Gallagher says.
Giannias says in some areas of the city, the influence of the team was being removed altogether. “They started ripping down [baseball] parks fast… turning them into soccer fields. It’s almost like they were trying to wipe the Expos off the map.”
Giannias says what spurred the revitalisation of love for the Expos in Montreal was the death of famed Expos catcher Gary Carter. Carter played for the Expos from 1974-84, with a return in 1992. He was a larger then life figure in Montreal. “[Carter’s death] got people thinking about the good old days of Montreal baseball… The game was a part of our fabric, it’s something we have a deep history of.”
Gallagher agrees with Giannias on the influence of Carter’s death, but also emphasizes the impact of former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie. Cromartie, who played for the Expos in the 1970s, began organizing reunions for the 1981 and 1994 Expos squads in 2012, which according to Gallagher “spurred” the fans back.
The future of the Expos is constantly on the minds of people like Giannias and Gallagher, who maintain that a return of Major League Baseball to Montreal is still possible.
Howie Schwartz, who coaches the Concordia University Baseball team, says that having a team in Montreal does have some benefits for young baseball players.
“It brings the players [who play baseball in Montreal] a little closer… It makes them feel more connected to the team playing in the city,” Schwartz says.
However, Schwartz also thinks that a Major League team does not necessarily affect the general interest in playing the game. “The fan base has always been there, there was a fan base before the Expos were in Montreal,” he says.
Giannias gives a lot of credit to local baseball institutions for keeping the game alive in Montreal during the years that the Expos had little visibility.
“It took a lot of time for people to heal, only now are baseball inscriptions starting to go up, and that’s a credit to Baseball Quebec,” he says.
The future of Major League Baseball in Montreal now rests in the hands of an ownership group who is committed to bringing a team to Montreal. Their goal starts with a new stadium, as Olympic Stadium is not up to snuff for Major League Baseball.
Giannias says it is really important to have a modern ballpark for the Expos to call home. “Montreal has never known what a real ballpark was like.”
For the time being, Major League Baseball is watching, and Giannias gives much credit to the Toronto Blue Jays playing exhibition games in Olympic Stadium. “Without those [Jays] games [At Olympic Stadium]… we wouldn’t have got the attention of Major League Baseball,” he says.
Whatever the future holds, Montreal baseball fans are ready to have the team back. Gallagher believes the city would welcome them home. “Fans would be really excited to have a team back in whatever fashion. Would really support the team in the first few years. They just want to have a team, period.”