By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
MONTREAL -- By now, one can only assume that the novelty has worn off.
Over the past three years, the city of Montreal has hosted six exhibition games at the Olympic Stadium and the derelict venue --complete with its antiquated concourses, questionable sight lines and icy metallic seating-- has sold out (quickly) each time.
That makes 300,000+ patrons since the leagues grand return to the Royal City in 2014.
For context, it took the Tampa Bay Rays 19 home games to hit the 300K-attendance plateau last season ... And that’s for real honest to goodness regular-season baseball.
For a city unceremoniously stripped of its major league status, Montreal has certainly proved that its interest in baseball remains. But before the Expos can return from the attendance-induced purgatory they find themselves in today, there are still questions that remain unanswered.
Questions like who will step forward as the clubs new ownership consortium.
Is Bell Media still interested in joining the ownership ranks a la Rogers Communications, their largest market competitor? Does Stephen Bronfman, son of former Expos owner Charles Bronfman, still wish to continue the legacy his father left behind after selling his share in the club back in 1990?
Set to kick in ahead of the 2017 campaign, will the new collective bargaining agreement include designs for Major League Baseball’s impending expansion?
Time will tell.
As for the present, Montreal will have to remain content with its yearly weekend showcase.
In all of its pomp and circumstance, the exhibition series is not so much about the games played at Olympic Stadium. Instead, it’s more geared towards delivering a message.
“If you talked about baseball’s return five years ago, people would have laughed” explained Montreal’s mayor, Denis Coderre. “ The fact that we have a packed stadium (this weekend) is not based off nostalgia. It’s in our DNA”
RETURNEZ NOS AMOURS
If the overwhelming groundswell of enthusiasm for games that are worth absolutely nothing in the standings wasn’t enough to convince you that Montreal may be ready for another crack at the Show, perhaps a personal endorsement from a Hall of Fame flamethrower will do the trick.
“What I’m seeing is not surprising” said former Expos hurler Pedro Martinez, the Hall of Famer, when asked about the fans reaction to the weekend series “I was accustomed to seeing this. I’m hoping that if we ever get baseball back in Montreal, which I think will happen, we will know better about keeping the good players and the franchise intact.”
On hand for a pre-game ceremony geared towards honoring both himself and fellow Expos standout Tim Raines on Friday, Martinez was all smiles when asked what the city of Montreal meant for his career.
The way I feel about (the city) is really special, and very unique just like Montreal is” explained Martinez between innings on Friday night.
Inducted to Cooperstown last summer, Martinez spent four of his 18 big league seasons with the Expos. Traded to Montreal in a deal that sent Delino DeShields to the Dodgers in 1994, the product of Manoguayabo, Dominican Republic transformed from an intriguing young arm destined for a relief role, to a top of the rotation caliber starter during his tenure north of the border.
“I owe Montreal and the Expos organization basically everything I did in baseball” said the eight time all star. “The Dodgers never thought of me as someone who would succeed, and the Expos supported me from the first time I landed in Montreal.”
For Martinez, who won his first of three Cy Young awards after going 17-8 with an ERA of 1.90 for the 1997 Expos, the trip represented his first visit to Le Stade since 1999 while appearing as a member of the visiting Boston Red Sox during inter league play.
“This was the moment I have been waiting for since 1997. I remember I was handed my trophy as the Cy Young award winner, and was the only one in Expos history. Not being able to share it with the team and the people here was kind of sad for me.”
Having witnessed the kind of support that still exists for Major League Baseball in La Belle Province, Martinez says he’s ready to support the case for reinstatement.
“I’m willing to do anything. To join or do whatever. I would love to see Montreal have baseball back.”
REMEMBERING GENTLEMAN JIM
In a touching ceremony held prior to Saturday’s tilt, event organizers honored the late Jim Fanning by formally retiring his #6 on the outfield wall at Olympic Stadium.
Inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, Fanning spent over 60 years working in professional baseball and was the only Expos manager to successfully guide the team to a postseason appearance.
“Had it not been for Blue Monday, Jim would have led us to win the World Series that year” said Charles Bronfman, former majority owner of the Expos.
“I knew Jim as a man of integrity, the face of the Expos and as my friend” explained former Montreal ace, Steve Rogers when asked of his former mentor.
With the honor, Fanning now joins fellow Expos greats Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Rusty Staub as the only five individuals to have their number retired by the organization.
Following the Jays Ezequiel Carrera’s grounding into a double play to end the second inning on Saturday, a capacity crowd turned its attention to the third base line as longtime scribe Serge Touchette was presented with the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Jack Graney Award.
Bestowed to those in the media who have made significant contributions to baseball in Canada throughout their careers, the Graney Award represents one of Canadian baseball’s highest honors. With his nomination in 2015, Touchette became one of 17 individuals to have their name inscribed on the award since its inception in 1987.
An esteemed employee of Le Journal de Montreal, Touchette served as both an Expos beat writer and occasional columnist from 1975 until the team relocated to Washington in 2004.
Over his 29 years on the Expos circuit, the Montreal native covered some of the most pivotal moments in franchise history including the clubs first (and only) playoff appearance in 1981, Larry Walker’s MLB debut in 1989, Denis Martinez’ “El Perfecto” 10 years later and the heartbreak 1994’s strike shortened season, with the Expos ahead of the Atlanta Braves when play ended and never resumed.
Serving as a staunch mentor to those around him, including our own Bob Elliott, Touchette also spent time as president of Montreal’s Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) chapter and vice-president of the BBWAA’s chapter under his dear friend Ian MacDonald while covering the Expos.
“(Serge) is a respected is a respected leader in his field and is one of our country’s most knowledgeable, charismatic and beloved baseball writers” said the Hall of Fame’s Director of Operations, Scott Crawford in a press release ahead of Saturday’s event. “We’re proud to recognize him with this award.”
Although he now pens stories for NHL.com, Touchette still cites baseball as his true passion.
A passion that, despite the Expos untimely demise, remains shared amongst the countless legions of Montrealers that attended this weekend’s exhibition series at Olympic Stadium.
Touchette churned out two pages of tabloid space each morning making him a must read from Longueuil and Berthierville, to Saint-Hyacinthe and Dollard-des-Ormeaux, to Trois-Pistoles and Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!
The Blue Jays concluded their exhibition schedule with a loss to Boston on Saturday.
Although the pair of games north of the border didn’t count in terms of Toronto’s Grapefruit League standings, the 26 played in Florida certainly did. Of those 26, the Blue Jays won 17, dropped six and tied three.
Led by standout performances from Darrell Ceciliani, Andy Burns and Aaron Sanchez, the defending American League champions accumulated an overall winning percentage of .739, a figure good enough for second in all of baseball and the club’s second highest in franchise history.