Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A downtown site once held the promise of keeping the Expos in "la belle province."
Nearly 100,000 people (96,545, to be exact) attended two exhibition Major League Baseball games in Montreal's Stade Olympique last weekend. That paid attendance figure in fact constitutes a slight increase over last year's successful first effort in bringing professional baseball back to Quebec.
With the Blue Jays serving as the home team for each installment, the series allows Toronto's baseball club to further cement itself as Canada's Team. For Montrealers, it's also a time to remember what it was like to have their own MLB team—one that might still be there had the downtown stadium the team's owners wanted been built.
This season marks 10 years since the Montreal Expos left town for Washington, D.C. Expos fans had been bracing themselves for years, but the final home game, on September 29, 2004, was nonetheless an ugly affair—some of the 31,395 fans threw golf balls and plastic bottles on field during the 9-1 loss to the Florida Marlins. Others, including stadium employees and former players, simply watched in tears.
In the aftermath of the 1994 strike, the Expos quickly descended from being one of the best teams in Major League Baseball to being a franchise that gave even the most loyal fans little reason to emotionally or financially invest. Over its final 10 seasons, the front office earned a reputation for being painfully stingy. They made unpopular trades. Eventually, the team struggled to get their own games on local radio or television while claiming some of the worst attendance figures in the Majors.
And yet despite all of that, the Expos might still be around today had the downtown ballpark they coveted in their final years ever come to fruition.
In the middle of the 1997 season, then-team president Claude Brochu unveiled his plans to move out of Olympic Stadium in the city's east end and into a new, nostalgia-soaked downtown ballpark. Without a new stadium, Brochu argued, baseball in Montreal would be doomed.
As Jonah Keri retells in Up, Up, and Away, his stellar look back at the history of the Expos, Olympic Stadium wasn't just the city's most problematic megastructure, it was also inconveniently located. "Fans who lived in the western suburbs lost interest in schlepping all the way to the stadium. People from other parts of the city didn’t want to cross bridges or tunnels," writes Keri. "The large business community downtown was geographically closer, but—with no fun restaurants, bars, or ancillary activities of any kind nearby—the Big O wasn’t appealing to them either."
The indoor, concrete stadium experience was an especially tough sell when the product on the field wasn't any good. With the exception of the 1996 and 2002 seasons, the Expos finished in 4th or 5th place every single year after the 1994 strike and ensuing player selloff.
A downtown stadium, Brochu estimated in 1997, would cost $250 million, plus $100 million more for a retractable roof. With a site donated by the federal government and naming rights acquired (it would have been known as "Labatt Park"), the rest of the funding would come from the provincial government and revenue from the sale of personal seat licenses.
Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, however, was never interested. Olympic Stadium, built for the 1976 Summer Games, had still not been fully paid for and wouldn't be until 2006. Designed by the French architect Roger Tallibert, Olympic Stadium had famously suffered from significant cost overruns, construction issues, and an endlessly frustrating retractable roof that never retracted. It is now permanently enclosed.
In the winter of 1997, the Expos traded away Pedro Martinez, one of the best pitchers in baseball history, in a one-sided deal with the Boston Red Sox. Attendance plummeted in 1998 (from 18,489 per game to 11,295) and never rebounded. More than ever, a new stadium was critical to the team's survival. Brochu's proposal remained on the table but, unable to strike a deal with Bouchard, he resigned from the Expos after the '98 season.
The man who bought Brochu's shares on the way to eventually owning 94 percent of the ball club picked up the torch and added a whole lot of kerosene. Jeffrey Loria, aware that the team needed a new stadium to ever be viable again, pushed for provincial funding and submitted a radically new stadium design concept.
In an era when everyone wanted (and for the most part, now has) their own version of Baltimore's Camden Yards, the Montreal architecture firm Provencher_Roy, in consultation with the architect (and friend of Loria) Richard Meier, chose glass and metal over brick. It was a decidedly more modern concept, and a cheaper one, too. Eugenio Carelli, one of the architects who worked on the project, says they were able to bring the cost down from $250 million to $200 million. "We were certain it was going ahead," says Carelli.
But Bouchard still wouldn't bite, and eventually Loria gave up. He sold the Expos to Major League Baseball in 2002 and took ownership of the Florida Marlins instead, bringing Montreal's staff and office equipment with him. The Expos spent their final three seasons under league ownership. Funnily enough, if there's any stadium today that looks like what Provencher_Roy had in mind for Montreal, it's Nationals Park in D.C.
Today, Carelli laments that the site was once "perfect" for a stadium, but no longer. The boundaries of Notre Dame, de la Montagne, St. Jaques, and Peel streets now support housing and a technology school instead of Labatt Park. Construction cranes around nearby Windsor Station and the Bell Centre (where Montreal's storied NHL team plays) are adding to what would have been one of the best skyline views from any stadium in baseball.
Still, there are forces at work in Montreal who are hell bent on finding a way to bring baseball back. These days, Carelli's firm is looking around for potential locations for a new stadium with a group headed by a former Expo, Warren Cromartie. Carelli says that his firm originally hoped to unveil some new renderings coinciding with last week's games, but are now shooting for next year. Finding a perfect site isn't easy anymore.
"There are a number of possible sites downtown but they're not quite as feasible," Carelli told CityLab before listing off a handful locations and the complications that come with each one. "The most realistic are probably in Griffintown [just southwest of downtown] right now."
These past two years of exhibition games in Montreal have proven that baseball fans still live in Quebec. What remains is, well, everything else: finding an ownership group, building a new stadium, and, most likely, breaking the heart of some other city with the same problems that doomed the Expos.