6:15 pm on a Friday night and Lionel-Groulx is busier than I’d expect. Throwback jerseys abound. Suburban knuckleheads on pilgrimage, smiles and high spirits all around.
The train arrives packed and we press ourselves in tightly, as though compelled by some invisible Tokyo subway platform attendant at rush hour. Squeezed in I find myself face to face with old friends and a common agenda.
Baseball. Lost opportunities. Nostalgia. Hope. Rebirth. Novelty.
The MÃ©tro took it’s sweet time snaking it’s way through the tunnels of the city centre to Pie-Ix, pausing longer and longer as we slowly crossed the city, each time an increasingly agitated brakeman telling us, for the love of god, to let go of the antique mechanical doors that not a week ago nearly halved the head of some old woman.
It was slow and uncomfortable and no one cared. For the first time in a decade there was a baseball game to attend and that’s all that mattered.
Disembarking at Pie-IX I quickly lost track of my friends in the absolutely massive crowd surging its way to the stadium entrance. I had never seen the station ever look quite so busy, and a line stretched from the MÃ©tro turnstiles to the stadium and back again, pulsing to the beat of the Bucket Drummer. My heart sank – was this the line to get in?
We quickly learned that this was the now infamous will-call wait line, thousands strong and perhaps the single longest line of human beings I’ve ever seen in my entire life. My pace quickened. Tickets in hand we’d waltz right on in.
Walking into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is very much like stepping back in time. Almost immediately I noticed my cellphone reception was shot, and that the seething mass of vendor kiosks and food carts reminded me not so much of baseball as it did a kind of food court you’d find in the middle of an epically massive 1980s video game arcade. Pink and baby clue neon lights and harsh overhead lighting stands out in my mind. Oddly appropriate and cacophonous Techno music was playing in the background as an assorted gaggle of sports fans – many of whom wearing Alouettes and Montreal Canadiens jerseys and caps – slurped down overpriced poutine and pizza slices from carts seemingly shipped over from La Ronde.
Security guards and staff were decked out in clothing that must have been designed in the late-1980s and stored in boxes since the Expos’ folded. This, in conjunction with the overall retro aesthetic and lack of technology (no cellphone reception, no Interac, too few and generally outdated ATMs, antique scoreboards etc.) only re-enforced the strangeness of the situation. It was utterly bizarre.
I overcame the bewildering scene and propelled myself towards the upper deck seats behind home plate with my name on them. Moving swiftly through the bowels of the Big O comes naturally enough – the shape and size of the immense structure compels movement, the ramps almost make you want to run – it was apparent enough to all the children racing around.
When I get to the upper deck with my date we discussed whether we should grab our seats or get something to nosh on. We both had an admittedly absurd craving for a ballpark frank we knew we’d gladly pay a hefty sum for just to say we’ve had the experience of doing so. Eating a hotdog while watching an MLB game in the Big O.
Strike that off the ‘things to do in Montreal’ checklist…
Such occurrences are rare these days.
We decided to take our seats imagining there would be vendors working the bleachers, and besides, the game had already began. That’s why we came here after-all.
And not a moment later there I was watching something that hadn’t been seen in our city in just about a decade and I personally hadn’t witnessed in twenty-seven years. I wasn’t much of a baseball fan growing up, I preferred hockey, and later rugby. My interest in and appreciation of baseball came much later, and is nearly entirely as a consequence of the saga of the Montreal Expos as a franchise and the lasting impression the club (and to a greater extent the sport and the stadium) has had on our city.
Baseball in Montreal isn’t entirely about baseball. It’s about the city and its people.
Baseball is symbolic. Baseball is metaphor.
And resurrecting the Expos, long shot though it may be, has everything to do with people power and nothing to do with baseball as a business.
And yet, sitting there, one of 46,000 fans who filled the Big O on Friday night, I couldn’t help but think Warren Cromartie and the Montreal Baseball Project had succeeded at least in rounding first base as far as they’re own business case was concerned. They had proved that, ten years after the loss of the Expos, professional baseball could still draw significant interest in Montreal. Then they proved it again Saturday afternoon when 50,000 people showed up to the second part of the Jays-Mets pre-season double-header.
Think about it – what kind of a game was this? An exhibition game between the Jays and the Mets, with the ground crew sponsored by the Quebec Egg Council, at the stadium that’s always been ‘too far away’ to be of any use? A total no-frills affair of no real consequence for either ‘away’ team? Just this first step alone was a bit of a long-shot in its own right. The stadium looked like it had just been re-opened after being completely shuttered for the last decade; the back bleachers were dusty with old cigarette butts still lying where they had been extinguished underfoot decades past.
But none of these minor and major inconveniences mattered. Everyone was happy to be watching a ball game. The stadium was nearly full, and it has more than twice the capacity of any of the other major sports venues in our city. No one was bitching about politics, or even this year’s endless winter. The crowd was as diverse as the city, with fans cheering both teams despite the assumption we’d be rooting for the Blue Jays out of some kind of misguided patriotism. The most awkward moment of the night was doubtless the half-hearted attempt to get a bunch of Montrealers to sing the Blue Jays’ version of ‘take me out to the ball game’ but even though I find group sing-alongs fascistic in nature and couldn’t possibly cooperate the crowd was in one of those typically Montreal ‘anything goes’ moods and saved face by joining in at the end.
The game itself was great and provided plenty of excitement, but I can’t help but wonder how many spectators were thinking to themselves, pretty much all night, ‘how long will we have to wait until this happens again?’
After all, we don’t want to be teased, and Montrealers are sensitive enough as is.
What I saw on Friday night was step in the right direction and proof not only of baseball’s viability, but of the Olympic Stadium’s utility as well. I imagine the next step for Cromartie and the MBP will be to secure one or more regular season games to see if they can replicate their recent successes. From there planning would shift to next year and a set of exhibition and regular season games played at the Big O on a set schedule, say eight games over the span of four months to see if baseball can be sustained past the novelty stage. If all that works they’ll have much of their business case already made and all the evidence they need to support it before seriously starting the MLB-courtship, franchise-development and stadium design and financing stages.
So we shouldn’t get our hopes up we’ll see the Expos return any time soon, but I think it’s a safe bet we’ll see more baseball at the Big O in general.
My personal hope and desire is that the people in charge over at the RIO (Olympic installations board) get funding for minor aesthetic and functional improvements and do all they can to secure more sporting events at the Big O generally speaking. In a really ideal world some kind of a deal would be worked out to secure a set number of CFL and MLS games (with anticipated over-sized crowds), in addition to more exhibition and/or regular season MLB games and maybe even an NFL exhibition match too. Why not? It’s a sports venue, the people in charge of it should be in the business of ensuring it’s used for large-capacity sporting events.
The experience made me think the Big O could be the kind of ‘people’s stadium’ with local teams playing a few games each season at the Big O with heavily discounted tickets for the upper deck sections so as to encourage high attendance (and further ensure pro sports remains accessible to the people who have helped subsidize their development, both directly and indirectly.
On a closing note, two other things worth mentioning. First, when I ordered my franks I concluded the transaction in French, my mother tongue. The vendor, upon hearing my Anglophone accent decided to switch to English. I continue speaking French, to which he apologized. He said, ‘I’m sorry, I thought you spoke English’.
I said I do, and that I speak French as well and I typically just go with whatever’s most instinctive at a given moment. I told him he should never apologize for being so accommodating, it’s far too stereotypically Canadian.
We shared a laugh.
Much later on, travelling back home on the MÃ©tro, I noticed the determined stride and Lupine-blue eyes of Gilles Duceppe leaving the crowded MÃ©tro train in a huff. I said, rather too excitedly, ‘hey look it’s Gilles Duceppe!’ to which the crowd responded with ‘ooohs’ and ‘awwws’, such as it is when local aristocracy tread too close to subterranean common-folk.
What a night it was…