Whether it’s Big Boi from OutKast sporting a red one or a regular person wearing their “tricouleur” on the street, chances are at some point in the last few years you’ve seen the famous “M” logo on someone’s head, on a discreet lapel pin or even emblazoned on a baseball-style jacket.
Fans of retro baseball gear, especially in Canada, are likely to possess something identifiable with the star-crossed team that made its home in Montreal from 1969 to 2004. At this point there are fewer people outside of Montreal who remember the actual team, or its wacky mascot Youppi dancing on the dugout and running around at Olympic Stadium causing havoc. Youppi has been seen hamming it up at Canadiens games in recent years, and the team formerly known as the Expos is now tearing up the National League as the Washington Nationals.
From their humble beginnings at a run-down field in north-end Montreal named Jarry Park, the Expos are the reason I love baseball to this day. A cousin of mine is a huge baseball fan, and he suggested to me as a li’l shaver in 1968 that I get ready for Canada’s first major-league team. So I did; I watched and absorbed all the baseball I could. I was enraptured as the Detroit Tigers became the team to beat that year, with Denny McLain going 31-6 and Mickey Lolich getting three victories including the World Series-winning game seven against the St. Louis Cardinals and the great Bob Gibson.
Then the Expos started up in 1969 and, well, they were no Detroit Tigers: they went 52-110 and finished 48 games behind the eventual World Series winners, the “Amazin’” New York Mets. Things looked good early on: they actually beat the Mets at Shea Stadium 11-10 in their very first league game on April 8. “Le Grand Orange,” right fielder Rusty Staub, would hit the first of his 292 career home runs that day. He became the Expos’ first fan favourite not only because he could hit the long ball, but also because he learned French.
On April 17, in his fifth career start, Bill Stoneman pitched the first no-hitter in club history; they beat the Phillies in Philadelphia 7-0 in Montreal’s ninth regular-season game. They averaged 14,970 fans per home game that year, good enough for seventh in the National League.
Unfortunately, the good times wouldn’t last. I didn’t care: I began to associate baseball with spring, the melting of the snow and the return of decent weather. I still do. The ‘Spos could be as good or as lousy as they wanted, and I still loved them… until Blue Monday. In 1981, pitcher Steve Rogers watched as, with one out to go, Rick Monday of the LA. Dodgers drove a game-winning home run over the right-field wall to win the National League Championship Series; the Dodgers would go on to the World Series. The Expos would not.
Watching that ball go over the fence, I saw my love for the Expos disappearing in that moment as well. I turned my back on them, and started cheering for the (gulp) Toronto Blue Jays. They would go on to win back-to-back World Series in 1992 and ’93, but a small part of me wanted the Expos to be doing that. Then in 1994, Montreal woke up again and started playing like winners. Then the last work stoppage in baseball killed off any post-season hopes the Expos had.
At this point 18 years ago, the ‘Spos were the best team in the major leagues at 74-40. When the season stopped and it became obvious that there would be no playoffs, the team’s stars were sold off and their death spiral would begin. Even as a former fan — perhaps especially because of that — it was still difficult to watch the regression.
Some fans now support the team the Expos became: the Washington Nationals. I am not one of those people. I have a Montreal Expos pin which I occasionally wear, and an original tricolour hat is next on the shopping list. If by some miracle they should ever make it back to the major leagues, I will never turn my back on “Les Expos” again. Rick Monday retired long ago, anyway.