Seventeen years ago, well before the Expos left Montreal, I was in Brooklyn to celebrate the legacy of Jackie Robinson. That is, to celebrate in the way teachers and academics do – by participating in a conference. It was early April, the Mets had just played their home opener and I read a poem of my own about Delorimier Downs, the east-end Montreal ballpark where Robinson once played. I wasn’t trying to stage some Canadian Heritage Moment for baseball nerds, but to indulge my own glum portrait of the Oui-voting neighbourhood where that ballpark used to be. That was my parents’ old neighbourhood, the same working-class parents who encouraged me to be enthusiastic about baseball, the ones who were proud to say they saw Robinson play, who were stung by the stereotypical portrait of Anglos and “les autres” that became part of Quebec’s political discourse. My fellow conférenciers politely applauded my efforts and returned to metal more attractive: stately Ebbets Field, the voice of announcer Red Barber, and oh the glorious summer days in Flatbush. As the talks and readings began to draw on, however, one wise soul took to the podium to say “Never in my life have I heard so much beautiful testimony about what it’s like to live in Brooklyn by so many people who choose to live in Florida.”
Such is the nostalgia I often associate with Montreal Expos fans. Montreal, after all, is very good at the poetry of nostalgia. If you’re a stats person, you can figure out the sabermetric formula which proves Montreal is better at bittersweet memories than it is at, say, paying money to watch professional baseball games.
“A lover’s love,” the poet John Donne wrote, “cannot admit Absence because it doth remove/ Those things which elemented.” As such, I learned to forbid mourning the Expos even though they were the elemental thing which initiated my (and many Canadians’) love for baseball. Professional sports teams are not civic trusts or cultural heirlooms. They are consumer products meant for people to consume if they feel like it. If they don’t want to, that’s fine too. I’m not going to pretend for a second Montreal has a great baseball fan base. If you doubt me, try watching a World Series game in a Montreal bar if there’s news that one of the Montreal Canadiens has suffered a pretty bad bench splinter.
All the same, the pities of the Expos and their stay in Montreal remain one of baseball’s most fascinating stories. Jonah Keri’s Up, Up & Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grande Orange, Youppi!, The Crazy Business of Baseball and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos! is a genius hunk of a book, not just de rigueur for anybody who’s had the misfortune of believing Mark Langston could win a World Series, but a compelling narrative of a team without a sense of destiny, a team always shadowed by its unlikelihood and its discounted otherness.
Seeing the franchise as a story rather than as a lost cause, Keri manages to weave anecdotal insider information through clear-eyed detailing of the franchise’s business, from mayor Jean Drapeau’s big push to the days where it seemed only the promise of dollar hot dogs could lure people to the game. Replete with drawings from Montreal editorial cartoonist Aislin (which gives the book a nice echo of Brodie Snyder’s fan-boy classic The Year The Expos Almost Won the Pennant) and peppered with inserted interviews from key players and figures in the team’s history, it is frequently funny and uplifting but still in tune with the litany of “what ifs” which surround any shipwreck story, including Raise the Titanic.
The unique aspects of the Montreal marketplace make Keri’s book a delightful place to consider the value of the Ken Burnsy tropes of “baseballism.” For example, I was particularly delighted by Keri’s recollection of the creation of French lexicon for baseball terms that would be used for broadcast (I don’t want to exaggerate but, in terms of Canadian literary achievement, Jacques Doucet’s French baseball lexicon makes Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism look like a series of Mad Libs). But, now, the team long gone, who will say coup circuit or grand chelem in Montreal any more?
The failure of the Expos franchise fits into Montreal’s peculiar sense of a Richlerian faded glory, the team as yet another emblem of a city, as the protagonist of Barney’s Version puts it, “was diminishing day by day.” In nostalgia for the Expos we find a Montreal that lights against the fog of provincialism. I have my own toxic level of sentimental attachment to the dear, departed Expos and would discover much of the world outside of Montreal because of them. I was at the first Expos home game (my sister registered me and brothers as members of the “Young Expos Club,” where we could sit in the bleachers for 50 cents), I was at the last Expos home game (with my brother, with whom I have gone to countless ball games, including every single home game of the 1983 season).
That last game was particularly sad because I knew I would miss going to the games more than the actual franchise. Hard to believe, but I would actually miss going to the cursed, crumbling Olympic Stadium no matter how distinctly its makeshift Kevlar roof held in every molecule of the greasy smoke from a Burger King franchise located in the main entrance.
Je me souviens Andre Dawson patrolling centerfield, je me souviens the way that announcer said “Boccabella,” je me souviens sitting in the “Willie Stargell seat,” je me souviens seeing Dwight Gooden and Tim Raines hanging out together at a disco on Stanley Street (Weird! They’re supposed to be enemies!), je me souviens heckling Braves reliever Steve Bedrosian so mercilessly he actually broke the fourth wall and swore at me, et je me souviens buying pre-game six packs and sunflower seeds at a depanneur on Letourneux right near the arena where I played Pee Wee hockey – the East End Boys Club.
But the East End Boys Club is gone and so are the Expos. And the truth is, I have moved on. Whatever bandwagon jumping I may be accused of, I am now a New York Yankees fan. The Yankees are my father’s team and even if Montreal were magically returned a team called the Expo-Rays, I would not switch my allegiances very quickly. Like finding love again after having your heartbroken – you can be grateful for the good times of the past but you’re even more grateful to get beyond old ideas that held you in a place of misery. After all, what makes Jonah Keri’s book about the Montreal Expos so immensely rewarding is that it is a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end.
David McGimpsey lives in Montreal and is the author of Imagining Baseball: America’s Pastime and Popular Culture.