Back in the first grade, my favorite baseball player was Ellis Valentine. Not only did he have a name guaranteed to attract a nascent fan, but he was an outfielder for the Montreal Expos, a team I had never heard of, in a city I vaguely knew was foreign—or at least really far away from the suburban New York City enclave where I grew up. Through whatever chemistry occurs in a young kid's head, I became an ardent, lifelong fan of les Expos. Amazingly, I wasn't alone. On the first day of fourth grade, a new kid named Mark came up to me and asked if I was the Expos fan he'd heard about. We're still close friends.
Yesterday's announcement that the team is moving to Washington came as a relief. The past decade has inflicted countless insults and indignities upon the team and its dwindling fan base. At least now our misery is almost over. But even though my childhood of worshipping Raines and Rogers is far back in the mist, the pull of le bleu, blanc, et rouge remains. When my girlfriend asked if I had a destination in mind for a late fall vacation, I immediately thought of Montreal. My main goal for the pilgrimage to the city of smoked meat and sumptuous bagels was to get through it without weeping.
When we exited the Metro 20 minutes before first pitch, I was ready to cry in shame. That's because nobody else was there. We stood in a sprawling plaza almost totally devoid of humanity. There was no sign that a professional sporting event was about to begin—no fans arguing lineup changes and pitching matchups, no children clutching new pennants and smearing cotton candy on their faces, no one hawking programs or knockoff T-shirts.
Up ahead, Olympic Stadium loomed, as outmoded and ugly as any Soviet-era architecture. The funicular that glides along next door in Olympic Park offers tourists beautiful views of the city—and a hideous domed stadium. The cables that run between the stadium and the viewing platform make le Stade Olympique look like a giant, elderly marionette that's long since tired of bringing joy to children.
As we walked and walked in search of the lone open ticket window, a scalper cornered us. He had two good seats in the lower level for $20 Canadian—about $8 apiece. Ordinarily, I would have haggled, but I decided to give the guy a break—the Expos are leaving town, and the Canadiens won't be playing for who knows how long. Who has a more depressing career trajectory than a Montreal scalper?
Once you're inside, the difference between Olympic Stadium and modern venues grows even clearer. Fat and happy American spectators take great comfort in never being more than 50 steps from processed cheese. In Montreal, there's one central plaza with a couple of food and souvenir stands behind home plate. That's it. If you're in the outfield or the upper deck, you have to miss some action to hike for a dog and beer. Sure, fans might think the place is a pain, but Olympic is the stadium of choice for hikers and cardiologists. On the plus side, there's seldom a line.
Our tickets are on the third base line, but we decide to get some extra personal space. Three minutes before the pitch, we hustle to a little hideaway just inside the right field foul pole. There's literally no one in sight, just concrete pillars, concrete walls, and concrete I-beams. It's like sitting in a parking garage, without the ambience.
This being Friday night, there was actually a large crowd by Montreal standards—over 5,000. The intimate atmosphere adds to the small-time, minor-league feel of games at the Big O. Between innings, a Mercedes sedan cruises the field as part of a local promotion and has to swerve to avoid hitting centerfielder Endy Chavez. Virtually anyone who cares to wins a moment on the centerfield scoreboard. All shouts, whether insults, cheers, or calls to friends sitting across the field can be heard clearly. Meanwhile, casually slouching fans smoke freely in the stands, as though the game were played in one of the city's many cafes.
The protests of the team's impending move to D.C. are tepid, nothing like last night's missile throwing. "Gardons Nos Expos" (Save Our Expos) reads one fan's T-shirt; "Selig Sucks" says another. The fans seem too tired to try any funny business, and the game is too much of a blowout for the great rally song "Val-der-ree, Val-der-raa" to get cranking. After the Expos take an early 8-0 lead, the only drama comes from Kim Sun-Woo's attempt at a shutout. When Sunny whiffs Jim Thome and David Bell to end the sixth, the crowd brings the noise. It's just like the glory days of baseball in Quebec Province, except with 40,000 fewer people.
True to the evening's melancholy feel, Kim loses the shutout with two outs in the ninth. As he walks slowly off the mound, the crowd gives him a long standing ovation. Moments later, the game ends. It turns out that I was there for the last home win in Montreal Expos history, a small claim to fame that I'll hold onto tightly as the team fades down the memory hole. As we wind our way through the concrete canyons, I pause briefly at the Expos Wall of Fame. Smiling back at me are my childhood heroes: Rock Raines, Rodney Scott, Camcorder Carter, and, most important of all, the Big V, Ellis Valentine. It feels like a part of my life is over. I can't stop myself from welling up.