Marty Sartini Garner is the author of numerous headaches, personal crises, and record reviews. His work has appeared in Grantland, Joyland, and the website of enRoute magazine, and his music writing appears regularly in FILTER and Aquarium Drunkard. He lives in New Orleans and can be found on his Tumblr, website, and Twitter.
I CAME TO KNOW THE MONTREAL EXPOS through iconography. It’s still how I know them, and how I love them. When I was young and growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana, my dad and I would have breakfast together every Saturday morning at a place called the Kettle, a southern chain of greasy spoons whose dining rooms were comprised of cubicles of booths and whose ceilings were stained brown with cigarette smoke. After breakfast, we’d buy baseball cards, which I kept in imitation-leather binders. Topps, Fleer, Donruss, and, later, in the days of Griffey, the flashy and expensive Upper Deck. Where most kids flipped the cards over to memorize Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry’s lifetime batting averages, I was more interested in the uniforms the stars were wearing, and in the team logos that were printed in the corners. I could identify all 26 Major League logos by the time I was three years-old, a fact that my mom still reports with a pride that I try not to think too hard about.
I couldn’t have told you anything about the Expos. I knew that, like the hometown of every other Major League team, Montreal was far away from me, as far or further than Anaheim or Baltimore or Pittsburgh. My dad grew up a Yankees fan in the heyday of Mantle and Maris, and so I affected an appreciation for Mattingly and a deep apathy towards the rest of the American League. I flipped through my cards, my real passion, letting my mind linger particularly on the abstract, modernist logos made of broad shapes that suggested letters, or baseballs. I know now that those logos were the stagnating holdovers from the era of cookie-cutter stadia and powder-blue uniforms, but in the mid-80s in Lafayette they were fresh and alien, representing teams whose names seemed like foreign words that everyone else was using. In southern Louisiana, they only signified TV baseball. A barbed trident and Dallas star–Mariners. A blue-and-yellow paw–Brewers. A single curl of maroon–Phillies.
The Montreal Expos logo is famously inscrutable. Seagrams magnate and original owner Charles Bronfman allegedly dashed out a rough draft on a cocktail napkin as the Montreal brass prepared to meet with MLB executives in late 1968. The most common reading seems to be “elb,” which some Internet commenters suggest stands for “Expos le baseball.” This only makes sense if you don’t speak French. Others have suggested that the red “e” was in fact supposed to be both a cursive “c” and the bottom half of a red-and-white “d,” which in combination with the “b” and the outlined “M” stands for the phrase “club de baseball Montréal.” For their part, the Expos only ever claimed an “e,” “b,” and “M,” standing for “Expos,” “baseball,” and “Montreal,” three unconnected words that would dissipate further over time.
As for me, when I would flip past Tim Raines or Andre Dawson or Dennis Martinez, I’d hold the card up to one of my parents and declare that the Montreal Expos tasted like cereal. Then I’d go back to my shuffling, mouthing “Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays” as I turned the deck, reciting litanies that had to have worried my parents.
But they did – to me, in 1987, the Montreal Expos logo tasted like cereal. I’m not sure what exactly that means. Maybe the bold primaries and broad shapes reminded me of a cereal box, and my young mind short-circuited the distance between “looks like” and “tastes like.” But I can’t for the life of me find a cereal box from that era that looked anything like the Expos logo; if it resembles any kind of snack (which it doesn’t), then it looks like a bomb pop. Maybe the logo’s inflated shapes suggested balloon animals, which reminded me of circus clowns, which in turn reminded me of the clown mascot who graced the box of the short-lived General Mills product Kaboom. This is the closest I can come to any kind of logical link, but the product of this formula, such as it is, should have been “The Montreal Expos look like cereal.” But taste–I have no idea where this comes from, or how my experience of the logo went from sight to tongue, but I can’t deny how strongly and firmly I believed it, nor how difficult it was to communicate this to my parents. It was a simple, profound truth. That sentence – “The Montreal Expos taste like cereal.” – is probably the first thing that I ever wrote.
The Expos became the Washington Nationals in December of 2004. I never saw the team play in person, and I don’t remember seeing them play on TV, either. (Though those Braves games TBS would release into the Southern air after episodes of Saved By The Bell have all distilled into a morass of batting pitchers in my memory; it’s possible that there’s a bit of tricoleur in there.) I was in my second year of university at the time of the move, living in New Orleans. I’d been to a handful of Major League parks – most of the classics, and the new ones that looked like classics, plus the Astrodome. I’d played baseball until I was ten or eleven, when I made the decision to divert all of my sports energy into roller and ice hockey, with the remaining fandom dedicated deeply and slavishly to the LSU football team. Hockey had become something of a youth movement in Louisiana in the early to mid-90s. It had been birthed by The Mighty Ducks, but we quickly pretended to have moved beyond the movie, slinging gear bags over our backs and talking loudly about Jagr or Sakic in front of our baseball-playing friends. We thought we were real counterculturists. In Lafayette, we probably were.
These were the days of the Fox comet-puck, Messier’s Rangers, and Blackhawks Starter jackets. Gretzky was a cartoon star. Improbably, Lafayette was awarded an ECHL franchise. They played in the Cajundome and were called the Louisiana IceGators (say it aloud). Half the team were the type of hard-working Canadian lads who took time out to coach the youth squads, and half of them were hardened enforcers with posable noses. The guys who taught us how to skate and pass and weave brought us into something distant, something we’d only ever seen on TV. Now we knew not only what a one-timer was, but how to set one up, and we cleared the slot with joy. They corrected us gently when we asked whether Toronto was in Quebec. Hockey slowly became ours. It was the goons that filled the Cajundome’s seats, though, with their relatable violence. Years later, after the team folded, they were still bumming around Lafayette, working at oil-change shops and trading on their former glory with local girls who hadn’t been allowed to watch them play. They became Americans, eventually.
If the Expos’ move to Washington made any impression on me in 2004, I don’t remember it. If it ever even came up, it would only have been as an opportunity to repeat the cereal line to one of my parents. I’d quit hockey by then – quit anything more athletic than cheering, really – and instead sharpened my masculinity on the flint edge of indie rock and its attendant social scenes; I liked the way I was lit by the sparks it generated when it scraped against my first nineteen years. The IceGators set ECHL attendance records that still stand, but I didn’t like sports that much anymore. I liked The Unicorns, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Arcade Fire, all of whom lived near one another in a borough called The Plateau. The movement of a baseball team from Montreal to Washington, D.C., was as a box of Lucky Charms being pushed to the side, that I might reach behind it to grab what I was looking for.
Montreal came for me. Concordia University was the only graduate school of the twelve I applied to that extended an invitation to their program. By the time I moved to town, in August of 2009, I had long-absorbed Spin’s infamous 2004 travel piece in which the magazine declared it the new Seattle. I could have recited the city’s Wikipedia page. On my first day there, with my then-fiancée and my dad still asleep in our hotel room, I drove around to see what I could see. The sky was morning grey, and René Lévesque wasn’t yet jammed. I was ostensibly looking for a Shell station, but as my GPS guided me east across downtown, I saw the italic scrape of the Tower leaning over the flathouses. I found Sherbrooke, and followed the monolith.
I’d done the reading. Olympic Stadium was and is a white elephant with a slanted tusk that cost a billion and a half dollars and wasn’t fully paid off until two years after the Expos left town. The roof wasn’t completed in time for the 1976 Olympics, and when they finally did cap the place, it malfunctioned and ripped, and the distinction of having the world’s first-ever retractable roof defaulted (as these things do) to Toronto. In 1986, when the stadium was still open air, the Tower caught on fire during an Expos game. Later that same year, a portion of the Tower broke off and fell onto the field, again during a game. A concrete support beam crumbled off of an exterior wall. The second roof caved in during a snowstorm and destroyed a Subaru. The ceiling was so low that foul lines had to be painted on it. None of this was hidden to me. I harbored no illusions about Olympic Stadium’s charm. Yet I drove laps that morning.
Months later, I would ride my bike around the grounds, peering into the windows. The leaves had changed in Parc Maisonneuve by then and were scattered around the concentric waves of concrete that make up the stadium’s apron. What would it have been like to watch baseball in there, in this hood ornament of a building? Has there ever been a Major League venue to look less like a baseball stadium? The parking deck – part of which would collapse in March of 2012 – was underground; fans crept up and out of the garage through asphalt bunkers that were lifted like tabs from the concrete. Weeds in clumps pushed through the corners of outdoor stairwells. Water pooled in what otherwise looked like flat surfaces.
At a stadium tour the following summer, my guide, Philippe, whose silver badge marked him as an official employee of the province of Québec, would refer in a heavy accent to the building’s original covering as “what I would like to call ‘a piece-of-crap’ roof.” He didn’t make the air-quotes, but we all snickered anyway. Out in the outfield, the yellow seat that marked Willie Stargell’s 534-foot homerun had been relocated to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, where people might see it. Overhead, the ceiling sagged, and the orange foul line looked like the mark city workers spray on dead trees. Though like a good government man he made reference the Alouettes’ occasional playoff games and the odd AC/DC concert, Philippe spoke of Olympic Stadium from a bemused distance, the way one might speak of having seen an ad for a Ryne Sandberg appearance at a Branson card show.
That first morning in Montreal, I watched people stream in and out of the Pie-IX metro station in Olympic Stadium’s basement. This building, this forever-incomplete time machine, had been standing at the front of their mornings for thirty years, a fact that seemed unremarkable to them and unbelievable to me. This was a landing pad, a spot where the TV cameras were trained, where a bunch of athletic men with a nonsense name had defined them and spoken for them and by some kind of magic had made a logo register on my tongue over a thousand miles away. People went down the stairs, they went up the stairs.
I bought an Expos cap later that morning.
It’s possible that I saw more Expos gear in my two years in Montreal than I did Habs gear. I remember reading an interview in the Gazette with a New Era rep who seemed stunned by the amount of caps he was selling in town, six years after the team left. Like Philippe, some of my friends tended to regard the passing of the Expos as a quaint moment in Montreal’s history, like Expo 67 or the ’76 Olympics. These things had come and gone, and left compelling (or not-so-) artifacts. But to me, the team – and the Expo site, and Olympic Stadium – felt like the fading substance of a memory I’d always meant to form. It left me drunk, stumbling in the exhaust of a passing truck. I wanted – still want – to grab these things, and to make them mine, but my arms aren’t long enough to reach.
But you don’t have to scratch the emblem for long before the sense of loss starts to rise. One night, having worked himself into a fit of nostalgia over a bottle of bourbon, one of The Barnstormer’s esteemed editors stole my Expos cap and sprinted from our Plateau apartment, my wife and me shouting at him down the street. (He later returned it, along with an apology and an Expos t-shirt, though he still owes me some bourbon.) The teams’ two official caps and countless variations thereof are still prominently displayed in windows up and down Ste-Catherine, and there’s a place on The Main where you can get an authentic Andre Dawson jersey, with stitching. Amazingly, I’ve even seen a few caps scattered around as I drive to and from work here in New Orleans, traffic pushing me past the wearers before I can get the windows down to ask. I spent a good fifteen minutes talking about the team with the owner of a record store in one of the city’s grittier neighborhoods; he was impressed by my Nos Amours shirt.
I’m tempted to pin all of this to the weird insatiable desire for the unattainable that’s been the backbone of North American consumerism for decades now – what we want most is the very thing that we can’t get – but that’s a hard statement to make without also making some kind of moral implication, and I’m not convinced that that desire is in itself a bad thing. If anything, it seems like a legitimate desire whose trajectory has been knocked off-course. I can’t imagine that the Expos were as popular in life as they seem to be in death, but so what? Neither was Tupac.
But I also can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a Montrealer when the Expos were around. To have knocked off of work early to sit in the stands, drinking 50 and eating stadium poutine with a few friends, talking bilingual trash while protected by the ripped roof of a disaster that was always being built. How improbable, how unlikely, to see Ryne Sandberg and his Cubs trot out onto the Astroturf, popping their gloves in their ancient pinstriped duds, looking like a daguerreotype come to life by mere virtue of being from the present, from the known world. Not even caring whether the Expos won or lost, happy and drunk on the feeling of being there. Not even thinking of these things – your privileged and unique place in the universe, there, at Olympic Stadium, but just clicking along, and your tongue going off like a bomb when those red, white, and blue uniforms burst out of the first-base dugout.
Artwork courtesy of Rachelle Sartini Garner, a graphic designer and illustrator living in New Orleans. You can see more of her work on her website.