The throng of 46,121 at Olympic Stadium were rooting more for the defunct Montreal Expos, but they stood and cheered the Toronto Blue Jays just the same.
Pinch hitter Ricardo Nanita singled with two out in the ninth to lift the Blue Jays to a 5-4 victory over the New York Mets on a Friday night that was part exhibition baseball, part tribute to former Expos and Mets catcher Gary Carter and part appeal to the world to bring baseball back to Montreal.
It was the first game at the Big O since the Expos’ farewell game on Sept. 24, 2004, before they moved to Washington, D.C. to become the Nationals.
The teams will play again on Saturday afternoon, when the Expos’ 1994 team will be feted.
Carter’s widow Sandy and daughter Kimmy were on hand with his ex-teammates Tim Raines, Steve Rogers and Warren Cromartie for a pre-game tribute to perhaps the most popular player in Expos history. He also played for and won a World Series in 1986 with the Mets.
“The city always embraced Gary, and us as a family” Sandy Carter said afterwards. “I really felt that tonight. We made it our home and felt privileged to be here for 11 years.”
Carter died of brain cancer at age 57 in 2010. The City of Montreal named a street after him outside the Expos’ original home, Jarry Park.
“He was a great teammate, a great player, a great competitor,” said Raines, a roving outfield instructor for the Blue Jays. “Him and Andre Dawson taught me the meaning of playing the game.
“If I didn’t listen to him, Andre Dawson would slap me upside the head.”
Many other former players and management personnel were on hand to see the Blue Jays come back from a 4-2 deficit to tie the game in the seventh and win it in the ninth.
Fans chanted Let’s Go Expos throughout most of the game, but all were on their feet for the final inning trying to will the Blue Jays to victory.
Munenori Kawasaki opened the ninth with a double and scored from third as Nanita singled up the middle. Jeremy Jeffress pitched the final two innings for the win.
Met’s third baseman David Wright, a rookie in 2004, called it a fun night.
“It brought back a bunch of memories for me,” said Wright. “My first road trip in the big leagues was to Montreal, my first home run was in Montreal, so it was nice today to reminisce as bit.
“It’s nice for us to be able to come up here and break up spring training a bit, because it gets a little boring down there (in Florida). To come up to a great city with an obviously hungry fan base — it’s kind of like a dress rehearsal for us. You’ve got the big crowd, you get a little more excited than at a normal spring training game.
“It’s good practice for Monday (the Mets’ season opener against the Nationals).”
The Mets scored two in the fourth off Jays starter Mark Buehrle on Chris Young’s two-run double.
Toronto got one back in the fourth on Jose Bautista’s home run, but Ruben Tejada doubled and scored on Daniel Murphy’s two-bagger off Casey Janssen in the fifth.
Former Blue Jays prospect Travis d’Arnaud led off the seventh with a home run, but Edwin Encarnacion tied it with a two-run single in the seventh off Gonzalez Germen. Encarnacion was tagged out in a rundown after the runners scored.
Cromartie leads a movement called the Montreal Baseball Project that is working to get a team back in Montreal, even though estimates are that it would cost more than $1 billion for a team and a new ballpark.
The Expos, who became Canada’s first major league team in 1969, moved to Washington to become the Nationals in 2004 after a decade of fire sales of top players, dwindling attendance and timid ownership.
Cromartie and others are trying to revive baseball interest. They called on Montreal fans to turn out in large numbers to the pre-season games to show that the city will support baseball.
“If people think there are no fans here — you see tonight, the support is here,” said Raines.
“I think it would be good,” said Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie, a native of Langley, B.C. “If the fans show up — that would be the telling tale. You need that support. But it would be good for Canada.”
The Mets are old Expos rivals, but the crowd was behind the Jays from the start.
There was a big ovation for a diving defensive play by Lawrie in the third and another an inning later for Bautista’s homer.
But in the stands, there were periodic chants of Let’s Go Expos, just like in the old days.
The evening was marred by a fan falling 10 to 15 metres from the centre-field stands down behind the outfield fence. Montreal police said the man was transported to a local hospital and was in critical condition with life-threatening injuries.
The Blue Jays open the season on Tuesday in Tampa Bay, so the trip north from Florida spring training actually took them out of their way. But no one complained of playing in front of huge, supportive crowd.
“To be honest, I’d rather stay in Florida, but it’s good for Canada,” said Lawrie. “We can suck it up. It’s good energy.”
Buehrle gave up two earned runs and four hits in four innings.Report Typo/Error