Energy can only be pent up for so long before it seeks release, and when the doors swung open at the Olympic Stadium, the reaction was spontaneous – and loud.
From the thousands of fans waiting in the crumbling edifice’s rotunda, a roar went up as ticket-takers – many of them the same stadium employees who used to perform the task in the good old days – started tearing stubs.
“Let’s go Expos,” went the chant.
“It’s great to have baseball back, and I guess it provides a little bit of hope that maybe one day we’ll get a team,” said Daniel Bureau, 56, who made the 90-minute trek from Sherbrooke, Que.
Bureau is a long-time baseball fan and was among the first fans to arrive. He made the trip with his 83-year-old father, Marcel; the two reprised the trips they used to make a dozen times a year to Jarry Park in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“I’m still a baseball fan, but I don’t really have a favourite team any more … it can only be the Expos,” said the younger Bureau, who faithfully attended games until the team moved to Washington after the 2004 season.
The fans that largely turned their backs on the Expos turned up in droves – some had to wait until after the game began to pick up their tickets, such were the lines at the will-call window – provoking familiar feelings in several people with Toronto Blue Jays ties.
Retired major-league pitcher Denis Boucher, who works as a part-time scout for the New York Yankees and also helps the Jays with youth outreach, reminisced about his first start for the hometown Expos in the fall of 1993.
“It was a three-game series against the Phillies; I think we were only two games back of them, there were 51,000 people on the Saturday night … the atmosphere was incredible on the Friday night [Wilfredo] Cordero hit that double down the outfield line to win the game,” said Boucher, one of the rare Canadian players to have suited up for both Montreal and Toronto. “As you can see, my memories are a little fuzzy.”
Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, a Montreal native, said stepping on the turf at the Big O – the current surface, borrowed from MLS’s Montreal Impact, is light years better than the old carpet – rekindled vivid memories for a kid who cheered on the juggernaut 1994 Expos.
“It’s great to be back … I get to relive my youth a little bit,” he said.
Manager John Gibbons’s memories of playing in the Big O were a little less fond – he racked up four strikeouts in his first three games in the stadium as a member of the New York Mets in 1984.
“Thanks,” he laughed when the stat was pointed out. “How did I do in the fourth game?”
Since you ask, John, your fourth game in Montreal was a 0-for-1 showing with a strikeout.
For current-day players, the trip to a snowbound city many had never been to – while American League players are used to travelling to Canada to play the Jays, there’s no analogue in the National League – was a curiosity, but a welcome one.
“It should be a good tune-up for us, and good to get us into a major-league atmosphere,” Toronto pitcher Brandon Morrow, a Santa Rosa, Calif., native who was on his first visit to Montreal, said before the game.
Though the matchup nominally involved the Jays and Mets – each of whom started the game with most of their regulars – there were Expos vestiges everywhere.
From the brass band inside the main gates, to the caps and shirts fans wore in the stands, to the old baseball hands, stadium workers, and even a former player or two.
“It feels like old times,” said long-time Expo Tim Raines, who was part of the pregame ceremony honouring his late teammate Gary Carter.
The group also included star pitcher Steve Rogers, and first baseman Warren Cromartie, who is trying to lure MLB back to Quebec.
“I’m kind of hoping there’s an opportunity to come back … when [Cromartie] puts his mind to something, he doesn’t stop till it’s done,” Raines said.
Former minor-leaguer Marc Griffin, whose MLB hopes were dashed by injury, said that for all the talk of baseball eventually coming back to Montreal, there was a more tangible and immediate benefit to this weekend’s action.
“People want their children to have that experience: going to the Olympic Stadium to watch baseball, real baseball. And for that reason alone, it’s the perfect sales pitch,” said Griffin, a former Expos radio analyst who now heads Baseball Québec, the provincial amateur association.