Au Revoir, Nos Amours?

By Michael Farber/Sports Illustrated

The obituaries will get it wrong. If the Expos don't survive in Montreal after this season -- and they very well could be the first big league franchise since 1971 to relocate, given their revenue woes and the warfare between principal owner Jeffrey Loria and his Quebec partners -- blame will cascade down upon the city. Montrealers don't get baseball, critics will charge. Montreal has never been a baseball city.

Well, a generation ago Siberia on the St. Lawrence was a terrific baseball city. Between 1979 and '83, when the Expos played in a stadium that was virtually uninhabitable in April and heated only by pennant races in September, more than two million fans a year tromped through the turnstiles. In those days the Expos had verve and speed and stars such as Andre Dawson and Gary Carter. They also had a song. At the slightest provocation the crowds would burst into choruses of "Valder-ee, valder-aa," and if that wasn't as traditional as Take Me Out to the Ballgame at Wrigley Field, it was every bit as throaty and heartfelt. Competing against the legacy of the Canadiens and the festivals that crowd the short, vibrant Montreal summers, the Expos did fine. French-language newspapers called them Nos Amours.

Of course, bad things happen to good franchises. The farm system shriveled, pennant runs grew scarce, and then came 1994, when the Expos had a 74-40 record, best in the majors, before baseball drank the poisoned punch and went on strike. The annual fire sale of players followed. The Expos gave up a future MVP in Larry Walker, a future World Series MVP in John Wetteland, a once and future Cy Young winner in Pedro Martinez. In an effort to get a downtown ballpark, former managing partner Claude Brochu kept reminding people how crummy Olympic Stadium was. If you keep telling fans your stadium is terrible, you run the risk that they might believe you.

Loria, a New York City art dealer, barged into the breach last year, but he has a tin ear for local sensibilities and lacks the patience to reestablish the trust of fans who have seen their team battered by years of neglect, mismanagement and underfunding. When the moving vans back up to the door, the sad truth will be this: Baseball abandoned Montreal long before Montreal abandoned the Expos.

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