Did you notice that Expos-Phillies series this week? Are you like me? Are you thinking that the best place for the Montreal Expos to move next year would be Montreal?
The teams drew 30,501 Monday night. Over the four-game series at Olympic Stadium 83,145 fans came through the turnstiles, which is 9,657 per game more than the Expos had averaged in Montreal before this week. The Expos swept the series to catch the Phillies atop the wild card race.
After Wednesday night's stirring 9-6 win, Expos players talked about the raucous crowd. "I wish we could have this type of crowd here every night," said Joe Vitiello, who drove in the winning run. "It just fires us up, and we just want to go out there and give everything we've got."
"Tonight the crowd really carried us." said manager Frank Robinson.
It all goes to show that with a winning team and a little marketing, in the form of deeply discounted tickets and cheap hot dogs for now, Montreal is a perfectly good baseball town.
Or so it would be nice to think.
Among the crowd who thinks baseball commissioner Bud Selig is an idiot or worse -- and I am a card-carrying member of that crowd -- it's popular to say that before the 1994 baseball strike sent the Expos franchise off the rails, Montreal was a great baseball town. The Expos had perhaps their best team ever that year, but the season was wiped out, the team never recovered and the fans never came back. Things are so bad that this year the Expos are playing 22 "home" games in Puerto Rico, where they draw a little better than in Montreal.
It's not really true, the great baseball town part. In their first eight years, at the minor league Jarry Park, the Expos mostly played poorly and drew poorly. Their fortunes improved shortly after their 1977 move to Stade Olympique, one of the ugliest, darkest, most poorly designed stadiums in major league history, and that's saying something.
From 1979 to 1993, the Expos finished in the top half of the six-team National League East 11 out of 15 times. (The division had seven teams in 1993. The Expos finished second.) They only won the division once, in the strike year 1981, but they won 90 or more games four times, and had a losing record only three times. They weren't overachievers, but they were a solid ballclub, and there were marquee players romping within those concrete walls: Steve Rogers, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Dennis Martinez, Andres Galarraga, Moises Alou and Larry Walker were all Expos during those years.
Attendance went up from 1.4 million in 1977, the first year in the new stadium, to 2.3 million in 1982 and '83, better than 28,000 fans a game, third and second in the league. The next year the Expos stumbled to fifth place in the East. Attendance fell to eighth in the 12-team league, and was never again ranked higher, usually much lower. In 1993, the year that first-place '94 team really came together under new manager Felipe Alou, the Expos won 94 games and finished second, three games out. Attendance was 1.6 million. Only San Diego drew fewer people in the National League. When the strike hit, the Expos were on pace to draw a little under 2 million, ahead of only the Mets, Pirates and Padres.
So maybe Montreal's not such a great baseball town, in the sense that the people can't be counted on to fill the ballpark no matter what. But as Rob Neyer points out in an essay in his "Big Book of Baseball Lineups," there's really no such thing as a great baseball town.
"To me, a 'great baseball town' would be one that supported its team through thick and thin," he writes. "And the truth is that, outside of post-1967 Boston and the North Side of Chicago, I don't see any cities that fit the bill."
Neyer insists that the greatest predictor of attendance is a winning record. People don't want to spend their money to watch a losing team. I would add that a decent ballpark has something to do with it, too. The Giants, whose attendance turnaround sparked Neyer's essay, pack them in at the lovely, downtown Pac Bell Park. They couldn't draw flies to Candlestick Park, that big, ugly, freezing slab down the freeway where they used to play.
The Expos have never had a good park. They've also been the victim of a sabotaging owner, Jeffrey Loria, and, in recent years, a concerted anti-marketing campaign by Selig-led Major League Baseball, which has spared no expense to get the message across that baseball isn't viable in Montreal, and that the Expos must either be eliminated or moved. "Our product isn't viable" isn't the best sales slogan I've ever heard.
It's no wonder the fans stay away. But Montreal's a big city with a good sports pedigree, and given the circumstances, what support there has been for the Expos has been downright heroic. After 35 years, Montreal deserves a real chance.
There are real problems with Montreal. It's not a small market, as Selig claims -- Detroit is also a small market in his bizarre worldview, and Philadelphia was too, until this year, when the Phillies started spending money -- but it is in Canada, which means the Expos revenues are mostly in Canadian dollars and their expenses are mostly in American dollars, which hurts them badly. And there's the lack of a decent ballpark and the damage that's been done to the fan base in what was always a hockey city anyway.
If cities like Portland, Washington or the Virginia suburbs of the latter are dumb enough to spend public money to build the Expos a ballpark, there's little reason for MLB, which owns the team, to keep it in Montreal, where the team ought to stay but where nobody is volunteering to spend $400 million American to build one.
But there's a complication. Loria's former limited partners with the Expos filed a racketeering lawsuit last year against him and baseball officials, accusing them of diluting their ownership shares and purposely destroying baseball in Montreal so that the team could be moved. (Baseball bought the team from Loria and allowed him to buy the Marlins.) Those plaintiffs can hold up a move, and it's getting close to the point at which it'll be too late for the Expos to do anything in 2004 except play in Montreal.
This isn't a prediction but a fantasy: The Expos make the playoffs this year. Next year, baseball allows the Expos to re-sign superstar Vladimir Guerrero and then deigns to actually market the team a little, and based on that, the excitement of the playoff run and a good start, attendance is respectable. The idea of moving the Expos starts to seem less and less attractive. A local buyer comes forward. Baseball in Montreal is saved.
It's an impossible dream, sort of like seeing 30,000 screaming Expos fans in Olympic Stadium.
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NFL preview: What do you think? [PERMALINK]
I'll have an NFL preview next week, complete with fearless predictions. It's a running schtick of mine that my predictions are always wrong, but last year I did peg the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to go the Super Bowl.
And lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hey, even Nostradamus was wrong sometimes.
But who cares what I think? Send me your predictions. We'll compare yours, mine and various national experts.
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