From the friendly confines of Parc Jarry, to the thunderous roars of Stade Olympique, the history of Les Expos de Montréal is truly a love story involving the game of baseball, the city of Montreal, and fans from Victoria to St. John’s.
Today, with Major League Baseball threatening to soon relocate the franchise to a larger U.S.-based market, the hearts of baseball fans in La Belle Province are aching for the days of their first hero, Rusty Staub – Le Grande Orange.
When Staub wasn’t patrolling the outfield for the Expos at Jarry Park, the carrot-topped native of New Orleans, La. was learning the French language, and during the off-season traveling coast-to-coast, promoting the Expos. He was an ambassador for what was consider’s Canada’s baseball team.
Until the American League Toronto Blue Jays stepped up to the plate in 1977, the Expos really were embraced by our entire nation. Even after the Jays came to nest in Canada’s largest city, the Expos provided Canadian baseball fans with a lifetime of memories. Two members of the Expos Hall of Fame – play-by-play commentator Dave Van Horne, and pitcher Steve Rogers – continue to keep those memories alive. Both are still active in big-league baseball, Van Horne the play-by-play man with the Florida Marlins, Rogers an employee of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Both are saddened by the looming death of their former team.
Known for his call, “It’s up, up and away!” Easton, Pa. native Van Horne called Expos games for 32 glorious seasons in the sun. While he treasures the memory of announcing the Marlins’ stunning 2003 World Series victory, Van Horne has a special place in his heart for the Expos. He called their inaugural game on April 8, 1969, an 11-10 win over the eventual World Series champion New York Mets; a no-hitter by Bill Stoneman in ‘69; and another no-hitter by Dennis Martinez in 1991, prompting Van Horne to announce is now-famous call, “El Presidente, El Perfecto!”
“The Expos were taken by Montreal with open arms in 1969,” remembers Van Horne. “We all remember those weekend games when the weather was beautiful, the park was packed, and we have forgotten about those nasty, cold, windy, rainy games in April and September. Fans were close to the field, they could reach out and touch the players, look them right in the eye.”
Jarry Park, a 3,000-seat stadium, was quickly converted to a makeshift 30,000-seat big-league ballpark. Bordered by Rue Faillon, Boulevard St. Laurent and a swimming pool, Rue Jarry and Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, Jarry Park provided fans with an intimate setting for eight seasons until Olympic Stadium opened its doors on April 15, 1977.
In the early years, the Expos drew anywhere from 1.2 million to 1.4 million each season. An early Expos fan favourite, right-handed pitcher Steve Rogers, would emerge as one of the ballclub’s all-time greats. Unlike Van Horne, Rogers says he couldn’t wait to say bon voyage to Jarry Park.
“A lot of people remember Jarry Park with this fondness. Players remember it as a god-forsaken place,” laughs Rogers. “Fans forget there were only about 5,000 to 6,000 good seats, because the angles in the stands were so severe. It had a terrible playing surface. And in April, night games in May, and September games were nasty cold.”
Still, Rogers fondly recalls his glory days with the Expos. The 6'2", 175-pound hurler from Jefferson City, Mo. was a low high school draft pick of the New York Yankees in 1967, but didn’t sign a big-league contract until the Expos drafted him in the first round (4th pick) of the 1971 amateur draft (second phase). Proud of his durability and a ability to pitch more than 300 innings in 1977, Rogers would eventually become the most successful pitcher in Expos history, winning 158 games in 13 season from 1973 to 1985, before an arm injury ended his career.
Currently a special assistant to the executive director of the MLBPA, Rogers looks back on the Expos’ move from Jarry Park to Olympic Stadium as a thrilling era for the city of Montreal, and for the ballclub.
“If you look at our record in 1976, we lost 107 ballgames – and we lost them convincingly!” laughs Rogers. “We were going to a youth movement. Baseball was miserable, but with the excitement of the Olympics, it was a lot of fun.”
Although the Expos drew 57,592 fans to their first-ever game at Olympic Stadium in 1977, most fans have over the years defined the ballpark as a hollow, cavernous bowl which fails to provide the intimacy of Jarry Park, or today’s fan-friendly ballparks in cities such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Despite his deserved spot in the Expos hall, Rogers is oft remembered for Blue Monday. In Game Five of the 1981 National League Division Series against the Phillies, Rogers hurled a shutout to send Montreal to the League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Rogers won Game Three, but lost Game Five on October 19,1981 when he surrendered a series-ending, ninth-inning home run to Dodgers outfielder Rick Monday, crushing the Expos’ hopes of a trip to the World Series.
“I understand it’s something that needs to be talked about whenever you do a retrospective of my connection with Montreal,” says Rogers. “I was devastated we didn’t go to a World Series, and that I was on the mound when we lost. But I made a physical mistake, not a mental mistake. Physical mistakes are part of the game. I can live with that.”
Rightfully, Van Horne says Rogers shouldn’t be haunted by Blue Monday. “What is forgotten by most of the fans is that the Expos would never have been playing on Blue Monday if it hadn’t been for Steve Rogers. He singlehandedly beat the Phillies in the Division Series, beat (hall of fame pitcher) Steve Carlton twice in a week. The Expos would never have been in a position to play for a trip to the World Series if it hadn’t been for Rogers’ accomplishments.”
Sadly, what might have been is a big part of Expos history. In 1979, fueled by the performances of stars like catcher Gary “The Kid” Carter and outfielder Andre “The Hawk” Dawson, the Expos finished second in the NL East to the eventual World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates, hanging in until the final few days of the regular season. In 1980, the Expos maintained playoff hopes until the final day of the season, finishing second to the Phillies.
In 1994 – a season from which the Expos never recovered – the players went on strike on August 12. In a shortened season with a cancelled World Series, the Expos finished six games ahead of the Atlanta Braves to win the NL East with a 74-40 record – the best in baseball.
“We would have drawn over 2 million fans,” says Van Horne of the strike-shortened season, “but the Expos had a multitude of problems beginning in the mid-1980s.” The ballclub signed a territorial rights agreement governing radio and television broadcasts and commissions, and thus lost necessary exposure in heavily-populated southern Ontario – also the financial capital of Canada. The team failed to market itself outside of Montreal, and thus began a slow death spiral.
Despite shortcomings at the gate and coffers, the Expos marched on, producing some of the best young talent in the game, including current superstar Vladimir Guerrero, now an all-star outfielder with the Anaheim Angels. The Expos farm system has produced numerous star players, but the economics of baseball have seen the cash-strapped, small-market Expos lose their biggest stars to richer clubs in big-market U.S. cities.
Montreal business executive Charles Bronfman, of the Seagram’s distilling empire, was the front man for the ownership group awarded the Expos franchise for the 1969 season. Salaries skyrocketed, and after more than a decade of debates over the need for a new stadium, a public bailout of Expos owners saw New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria purchase controlling interest in the team for $75 million in 1999. Two years later, Loria dumped the Expos for the Marlins, and Major League Baseball’s 29 other teams took control of the Expos, which recently even played early-season games in Puerto Rico.
A 2002 lawsuit saw Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and Loria accused of conspiring to eliminate Montreal from the fold. Meanwhile, the front-running candidates for obtaining the Expos are Norfolk, Va. and Washington, D.C.
“I am absolutely convinced the Expos are going to wind up in either Washington or Virginia,” says Van Horne. “Several ownership groups with very deep pockets are bidding for that franchise.”
Rogers says if the Expos die, then a part of him will die, too. “A part of me will be lost,” Rogers explains. “I’ll miss having that connection with the city of Montreal. I spent the heart of my adult life in that city. It has a very strong place inside of me, and I’m going to miss it.”
It may be au revoir Expos, but millions of Expos fans will remember the glory days. Je me souviens.