Baseball in Montreal causes withdrawal symptoms

By: Danny Gallagher

Canadian Baseball Network

I’ve got the blues. Let’s say it’s more like I’m experiencing withdrawal symptoms after an electric baseball weekend in Montreal.

We don’t remember the scores of the games but we remember other more special moments more important since the Evenko-organized games were end-of-spring-training exhibitions involving the Blue Jays and Red Sox.

We saw the turnout of fans sporting their Expos’ shirts and bomber jackets and I especially liked the coats in light blue, my favourite colour. We saw Papi 12 on one back of a buttoned-down shirt but it wasn’t Big Papi. It was in honour of Stan Papi, who played for the Expos in 1977-78. Cool, like the Rose 14 I saw.

We saw Pedro Martinez under cover of the dugout protected from adoring fans nestled behind him. We walked over to say hello to him before he was honoured in a pre-game ceremony. With him was former Expos trainer Ron McClain.

Martinez and other Expos’ alumni such as Tim Raines and Vladimir Guerrero told reporters that they would be willing to be investors in a group trying to get a team back in Montreal.

In both games, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz was greeted warmly by the fans and he was touched by the outpouring of support, considering this is his final season. It’s my thought that the organizers of the two weekend games should have arranged to give Ortiz a retirement gift. He would have been floored.

Former Expos jack-of-all-trades executive and field manager Jim Fanning was honoured before Saturday’s game. When his No. 6 was unveiled on the left-field wall, his wife Marie was hugged for quite a few seconds by first Expos owner Charles Bronfman. The unveiling was touching and emotional for the Fanning clan, including his daughter Cynthia and son Frank. There were a few tears shed.

Moments later, Bronfman’s son Stephen talked to reporters about the possibility of baseball returning to Montreal. Stephen said that until he talked Saturday he was basically avoiding interviews, including my attempt a few weeks ago. Bronfman has talked on a number of occasions with commissioner Rob Manfred.

“We know it’s a long-term project with a lot of planning,’’ Bronfman said. “It’s preferable to work discretely. That’s why I didn’t want to accord an interview before today (Saturday). We don’t want to push the envelope.’’

But Bronfman said, “We have many people who believe in the project. It will not be a problem finding investors.’’

Sunday morning, my wife and I went for breakfast at Reuben’s, which has two locations just a few blocks apart from each other on Ste. Catharine St. in Montreal. Our waiter Marc-André Lafreniére regaled stories of his love for the Expos and Martinez. I texted him two photos I took of Martinez Friday and then I returned later to give him an autographed, complimentary copy of Ecstasy to Agony I co-authored with Bill Young.

“I am extremely touched by your gift today,’’ the waiter said in a text to me later in the day. “I will read your book with a lot of interest and it will have a good place with my sports collectibles. Thanks for talking about the Expos and making sure that the team we still love isn’t forgotten.’’

Later that day at the rousing, successful Exposfest fund-raiser at Place Centre Ville, we ran into former Expos Bill Lee, Bill Atkinson, Jose Vidro, Marquis Grissom, Ellis Valentine, Steve Rogers and Guerrero. They were there signing tons of autographs with felt pens plenty in force. Sadly, due to a sudden illness, Big Cat Andres Galarraga couldn’t be present.

Through his interpreter, Guerrero talked about a recent Twitter poll he conducted, asking fans what hat he should have on his plaque if he’s elected into Cooperstown at some point. Expos or Angels? The poll results, with almost 25,000 responding, were decidedly in favour of him wearing an Expos’ hat: 81% as opposed to 19% for the Angels. With both teams, he played roughly seven and a half seasons.

Interestingly, Guerrero told me his choice is made a little difficult by the fact  “the Expos are not in Montreal anymore. They are the Washington Nationals.’’ Then he said, “I still haven’t made a decision about which hat but I’m leaning toward Montreal. I loved playing in Montreal.’’

In another part of the exhibit area, we ran into numerous fans, who came from all over to attend the two games and the festival. One fan purchased four copies of the book Ecstasy to Agony, one for himself and the others for three of his friends.

Another interesting fan was a Washington attorney, Josh Millard.

“I’m not a Nationals’ fan. I’ve always been an Expos’ fan,’’ Millard said. “When the Expos moved to Washington, I didn’t become a Nationals’ fan. The Expos are my team. I grew up in New Jersey and my friends would kid me, saying, ‘You cheer for the Expos?’ I remember when the Expos got Zane Smith in a trade from Atlanta. He was 1-12 for Atlanta at the time of the trade but he ended up pitching not bad for the Expos.

“The first trip I made to Montreal to see the Expos play there was in September of 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. There were a lot of flights cancelled and I wondered whether I should fly there. I showed up at the airport and I saw about 50 body builders lined up to go on the flight so I figured I would be safe with all of those body builders.’’

Exposfest was the brain-child of Perry Giannias of Montreal, who lost a relative Catherine Demes to a rare brain cancer called DIPG. He attracted a lot of exhibitors, selling all kinds of Expos’ shirts and other memorabilia. Quite the sight. There were singers, musicians and people like us selling books, all for a good cause. Singer Annakin Slayd was tremendous with his renditions about the Expos, including ‘Kid’ about Gary Carter. His vocal sidekick Leesa Mackey was wonderful, too.

As we start another season, here are some highlights of mine from spring training:

·         Convincing the often irascible Barry Bonds to pose for a photo in Jupiter with Sam Bat officials Sam Holman and Arlene Anderson.  I’d returned from watching some players in a backfield and stumbled upon Bonds chatting with Holman and Anderson at a picnic table. “Barry, I’ve done a lot of stories on Sam Holman and Sam Bat so is there any chance I could take a photo of you with Sam and Arlene?’’ I asked. “Hurry, because I have to go to work,’’ Bonds replied.

·         Brief chat with Marlins elusive, media-shy owner Jeffrey Loria. He just doesn’t want to talk about baseball in Montreal.

·         Tried to get interview with Ichiro. I was told by his interpreter Allan Turner that five minutes was probably possible. In the end, the interview was not possible. I did a story on him anyway.

·         Running into and saying hello to Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski in the concourse area with fans abound lining up for food. He didn’t want to talk then but agreed to a phone conversation.

·         Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer candidly talking to me about how low salaries are for major-league coaches. With some exceptions, coaches are generally paid anywhere between $150,000 and $250,000, far less than $507,500, the minimum salary for a player. A few people responded to my story, saying, “I’d work for that money.’’

·         I didn’t take a computer with me to Florida but $10 I spent for a card to use the Lake Worth Public Library to type my stories was really worth it for all the time I was there.

·         Those stacked sandwiches at Toojay’s Deli in Lake Worth. Toojay’s has 26 locations in Florida and should set up venues in both Montreal and Toronto. It’s a deli operation like Reuben’s in Montreal, serving fresh food in great portions.

·         Okay, enjoy the regular season. The Blue Jays got off on the right foot. Another 160 games to go.

Danny GallagherComment