Claudio Vargas pitched. Moises Alou got himself ejected. Endy Chavez replaced him. Brian Schneider homered. Ryan Church didn’t. Fernando Tatis stood on-deck to pinch-hit in case the ninth inning continued. Pedro Martinez threw 55 pitches in a simulated game.
Hard to believe that the team at Shea Stadium Wednesday night that is a direct descendant of the Montreal Expos isn’t the New York Mets.
Did you know we have more ex-Expos than do the Washington Nationals, a franchise that actually used to be the Expos? Did you know that while we’ve been rolling our eyes at and having our collapses enabled by the Nationals that they have stopped being remotely recognizable as Expo heirs?
I don’t recognize them as such any longer. For my Canadian money, the connection was truly severed when überExpo Jose Vidro split for Seattle the offseason before last. Vidro was the last what you’d call star to survive the trek from the dismal Big O to the dreadful RFK (or was that the dreadful Big O and the dismal RFK?). Vidro actually started an All-Star Game as an Expo as recently as 2002 when knowledgeable fans from every land voted him in ahead of Roberto Alomar. This was after the Expos were already placed on the endangered species list, so you knew Vidro had to be pretty good — and Met import Alomar had to have turned amazingly dismal/dreadful — to rate that kind of attention.
With Vidro gone in the best tradition of essentially every Expo of external note, the only Montreal mainstay who remained in Washington was Brian Schneider. Schneider had been an Expo all the way back to 2000, before it was abundantly or at least officially clear there wouldn’t be Expos into eternity. Brian Schneider backed up Michael Barrett. Michael Barrett, who departed Quebec just prior to 2004, the last year there ever were Expos, had been an Olympic Stadium staple, sort of like smoked meat, ever since 1998. In 1998, the Expos were chock full of Expos as I had come to know, understand and fear them: Rondell White, Mark Grudzielanek, Brad Fullmer, F.P. Santangelo (no need to ask what the ‘F’ stood for). Sure, there were Vidro and Vlad and future world champion Red Sock Orlando Cabrera, but they were simply top-notch baseball players. Any team could have top-notch baseball players.
The Expos had pests.
The Expos had lethal pests.
The Expos had hateful lethal pests.
And they played in another country with another language and they drove the Mets crazy. Drove me crazy anyway. Ten years ago, those Expos were commencing upon their long and willful decline that would send them reeling southbound, first to the cusp of contraction, then part-time to Puerto Rico and at last to the capital of a nation in which they weren’t born and never called home. Ten years ago, those Expos had swapped out to Boston the best pitcher they ever had and the biggest contract they couldn’t afford, Pedro Martinez. One of the pitchers they received in return was Tony Armas, Jr.
Guess whose Triple-A affiliate he pitches for now?
I needed the better part of 2005 to kind of get over the Expos. I formed a late-life infatuation in their direction, out of disgust for Bud Selig’s diabolical plan to dismantle their franchise and sell it for parts and out of respect for the little-remarked rivalry they had going with the Mets. It was little-remarked, perhaps, because few knew it existed. It was there, however. It was there and it was bizarre and it was bilingual. It was cosmopolitan Montreal vs. Metropolitan New York. It was Expo 67 vs. the 1964 World’s Fair. It was Rusty Staub and Gary Carter vs. likable versions of Rusty Staub and Gary Carter. It was Jeff Reardon vs. Ellis Valentine, damn it.
It was 36 seasons of crossing paths and being pulled over by customs. It was a hundred odd little incidents, including Jeff Kent literally being pulled over by customs agents when he forgot he had packed his handgun for the Montreal trip (Jeff Kent was not a popular teammate). It was invocations of Parc Jarry on every Olympic Stadium broadcast and explanations that the good folks up north would be paying for Parc Jarry’s crappy successor for generations to come. It was the big empty of the Big O, its lumber yard beyond the center field fence in its early seasons, the hypnotic Plexiglas behind home plate later on. It was tri-color caps and the mascot of no discernible species and slick turf and horns that gave headaches and the feeling that we should be beating these guys more often but weren’t.
It was the first game of the Expos’ existence at Shea and the last game of the Expos’ existence at Shea and the nearly 600 in between and a lifetime series that was absolutely even until the Mets hosted Montreal for all the mythical marbles on the last day of 2004. When Endy Chavez (who absolutely killed us when he was one of them) grounded to Jeff Keppinger (who absolutely kills us now that he is somebody else) to end what were the Expos, the Mets could be crowned kings of the St. Lawrence Seaway Series, 299-298.
How is it possible two teams could play 597 games between them and neither could win 300?
By that final weekend of extant Expos, we had already plucked their general manager. Omar Minaya would go on to rebuild the Mets, for short-term better or long-term worse. He keeps them afloat nowadays with Expos, Expos and more Expos. I’m beginning to think we’re turning into the Expos, and not just because we are their most reliable alumni society. The Expos were comers; the Expos heartbreakingly missed the postseason; the Expos heartbreakingly missed the World Series, the Expos disappointed everybody who cared about them. We’ve screwed up the order, but we seem to be nailing the substance. Plus we’ve got Brian Schneider who backed up Michael Barrett who came up one year after Pedro Martinez reached his National League peak three years after the 1994 strike wiped out…ah, you know how that went. Give me two paragraphs and I’ll be on Coco Laboy like smoke on meat on rue Sainte-Catherine.
The Mets, thanks to the pile of bricks creating the wind tunnel in center, aren’t going anywhere (you can also thank some swift managing and relief pitching for that inconvenient figurative truth of May 2008). The Expos never had the scratch nor the support to build an actual baseball facility and expired. The Nationals pull off the unique trick of acting the role of perpetual expansion team without ever having been one in their own right. Someday, maybe, they’ll beat somebody besides us half the time. Someday, maybe, they won’t seem like a halfway house for somebody else’s wayward prospects. Someday, maybe, they’ll have a starting rotation. The franchise can claim at last a serviceably shiny new ballpark in tandem with stability in ownership for the first time since Razor Shines cut their predecessors’ rug, yet a total semi-pro feel attaches itself permanently to the Washington Nationals, which is probably why losing games to the Nats makes the Mets seem uncommonly amateur. In the National League East of my mind, no matter the many tragicomic Youppian missteps they took toward oblivion, it is somehow the Montreal Expos (1969-2004) whom I will hold in the higher regard.