Baseball is returning to Montreal this week, but only for two exhibition games.
It's been a decade since the Expos played their last game at Olympic Stadium and packed up for Washington, D.C. But now, the much-maligned stadium will host the Toronto Blue Jays (Canada's remaining MLB team) and the New York Mets (who the Expos played their first and last games ever against).
The wounds of the Expos's dysfunctional final years are healing, replaced by nostalgia. So far, 75,000 tickets have been sold, with event programming catered to people strictly there to remember when the city had its own team. On Friday, there will be a ceremony for Gary Carter, one of the most popular former Expos, who died in 2012. And on Saturday, the locally mythologized 1994 team, which many argue was good enough to win the World Series had it not been for the cancellation of the season that August, will be honored.
A 1969 film documenting how the Expos came to be.
As Ken Belson argued in the New York Times over the weekend, that strike put a damper on the Expos' best season and on Montreal's chance of keeping the team in town. With a struggling Canadian dollar, many Canadian sports teams in U.S.-based leagues faced financial troubles in the mid-90s. The team unloaded its best players soon after the strike. Attendance plummeted. And despite new ownership by the end of the decade, little changed.
Olympic Stadium symbolized the franchise's growing dysfunction. Its "retractable" roof could hardly even retract (and it's still a problem). If a weather forecast projects snow accumulation 24 hours before an event, the stadium is required to close and reschedule. The city's Major League Soccer team had to delay its home opener last weekend. There's no snow in the forecast for Friday or Saturday.
A rare glimpse of Olympic Stadium's retractable roof working properly.
Simon Arsenault, a manager for Evenko, the company putting together this weekend's events, tells Fox Sports that when the Expos left, so did much of the stadium's baseball infrastructure. Workers have rebuilt dugouts, bullpens, and a part of the outfield wall. The provincial government of Quebec (they own Olympic Stadium) purchased batting cages from the Rogers Centre in Toronto, where the Blue Jays play.
Just like when baseball-deprived Washington D.C. hosted similar exhibition games before taking the Expos, Montrealers hope large and enthusiastic crowds this weekend will help prove to Major League executives that the city deserves another chance. With the league not looking to expand, a recent feasibility study suggested bringing baseball back to Montreal would require a new stadium and an owner capable of spending $1 billion to purchase and relocate a team.
That seems unlikely for now. As long as the city doesn't have its own team, Evenko hopes the Blue Jays will make Montreal an annual preseason stop. The Toronto squad sees the weekend as a chance to keep growing its fan base in Quebec, an executive telling the Times, "our territory is Canada."
Top image: The main entrance to Olympic Stadium before a Montreal Expos' game during their final home stand of the 2004 season. (REUTERS/Christinne Muschi)