A FAN’S NOTES
The Montreal Expos and Baseball Lit
My Expos are ten years gone although the sun is the same in a relative way but I’m older by a decade and that much closer to sharing their fate.
At our regular Tuesday pub supper last week my old friend Stats Guy was animated about pitchers and catchers reporting, that long distance signal from warmer climes that winter here may yet be on the wane. The vacuum between Super Bowl and baseball’s spring training which used to be filled by Sports Illustrated’s Baptist stroke book, the swimsuit issue, has been ably plugged by hockey games broadcast on multiple sports channels in television’s new digital universe. The spring magic of freshly groomed infield dirt, pattern-mowed grass and easy, lazy swings from the batter’s box has since lost its lustre. Montreal is no longer a line in the National League’s East Division standings. The game doesn’t miss the Expos, but I do.
When the Expos began life in 1969 they played home games in an aluminum bandbox called Jarry Park, there was a swimming pool beyond the right field fence. Jarry was situated in Park Extension, never noted as one of Montreal’s better neighbourhoods. I was raised nearby in the wealthier Town of Mount Royal. The ballpark was within walking distance and as a member of the Bank of Montreal’s Young Expos Club I paid only 50-cents for a $1 left field bleacher seat. Trouble was, once across the boundary of L’Acadie Boulevard, I was a Townie on Parkie turf. The survival strategy was to become invisible on Saint Roch Street, blend in, or run like hell through the nine block gauntlet of older street corner boys before or after games, in whichever direction.
Years later I met a guy who grew up around Jarry, a cook in his father’s and uncle’s Saint Catherine Street pizza joint. He had happy memories of chasing Townies up and down Saint Roch. We laughed. More importantly, hanging around the yard so much he became acquainted with many of the players and possessed a bevy of balls and cracked bats to prove it. I was envious. And those were different times; a kid could approach a ballplayer then.
Following the first-ever Olympic Games held in Canada, the Expos migrated to the white elephant toilet bowl known locally as the Big Owe. The stadium was the crowning jewel of the multi-purpose behemoth era and a truly awful place to watch anything, let alone a baseball game. However the club had improved enough to fail, to begin breaking Expos fans’ hearts and anyway, the nine beers through nine innings game was always fun.
As the Expos became scary good in the early 90s circumstances began to collide, collude to crush them. The game’s economics were as insane as the financial ledgers of a province bent on independence but way more in the black. The Expos were always the younger brother of the Montreal Canadiens, summer players in a winter city in a hockey town – although both franchises struggled equally with a peso-like Canadian dollar as members of leagues that conducted business strictly with dead presidents. The Canadiens of course managed to finance their own new sparkling arena in the heart of downtown Montreal, only to complain about the property taxes. The Expos dreamed of being literally right next door in a retro-style, baseball-only facility. Whether we’re talking about a Quebec Inc. ownership consortium or a pair of baseball pants, alas, the pockets are not deep. There’s room for a tin of chaw, a batting glove, and in the 80s, maybe a gram or two of cocaine. At the end, playing home games in Puerto Rico, the franchise became the living embodiment of Philip Roth’s Port Rupert Mundys, the homeless baseball team whose lost season is chronicled in The Great American Novel. Life imitates art.
A decade on, the bitter pill swallowed remains the diameter of a craw-cramming hockey puck. Any modicum of sentimentality over big business, big entertainment and big sport at this stage of life strikes me as naïve or even weak. Yet, something’s been lost and maybe it’s just me, knowing that when I go home again I cannot go to the ballpark nor can I lie in bed listening to a late night Expos AM radio broadcast from America’s west coast. Rain delays were to die for. Duke Snider, the Brooklyn Dodger legend and Expos colour man, would start telling stories to commentator Dave Van Horne (who still does the Florida Marlins play-by-play): “Why, Dave, one time when the Dodgers were in Japan, me and Jackie (Robinson)…”
I bumped into Duke Snider once. There is a grocery store on Saint Catherine Street between Tower and Fort, not far from the old Montreal Forum. I asked him what he thought of The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn’s seminal book on the Brooklyn Dodgers of Duke’s era. He said a lot of it wasn’t true. As I was wearing an A&P apron and he was looking for Sun Maid raisins there wasn’t time for follow up questions. His comment did not ruin the book for me, in fact I’ve since reread it.
Professional baseball has existed since the National League’s founding in 1876. Given the sport’s head start on North America’s other pro leagues, its century of dominant popularity and its innate ability to mythologize itself, it’s little wonder that baseball has inspired so much poetry and prose, some it great. I’ve long believed that the best writing in most daily newspapers is to be read in the sports section. Not because of the gravitas of the subject, but because it takes a certain flair to tell a story under deadline in which everybody knows the ending. This was especially true during the heyday of print, when a big city would be served by at least three competing dailies and publications such as The Sporting News, Sport and Sports Illustrated strove to outdo each other’s features and analyses.
Because it is March and because it’s 20-below outside, my traditional annual baseball read is on the night table. This year it’s Hank Aaron’s I Had a Hammer. Last year it was The Teammates by the late David Halberstam whose writings on sport outshone his brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning political histories; perhaps because passion played a part. Through the years I have read genius, notably The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence Ritter’s oral history of baseball’s early days. I’ve read crap too, Billy Martin’s Number 1 springs to mind. Everything in between, the bios and the memoirs, have their merits and demerits.
The Expos lived as long as Jesus Christ, 33 years (there's a peculiar faith in certain circles that each may yet return). As such, they’re a footnote in baseball’s canon although Mordecai Richler, Canada’s greatest writer, sighted them for a few broadsides in various essays on baseball. The Expos Inside Out by Dan Turner is the most definitive book I have on the franchise. It was published in 1983.
On March 25th Random House Canada will publish Up, Up, and Away by Jonah Keri. The last word on the Expos apparently and an ironic twist on Dave Van Horne’s signature home run call (remember the swimming pool beyond Jarry’s right field fence). I’ve never heard of the author although Amazon gushes over his credentials as one of the new breed of sports writers. The full title of the book, multiple Oxford commas included, is a hot sauced, gut clenching, cringe: Up, Up and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos. I did not make that up. My hunch is that Jonah Keri didn’t either.