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Montreal Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero signs autographs before the team's final home game of the season against the Atlanta Braves in Montreal Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2003 (The Canadian Press)

Montreal Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero signs autographs before the team's final home game of the season against the Atlanta Braves in Montreal Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2003

(The Canadian Press)

The baseball dream returns to Montreal, if only briefly Add to ...

Phones are ringing all over the hotel room, and it’s evidently a little bewildering.

So much so that Warren Cromartie, ex of the Montreal Expos, Yomiuri Giants, and, briefly, the Kansas City Royals, accidentally hangs up on an interviewer.

“Sorry about that,” he says upon picking up the phone again, “this thing is taking on a life of its own.”

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The thing in question is baseball, and one man’s dream of bringing it back to Montreal.

For the first time in nearly a decade, a diamond has been set up in the Olympic Stadium, and even if the teams that will occupy it Friday night and Saturday afternoon are the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets, in many ways this weekend is about the Montreal Expos.

It’s why Cromartie, who isn’t involved in staging the games, is here, and why the weekend will serve his purpose: to remind Major League Baseball dignitaries, potential financial backers and players this town can still fill a stadium to watch America’s pastime.

The late Expos legend Gary Carter will be honoured in a ceremony before Friday’s game – his widow and family are slated to attend – and before Saturday’s game an event will be held to celebrate the Expos squad that was broadly considered the best team in baseball when the 1994 season was abruptly cut short by a players’ strike.

Cromartie, who spearheads the Montreal Baseball Project, is on a quixotic quest to bring major-league ball back to the city it abandoned in 2004 – although by then you could often count every fan in the stadium by hand and be done by the middle of the third inning.

“This will be a little bit of a measuring stick,” Cromartie said.

To dispense with the crass question: yes, it’s still possible to make a buck selling baseball tickets in Montreal.

The Blue Jays are working with evenko, the concert-promotion arm of the partnership that owns the Montreal Canadiens, and have moved close to 40,000 tickets for Friday.

Attendance on Saturday should top 50,000, there’s a decent chance it will be the biggest crowd the Jays and Mets see all season.

According to insiders it’s also possible, given the ticket sales, that this could become an annual rite.

Baseball’s return to Montreal – the last time a pro game was played at the Big O, on Sept. 29, 2004, the Expos were crushed 9-1 by the Florida Marlins – is the subject of much public romanticism.

There are viewing parties planned, downtown bars are putting on shuttles to the game, the Journal de Montréal published a fat 32-page special section on the ’94 team (main headline: “20 Years Since the Dream was Shattered”).

Not everyone is caught up in the hoopla.

“There’s a great Bill Cosby quote from when he was [former Expos manager] Frank Robinson’s guest at a home opener, it was something like: ‘Great, but what are those 40,000 people going to do tomorrow?’” said David McGimpsey, a Montreal-based poet, university lecturer and serious baseball nut. “I find it interesting that they can drum up this much interest in a game that’s utterly meaningless involving two teams with no civic attachment to this place.”

McGimpsey grew up rooting for the Expos, switching allegiances to the New York Yankees when the team left town, and still has a picture frame that holds his ticket stubs from the 1983 season.

That year, he attended every single Expos home game (“the total price of the tickets is probably less than $200, can you imagine?” he said).

“I think Montreal has a martyr’s sense of nostalgia,” McGimpsey said.

It’s not meant as a slight.

Montreal is a town that loves faded glories, winners and “happenings” – at various times, the Expos have represented all three.

But the sporting public is fickle, and it seems particularly true in Quebec’s largest city.

The MLS Impact, which played at the Big O last weekend and will do so twice more in April, sold a record-setting 58,912 seats at its 2012 home opener. In 2013, that figure fell 37,896, and this year it was 27,207 (in fairness, that game was postponed a day because of heavy snow).

Cromartie and his backers – though he has found support from the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, he has yet to find a deep-pocketed financial champion to buy a club – published a feasibility study indicating the city could support a billion-dollar baseball project as long as the local governments are willing to lend money for stadium construction.

That’s a big ask given the current political climate. Then there’s the fact MLB isn’t talking about expansion, and the only team relocated in the past four decades was moved out of Montreal.

It likely won’t be enough to quiet the persistent speculation that teams such as the Oakland A’s and the Tampa Rays, who have the lowest attendance in baseball and are trying to negotiate a new stadium deal, could consider Montreal a greener pasture.

Hey, it’s not as though a sports team owner looking for a better deal has never visited an attractive relocation option – Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s threat to move to Tampa in the 1980s is a classic of the genre.

“You don’t even need to open your mouth, you go, buy something at the local Starbucks, and fly home,” laughed Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes, a book that analyzed various stadium-financing boondoggles in the United States. “This [Cromartie] group is probably most useful as the new Washington, D.C.”

After all, how many times was the U.S. capital held up as a relocation bogeyman until the Expos finally decamped there?

Cromartie, for his part, brushed aside the question of whether he may be a pawn in a larger game.

“There’s still skeptics out there and questions in people’s minds, I understand that,” he said. “But that’s not going to stop me.”

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

 

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