An open letter to Charles who, in commenting on my Washington Nationals piece (“Forgiving Washington,” September 5, 2012), questioned my bona fides as an Expos supporter, suggesting I was a “post-2004 fan,” and in so doing, got well and truly under my skin. I’m not sure this was Charles’ intention, or if he was just trying to clarify some points that, as he saw it, I got wrong. At any rate, I felt a response was warranted (though it almost certainly wasn’t).
First of all, thanks for reading the piece and, judging by your comment, reading it closely, which is exactly the sort of reader we hope to reach. I don’t know how you found us, but we’re glad you did.
Now, let me say that I do not believe this to be the natural venue for this discussion. It would be much better to be sitting high in the bleachers somewhere, the crunch of peanut shells beneath our feet, the smell of beer and grass in our nostrils and, it should go without saying, a game being played before us. There we could argue and gesture and shout ourselves hoarse before soothing ourselves with overpriced plastic cups of frothy, warm beer. We could agree to disagree and end the night with a handshake before heading off toward whoever awaited us. But instead here we are on the Internet, of all places, and since it’s what brought us together to have this exchange, it’ll have to do.
Perhaps, in reading my piece on the Expos, their flight from Montreal and subsequent reinvention as the Washington Nationals, you took exception to some of my assertions and arguments and, emboldened by the alluring anonymity offered by the internet, decided to set the record straight. With this I have no problem. But you went a bit further, I felt, and questioned my connection to the Expos and that, I’ll have to admit, whether you meant offense or no, rankled. The way I see it, you may quibble with my analysis, with my understanding of the situation which brought about the end of big league baseball in Montreal, with my explanation of the messy business side of things, but don’t question my bona fides as an Expos fan.
So, Charles, I ask that you listen up while I, similarly emboldened by the anonymous nature of this medium, and hopped up on caffeine and misplaced righteous indignation, foolishly attempt to address that point.
WE LIVE IN AN ERA of easy, unearned nostalgia, glorifying and gazing fondly back at things that occurred five minutes ago. People buy t-shirts with Care Bears on them for this reason, they listen to bad music and play awful 8-bit video games because, I suppose, it all serves to remind them of a happier, simpler time in their lives. Baseball lends itself to this nostalgia, of course, in that so much of what we love about the game is what we remember, or misremember, or have remembered for us by announcers, or writers, or Ken Burns. On cool mornings I wear a St. Louis Browns sweatshirt around the house. Do I remember the Browns? Of course not. Nor do I remember the Pittsburgh Pirates of the early ‘70s, but that doesn’t prevent me from worshipping Roberto Clemente. That history worship seems to me a natural component of baseball fandom. It’s one thing that makes the game so enjoyable. I’d never claim to have been a fan of the We Are Family Pirates, or the Big Red Machine, because I simply wasn’t. To claim otherwise would be dishonest.
But the Expos? I sure as hell was an Expos fan.
The problem becomes how do you prove such things? Even writing it feels akin to snobbishness on the level of “You had to be there to actually get the ‘60s” or “‘Man on the Moon’ was fine, but I prefer R.E.M’s early stuff.” If physical evidence will suffice, I suppose I could point to the tricolour Expos cap I wore as a 5 year-old, the one my mother dug out of storage and my mother-in-law washed and mended so that my 2 year-old can now wear it. I suppose I could point to the team poster I still have (Tim Wallach!). The collection of Youppi figurines. The pennants I faithfully pinned to my bedroom wall. If thieves hadn’t broken into my house a few years back and made off with items including my cigar box full of ticket stubs, I could produce proof of all the games I attended at the Big O (can you imagine? stealing a cigar box full of ticket stubs? they were as precious to me as photographs!), including the night the Padres were in town and Tony Gwynn collected his 3000th hit (August 6, 1999). I could show you the t-shirts, the cap made back before New Era was aware of its own fashion cache, the Russell Athletic replica jersey, and all the other assorted paraphernalia and memorabilia that litters my office (none of it purchased on eBay).
Would that do?
I don’t know where you’re from, Charles, but I grew up in Ottawa. Depending on who was driving, it was about a two hour drive to Stade Olympique, and a five hour drive to Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. That made for a somewhat complicated relationship with baseball. I don’t think I’m alone in having grown up with two favourite teams. I know many thousands were able to choose sides between the Blue Jays and the Expos, but at some point I made a conscious decision not to; to instead embrace them both. In the late 1980s that amounted to scanning newspaper boxscores, and maybe watching a televised game or two a week. Every spring I picked up the Street & Smith annual season preview and pored over the Toronto and Montreal rosters and predictions. During the season local radio carried both teams. It was usually easier to find a Jays game on TV, but the Expos showed up on TSN from time to time, and those were good days, because it meant hearing Dave Van Horne call a game, and that was a treat (“El Presidente, el perfecto!”).
The early ‘90s were, I’m sure you’ll recall, very good days for the Blue Jays. It was indeed an exciting time to be a baseball fan in Canada; not before or since have I seen the country as fully invested in baseball (ministers spoke of the Jays before they began their sermons). For a couple of years there it was easy to forget the Expos a little bit, excepting the electric summer of 1994. But then, of course, the strike rendered that team stillborn, and we stared in disbelief at empty diamonds.
Ah, but by then Howard Darwin had procured us our very own AAA baseball team, the city built a ballpark on Coventry Road, the team was yoked to the Expos, and suddenly Ottawa was the highest rung on the ladder to the bigs. Somewhere in this mess of a basement office there is a shoebox containing what I, as a 17 year old boy, thought was important to preserve from the Ottawa Lynx’ inaugural season. These now 19 year-old clippings from the Ottawa Citizen document every game. In that same box are the programs and scorecards from the games I attended, including the second game in team history (the opener sold out before I could get tickets), on a glorious Sunday afternoon in April, against the other International League expansion club, the Charlotte Knights. My friend Dave and I sat just behind the tarp on the first base side. I still have the t-shirt I bought that day, too.
Littering those yellowing scorecards are names like Matty Stairs, Rondell White, and Cliff Floyd. It is safe to say that, once these guys graduated to the Expos, I followed them with great interest. Sometimes I even got to see them again, when the parent club visited its affiliates for in-season exhibition games. As owner, Darwin fell afoul of the fans’ affections by refusing to let us carry Oh Henry! bars into the park during one of those exhibitions. We were looking forward to showering Henry Rodriguez with them, as had become the custom in Montreal. But that wasn’t allowed in Ottawa. Then the last Expos vs. Lynx match ended with ‘Spos manager Felipe Alou pulling his team off a wet field, concerned for their safety. He was right to do it, but we wanted a game.
So that’s what I know, Charles; that’s where I’m coming from. As for the shady business off the field, it’s likely that my impressions remain shaped by Wayne Scanlan’s contemporary coverage for the Citizen. Charles Bronfman was a good owner, but tired of the fight and sold the team to the consortium led by Claude Brochu, who weren’t perfect owners, Lord knows. But it felt like they were interested in keeping the team at home. I believed that. They came up with a plan for a new downtown park, or had someone draw something up, anyway. I remember it had a lot of glass. Nothing earth-shattering, as I remember it, but it promised an outdoor experience miles ahead of the Big O. Maybe that was just PR. I don’t know. At this remove I don’t quite recall the level of cynicism surrounding the whole affair. Eventually they’d had enough, and Loria entered the picture, and things quite clearly got worse. It sort of culminated in the decision not to award a contract for English-language radio coverage for the ‘01 season, consigning Dave Van Horne to the internet which, I’m sure you’ll recall, was not then as ubiquitous as it is now. If you wanted to see or hear the Expos anywhere other than that concrete toilet bowl, well, you couldn’t.
So maybe the Bronfmans put the gun in Loria’s hand, but you won’t convince me it was anyone other than him who pulled the trigger. By the end of ‘04 the team’s departure was such a foregone conclusion that it almost felt like the humane thing to do. I didn’t attend the last Expos game in Montreal; I’d been there a few weeks earlier, to see them battle Adrian Beltre and the Dodgers, with my dad, in seats right behind the plate. That was my chance to say goodbye. I recognized that there were others who would hurt more than I; diehards and fans of longer standing, people who remembered Blue Monday, 1981, or even further back, to the Parc Jarry days. It was their right to close the casket, I thought.
Baseball teams move. It’s happened quite a bit in the past, and it will surely happen again. They leave fans behind and gain new ones. It’s a transitory thing, a business of contingencies and plan Bs, though your emotional investment as a fan depends on the illusion of permanence. Then maybe one day your team is gone and there isn’t anything you can do. Maybe you can wait a decade and then write a piece for a sportswriting website and perhaps a few people will read it, but that’s about it.
That’s where we are now, Charles. That’s what I did, and you were one of those people who read my thing, my admittedly emotion-fuelled rant on Montreal and Washington and how I felt there, in Nationals Park, watching the unrecognizable remains of the Expos, having their success, being cheered, lashing themselves to the long history of baseball in the US capitol. I’m glad you read it, and I have no problem with you reaching different conclusions about anything in the piece. But yes, I have to admit being bothered by your assertion that I was a fan only after the fact, trying to paint myself into a picture in which I didn’t belong. Probably this says much about me, about my need for a thicker skin, my fears of inauthenticity, and a whole host of other insecurities. Once, in high school, I wore a skateboarding t-shirt and was called a poseur because I wasn’t a skater. That stung because it was true; this stung because it wasn’t.
Look, I haven’t done much here but emote inefficiently. In a roundabout way you challenged my credentials. I have produced them as best I can. Whether you judge them sufficient isn’t my concern now. I have my Expos memories and they continue to move me. You’ll be satisfied or you won’t, but I’ve said my piece, and I hope you’ll not begrudge me taking the opportunity to do so. After all this is my tiny corner, my soap box; it says so right up there on the masthead.
This isn’t meant to be confrontational, nor to call you out before this site’s readership, and I hope it doesn’t read that way. We’re just talking baseball here. Some of my most spirited arguments have been over baseball, and the most enjoyable thing about them is how easy they are to put away after the fact. So let me just say that wherever you are, I hope this finds you well, and that whichever team you root for is competitive, enjoys the passionate support of its fans, and is never, ever relocated.