Say it Again: 43,918

By Jack Todd

The new blue roof (henceforth to be known as "Jack the Ripper" for its unique contribution to the lore of the Big Oops) loomed over the field like the evening sky on your honeymoon.

Far below, deck after deck of screaming fans whooped and hollered and waved their signs: "Les Expos a Montreal - Brochu a Washington." "Claude the Fraud." And of course: "Brochu must go."

And in the press box, yours truly was trying to write something coherent with 43,918 people stomping, whistling, shouting, cheering, booing, laughing.

Say it again: 43,918. One more time, just 'cuz it sounds so sweet: 43,918.

This wasn't supposed to be possible. The game in Montreal was supposed to be as dead as last week's pizza. Kaput, finished, terminal, pining for the fjords. So dead that Washington D.C., North Carolina and Northern Virginia were already starting to follow Vladimir Guerrero in the boxscores.

Montreal said this to all of them last night: 43,918. This to Claude Brochu, who bragged at spring training about how few tickets had been sold for Opening Night: 43,918. This to Bud Selig: 43,918.

It was a battle, not a war. A game, not a season. Still, it was as sweet as the Ugueth Urbina fastball that put away pinch-hitter Matt Franco in the top of the ninth to make it official. This time, at least, the throng would not go home unhappy.

It was a victory in every way, on and off the field. A victory over inertia, cynicism, greed, fire sales, strikes and even the dull, gray Big O, which for this evening was a nattily attired lady in blue, dressed to party. The Expos, in their inimitably inefficient way, made it as hard as possible to actually get tickets and get into the stadium. There were horror stories about misadventures with the ticket agents who charge you $3.50 per ticket handling charge and turn their phones off at 5 p.m., jammed phone lines, tickets gone astray. There were never enough ticket wickets open at the Big O, where lines were 10 deep at 2 p.m. and 50 deep at 6:30. Once you had your tickets, you had to make your way through a tightly packed mob to get into the ball park.

And still they came: 43,918.

It's a strange feeling, looking down from the press box and seeing a packed house at the Big Uh-Oh, hearing them cheer every out.

"I couldn't find a parking place," Gazette cartoonist Terry Mosher said. "It was like 1979 all over again." Ah, yes. 1979. It had that feeling last night after the down years, the Brochu years, the years in the wilderness. You almost expected to look down and see Rodney Scott dancing off second and Donald Sutherland sitting behind the dugout.

Last night, almost everything the Expos did was right - and the crowd was right with them all the way. Guerrero bounced an RBI single through the infield in the first, and they screamed. Brad Fullmer followed with a triple under Bobby Bonilla's shaky glove in right, and they stood and screamed.

When catcher Chris Widger first picked Orel Hershiser off second base and then threw out Rickey Henderson trying to steal second in the third inning, Widger got a standing, screaming ovation.

When Edgardo Alfonzo followed with a solo home run to pull the Mets to within 2-1, the fans in the left-field bleachers responded with Wrigley Field panache: they threw it back.

When they posted the numbers on the scoreboard after the seventh inning, with the Expos leading the Mets 5-1 and Miguel Batista on cruise control, the crowd stood to cheer themselves, the longest, loudest standing ovation of the night for the real stars of the evening, the people who made it to the Big O to say "yes" - er, oui for Lucien Bouchard - to baseball.

Fullmer, Widger, Batista, Orlando Cabrera with the glove, Guerrero picking up two RBIs with two hits that traveled a combined 200 feet, Steve Kline getting five tough outs, Urbina in the top of the ninth doing his Senor Smoke thing with 40,000 people chanting "Ooogey-oogey-oogey-oogey-oogey!" like a freight train on a fast track.

"It was like a playoff game," Widger said later, "I was lucky enough to play in a couple for Seattle in '95, 50,000 people in the stands - it wasn't any louder then than it was here tonight. When you have a crowd like that, they won't let you get down. To have that kind of feeling - that's what the home-field advantage is all about.

"And they were in it - every pitch, every play, every defensive play. They cheered the good plays and you knew it when you didn't make a good play."

"This is not a new crowd," Felipe Alou said. "This is a crowd that has been coming here for a long time." For a long time, but not for a long time. The feeling in the stadium last night was something we haven't known since the early '80s, when it somehow slipped away.

Last night, the feeling was back. There were more people heading for the concessions stands between innings than the Expos were drawing last September. Baseball was back and healthier in every way than it has been at any time in this city since '94, maybe longer.

The Quebec government has agreed to help build downtown Labatt Park, the enormously unpopular Claude Brochu would appear to be on his way out at last - and the young and exciting Expos have already spent three more days in first place than they did all of last season. And y'know what? They're still there this morning.

With the game looking so lively, the ownership battle was little more than a sideshow. Brochu strolled through the press dining room about 5:45 p.m. on his way to his private box, escorted by bodyguards. He didn't speak to the players before the game, he didn't speak to reporters, he didn't speak to the fans. Jacques Menard came out at 6 p.m., mumbled a few words for the benefit of the assembled phalanx of cameramen, and that was it. The ownership group seeking to buy out Brochu - the group Menard heads - met briefly yesterday just to get up to date on the progress of talks with the Quebec government (ongoing) and with Major League Baseball (nothing yet, although Menard plans to present the Quebec plan to the commissioner's office before the end of the month.)

But last night was about baseball, and you would have been awfully hard pressed to look at that throng and convince yourself that the game is anything other than alive and well in Montreal

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