Friday night Major League Baseball was back in Montreal for the first of two preseason games between the New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays. Ten years after the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington, D.C. the national pastime returned to Olympic Stadium and brought with it Canada’s lone remaining MLB franchise.
What is the old axiom? Distance makes the heart grow fonder? Perhaps this was the case with the Canadian faithful, as fans turned out in droves for Friday night’s exhibition and returned in even greater numbers for Saturday afternoon’s finale. 46,121 watched the native Blue Jays down the Mets 5-4 on a walkoff RBI single by minor leaguer Ricardo Nanita. If you were watching the game, you could hear the sheer jubilation in the crowd as Canada’s team bested the opposition in a game that meant nothing in the standings.
Saturday was even better. The 1994 “Best Team in Baseball” Expos, victims of the infamous strike-shortened season, were honored before the game. 46,229 walked through the gates and saw Melky Cabrera lift Toronto to a 2-0 win on a 2-run homer in the bottom of the 8th inning. The Blue Jays’ sweep of the two game series was the perfect outcome. Simply put, Canada won both literally and figuratively this weekend.
The reason the Expos left town in 2005? There were many, but the most pressing was the team’s atrocious attendance numbers over its final few years. From 2000-04 the Expos averaged barely 10,000 through the turnstiles per game. In its twilight years the team didn’t even have an English-speaking radio affiliate. A function of this was ownership’s failure to secure a new ballpark, as the domed Stade Olympique was just a lousy place to catch a game.
But after nearly ten bitter years in which fans could only watch baseball from afar, the return of MLB to Montreal provoked the locals to reignite what was once a thriving love affair. Expos and Blue Jays hats and jerseys were seen throughout the packed stands. Even though it was technically preason, both games had playoff feels. The crowd was loud and passionate. I heard a lengthy “Let’s go Expos” chant during Saturday’s broadcast. Two games create an incredibly small sample size, but baseball’s 2014 Montreal experiment was a striking success.
Was it enough to plant the seed for a possible franchise relocation to Montreal? The Tampa Bay Rays have been long-rumored candidates to pack up and move to Montreal if they are unable to fund a new park in the future. Ownership has insisted the team isn’t going anywhere. The Oakland Athletics have been battling a stadium dilemma for years as well, but their higher-ups seem intent on keeping them on the West Coast. One thing is clear, however: Montreal loves baseball and will turn out for games. But I’m not sure they will do so over the course of a full season. Not if they have to watch their team play in the antiquated mammoth venue that is Olympic Stadium.
Maybe another visit from the Blue Jays next year can put the idea in motion. Make it a regular season series. We saw a great couple games in Montreal as Opening Day looms near. I hope the Montreal community enjoyed it though, because they will probably have a long wait until their next chance to cheer on the home team in person again.