Adieu, Expos - Franchise may be near its end

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

MONTREAL -- Gary Carter can still sing the French-language version of the Canadian national anthem, each syllable properly accented, from seeing the words on the scoreboard game after game for 10 seasons.

He remembers the Montreal public address announcer's introduction of "le receveur des Expos," or "Expos catcher," and the frigid weather at the start and end of each season.

Then there were the constant border crossings and dealing with Canadian currency, or "funny money" as the players called it.

"Yeah, you definitely had to accept change," he said of playing for major league baseball's first foreign team.

Even more change is imminent for the Expos, the sports orphans of 2002, who are playing under league ownership before an expected move to a U.S. city or even contraction -- the owners' term for liquidation -- at the end of their 34th season.

Born in 1969 as major league baseball expanded outside U.S. borders for the first time, the franchise has claimed its place as one of the game's colorful stepchildren -- known for developing great players who never were able to bring a championship to the French-speaking fans.

Carter is one of several all-time greats who once wore the bleu, blanc et rouge of the Expos, including the wacky three-color hats of the early years. Other Expos stars include Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez and Tim Wallach, a brief stint by all-time hit leader Pete Rose, and Le Grand Orange himself, Rusty Staub.

Nothing was ever normal with the Montreal franchise, at least from an American baseball perspective.

The first home was Jarry Park, a 35,000-seat stadium that created intimacy with the fans but lacked the adornments of a major league facility.

In the early years, Staub recalled in a telephone interview, it was "a place to look and be seen."

"Many times, there would be cheering going on in the stands. The pitcher would have to step off because he didn't understand what was happening," Staub said. "But all the guys that played there understood. It meant some girl in a micro mini was walking down the walkway and she was getting a standing ovation."

The fans that regularly filled Jarry Park created something special, he said, such as the man who danced in the aisles to stimulate cheering every sixth inning.

"Somebody had a dog he bought a season ticket for -- I mean stuff like that," Staub said. "There was a lot of love in that ballpark."

Carter remembered some of the problems: the clubhouse was down the left field line, requiring players to walk behind the stands to get to the dugout. A prevailing wind toward right field created "a left-handed hitter's paradise," with the right-handed Carter becoming "a pretty good opposite-field hitter there."

When the sun was setting, it dropped behind third base, blinding the first baseman as he looked for the ball from the far side of the infield.

"That's how bad that facility was set up, because guys couldn't see the throw coming," Carter said by telephone from Florida.

Overall, he said, "there just wasn't that much excitement" for baseball in hockey-mad Quebec.

There is no lack of baseball history in Montreal, where Jackie Robinson began his climb to the big leagues and history with an International League stint on the Royals. Rose got his 4,000th hit there, and it always will be where the major leagues first put down foreign roots.

Through the years, though, the Expos became a perennial disappointment, known for approaching -- but never grasping -- the National League pennant, and giving up young stars. When the other Canadian franchise in rival Toronto won consecutive World Series championships in the early 1990s, Expos fans finally began giving up.

The $34 million payroll last season was not much more than some players on other teams make in a season, showing the Expos' inability to sign major stars and compete on the field. Forbes magazine estimated in March 2001 that the franchise was worth $92 million, last in the majors, compared with $635 million for the New York Yankees.

Average attendance in 2001 was 7,648 in Olympic Stadium, which was built for the 1976 Montreal Games and then adapted for baseball. A lack of intimacy and some famous problems, such as a retractable roof that failed to work for years, earned it nicknames such as the "Toilet Bowl."

"That place should be imploded once they send the team elsewhere," said Carter, who played two seasons in Jarry Park and then eight in Olympic Stadium before being traded to the Mets.

While the facilities were lacking, fan devotion remained passionate and steady until the final years. Staub and Carter spoke of learning French to be able to communicate with fans and fit in the community.

"I think that was something that meant a great deal to all the people in Quebec," Staub said. "We had a lot of fans that were young French Canadians and ... I wanted to at least be able to do some basic conversation to help the game."

The downside was playing in a small media market, in a foreign country no less, that harmed players' exposure, Carter believes. He has failed to make the Hall of Fame, and said the years in Montreal "had to have played a significant part."

"They just don't get the media coverage there," Carter said.

Fans say they started losing interest in 1994, when the strike shut down baseball as the Expos were having their best season. Stars such as Martinez, Walker, David Segui and Moises Alou were traded or allowed to leave in cost-cutting measures in ensuing years, and winning ways went with them.

To Staub, the weak Canadian dollar and lack of stable ownership have been the problems, not the city or its fans. If the franchise disappears, "I'm going to be very, very unpleased ... because I know under the right set of circumstances it could flourish. I've seen it flourish there before."

At least one former Expo with a reputation for exotic viewpoints believes the current adversity will galvanize the team and the community. Bill "Spaceman" Lee, the gangly lefthander known for his bohemian lifestyle, told The Washington Post he thinks the Expos will play their way to survival because they have nothing to lose.

"This is like dead men walking," Lee said. "You have to play your butt off so if this team does go under, you will have a job with someone else next year.

"These guys will probably get off to a good start, and then start drawing 25,000 to 35,000 fans a game. They probably go coast to coast in the National League East, make the playoffs, and win in the seventh game of the World Series in Montreal, and then who are you going to contract?"

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, hired by owners as the manager this season, has talent in franchise hitting king Vladimir Guerrero, double-play tandem Orlando Cabrera and Jose Vidro, and pitchers Javier Vazquez and Tony Armas Jr.

But some players such as Raines, now closing out his career with the Marlins, believe the franchise's uncertainty will continue to hurt it.

"The Expos have never really been a popular team, No. 1 because they're in Canada," he said. "Now the fans don't know if it's going to be a one-year wonder."

Good memories of baseball's first foreign franchise linger, though. Carter, who won a World Series with the Mets, called the highlight of his career his last game, again as an Expo, in 1992 against the Cubs.

With more than 40,000 people in Olympic Stadium, probably one of the biggest non-opening day crowds since then, he came up in a scoreless game with Larry Walker on first base and doubled over Dawson's head in right -- the opposite field -- for the game-winning RBI.

"It was so loud in Olympic Stadium," he said of the cheering. "I will never forget it."

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