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Last Man Standing

Yesterday Greg and I exchanged a brief flurry of emails. I found myself wanting to write something about the Montreal Expos. He had been gripped by the same need, and was already working on this [1].

Not a surprise; stuff like that happens when you’re both baseball fanatics like-minded enough to share a blog, even when there’s no Met in the picture. What the heck, we decided. It’s Expos Weekend.

The funny thing is, I never particularly cared about the Expos while they were around. If anything, I found them vaguely ridiculous. First of all, there was the name. I’ll grant you that it’s not immediately obvious what a Met is. If I may risk disloyalty, it’s kind of a stupid name. But compared to “Expos” it’s genius. As a child I figured “Expo” must be French until the children’s grapevine opined that that wasn’t true (though actually it kind of is), leading me to finally ask some adult or other. When I got an explanation, I assumed I was being made fun of. Why would anyone name a baseball team after that?

Then there was the hat. I never saw the “Newhart” episode mentioned by Tyler Kepner here [2] — in fact, while I’ve always been aware of “Newhart” and trust that it’s worthy of respect, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any episode of it — but hearing that George couldn’t figure out what was on their hat made me clap my hands. I know how he felt — I puzzled over the Expos cap for years as a kid and was well past puberty when I looked at it one day and suddenly yelped “It’s an M!” as if I’d spent a lifetime staring at a baseball “Magic Eye” book and finally got it. (Well yeah, except it also included an e and a b, for “Expos” and “baseball.” Which was really stupid.)

Then there was Olympic Stadium. There was the way you could see the backs of the umpire and the catcher and the batter and the front of the pitcher in the camera shot from center field, which was maddening once you noticed it and threatened to give you vertigo as you proved unable to take your eyes off of it. There was Youppi, whom I could never stand, not so much because he was a mascot but because he was so thoroughly generic, like the product of a committee that had actually wanted to make the kind of lackluster thing that gets blamed on committees. And there was the way the light always seemed off. At least on TV, games there looked faintly yellowed somehow, and I always got the feeling there wasn’t enough air, like the players were going about their business in some giant Canadian terrarium, except instead of having sadistic children rap on the glass you got morons blowing air horns throughout the middle innings of interminable games. Braaaaaaaap braaaaaaaap braaaaaaaap. Remember that? I think if I heard that sound on my deathbed I’d sit bolt upright and gasp, “Jesus, it’s Olympic Stadium!”

This is not to scorn the Expos, mind you. I respected them as a collection of players. Heck, I feared them — they had a habit of ending our dreams, either by exposing scrappy Met teams as noncontenders relatively early or tearing the underbelly out of good Met teams heartbreakingly late. (Somewhere, Chris Nabholz is still laughing at us.) And I felt for their fans. They were unstoppable in 1994, only to have that season turned into less than an asterisk by a labor war, and then they were consistently treated in the most cruel and dirty way by Major League Baseball, whether it was denying them callups in a pennant race, reducing the payroll to penury, frog-marching them to Puerto Rico for a farcical semi-relocation or then finally gift-wrapping them for a city that had already lost two franchises. (And then that city unretired the Expos’ modest collection of retired numbers.) Expos fans couldn’t be blamed for not showing up for the team’s final years — why on earth would they? They were a city of Charlie Browns who’d finally decided Lucy could take her football and stick it.

But as the Expos began their death spiral, they became something else to me. They became the baseball expression of my own paranoia.

Greg will recall that while baseball’s poohbahs were studying contraction with unseemly eagerness (and let me pause here to hope that Satan just gave Carl Pohlad another quarter-turn on the spit), I was grimly certain that somehow these wheels would grind until one of the teams contracted was the Mets. Obviously this was insane, and on some level I was aware of that, but I’d babble incessantly about it anyway, and my only hope is that I was never dumb enough to do that in front of an Expos fan. I knew of the weird links between them and us, of course. How the Expos began their existence by beating the Mets (by a single run) for an inauspicious beginning to the Mets’ best-ever year. How they were often our trading partners for deals good, bad and ugly. How two of the players they honored with retired numbers were also revered by us. And how they ended their existence by being beaten by the Mets, with the final tally Mets 299, Expos 298. Maybe that was the source of my paranoid fantasy — the feeling that in some ways the Expos were a distorted version of us, but with even worse luck. Much worse luck.

And in the end — after the end, in fact — I realized that I did care about the Expos. Greg and I were there for that final Expos game, and I remember looking around in the stands and seeing Expos hats and jerseys. They weren’t everywhere, though give me 20 more years and maybe I’ll say they were. But there were a lot of them, worn in pride and sorrow and defiance and just by way of bearing witness. And I don’t remember a single Shea Stadium lout offering one of those Expos fans typical Shea Stadium hospitality. Even the worst of us knew better. It was our stadium, but we were guests at their wake.

Except the story of the Expos wasn’t quite over. A few weeks later, a collection of players played exhibition games in Japan. On the roster was Brad Wilkerson, wearing a Montreal uniform. (He went 7 for 26, with a home run.)

I’ve never been able to get that out of my head: a lone player, on the other side of the world in the middle of the night, wearing the uniform of a dead franchise. There must have been Montreal fans who figured out how to watch, who tracked Internet updates, who gazed at this final ember of the team they’d loved, until in the early hours of Nov. 14, 2004, Frankie Rodriguez closed out a 5-0 win MLB win and that last little light went dark and there was nothing. There must have been Montreal fans who figured out how to watch, because I know that’s what I would have done, just as it’s what Greg would have done and what a lot of us would have done. Would I have stayed up watching stuttering Web video in Japanese to see a last few swings by, say, Daniel Murphy, wearing the uniform of the team that had been taken from me? You bet I would have. And at the end I would have wondered how many pitches were left and would have wished that he’d foul them off forever, until the world was forced to notice and common decency demand that the clock be turned back so some kind of fairness could prevail.

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Remember: 1986 NLCS, Games Three, Five and Six. Noon to midnight today on the MLB Network.