Baseball Notes: Remembering the Expos
I grew up in Connecticut a big Red Sox fan living halfway between Boston and New York. I was theorectically 2 hours away from major league baseball to the east and the west, but my very first MLB game was not at Fenway, Shea, or Yankee Stadium. It was at Olympic Stadium in 1996 when I was 13.
I believe it was actually the second trip to Montreal I had taken with my family, and even my second trip to the stadium. The first time, we took the tour of the field, I felt the astroturf, and ran up to the wall where I found it much taller than I expected for a major league wall. I had pictures in my head of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Kirby Puckett robbing home runs by jumping above the wall in their respective parks, but I found this park did not play for such acrobatics. On both trips to Montreal we took trips up the tallest leaning tower in the world that looked over the roof of the stadium. But this trip, I had the courage to ask if we could go to a game since we were staying close to the park and to my shock my parents said yes.
My parents weren't big baseball fans, by my grandfather on my mom's side was and unfortunately he passed away before I was born. What I know of him is that he played catcher at University of Vermont and when the star pitcher on his team signed with a semi-pro team he made sure my Grandfather came with him to play in Montreal. He must have only played for about one summer before he went on to law school. That must have been around 1926. I knew he was a lawyer in Boston, I believe he hurt his leg playing softball at a school event for my mom, I believe he was 43 when my mom was born so he was a bit of an old dad, and he had an goofy habit of embarassing his family when they would go out to eat at restaurants. I think that's why my mom doesn't like to go out to eat more than a couple times a year.
My parents do have a strong connection to Montreal though, they met at the University of Vermont and when they got married a couple of years after college they went on a road trip for their honeymoon to Canada. I recall they have a faded picture of the two of them sitting and smiling in front of the tent they stayed in while honeymooning. They have a story of finding a flat place at a campground to place their tent and as it rained through the night they suddenly realized their tent was filling with water. They had camped in a dried riverbed and the river was running through their tent. I don't know how they handled it, but I imagine it progressed this way: my mom becoming very alert of the water very quickly, perhaps calling out "Wooo!" then my dad quiety handling the situation by moving everything, he would be calm but moving quickly, they would sit by the car, my mom would sigh, then they would both laugh in the rain.
On this trip to Montreal we made several stops as we were on the stretch of drive between northern Vermont and southern Canada because my dad was so excited. We were in a small dark blue Ford Escord with roll down windows and absolutely no AC that got a little hot, but we rolled down the windows a little. My brother must have been in college that year, I remember getting a green hat with a yellow V on it the year before because he was leaving for UVM. I still have that hat. A few years ago I was at a bar in Pittsburgh and someone told me to never let anyone take that hat away from me. I believe I was wearing that hat another time in that bar when I got a free dinner because the manager confused me for Pittsburgh Penguin Maxime Talbot and the bar tender knowingly didn't correct him because he was a fellow Connecticut native.
I bought a Baseball Weekly in a convenience store in Montreal. This was a weird thing I was always interested in doing when I was 13 years old. I had a subscription to Baseball Weekly and eventually taped saved front pages around my room in high school. I was intrigued that above the barcode it read "$1 US, $1.50 CAN." In middle school I told a teacher if I was stuck on a desert island I would take an issue of Baseball Weekly because after I read everything I could read over the in depth statistics over every player in the league. I later ran a fantasy baseball league where I scored everyone by checking those statistics because yahoo didn't have fantasy baseball on the internet yet. A year later I made my own statistically accurate baseball dice game from those statistics, and later still I worked in sports statistics. The cover of that Baseball Weekly I bought in Montreal was Henry Rodriguez, it was the first I had heard of him. He started in the outfield for the Expos in the first game I went to.
I learned all about Henry Rodriguez in that issue and I still remember several of the starters in the game I went to. They played the Giants and Barry Bonds started in left field. He was also the starter in the second game I went to in San Diego the next year (The Padres started Tony Gwynn and Rickey Henderson). The Expos started Rodriguez, Rondell White, Moises Alou (one of my favorite players at the time), Mark Gruzielanek (who I pronounces his name wrong until I heard the PA announcer), Mike Lansing, Ugueth Urbina, and Tim Spehr (I only remember him because as the catcher he had a lower batting average than the pitcher). Looking back at their roster I can assume the Expos also started Shane Andrews at third and David Segui at first.
Ugueth Urbina ended up being known for other things rather than being a starting pitcher. He ended up being a very prolific closer for many years before ending his career in notoriety. He ended up being convicted of murder for attacking five men who I believe were his gardeners in Venezuela who he accused of stealing a gun he owned. He attacked them with a machete, I believe he sliced at least one of them in the arm, poured gasoline on at least one of them who escaped by jumping into his swimming pool. Urbina was sentanced to over 14 years in prison in 2007 where he was seen in an ESPN E:60 (I believe) to have bribed unnamed people to get him a color TV and air conditioner in his jail cell. He was released in 2012. "He is the only player in major league history with the initials "UU" or "UUU.""
Olympic Stadium was supposed to be one of the worst parks in the league but it was amazing to me. I remember someone banging on an empty yellow seat next to them and I could hear it resonate around the stadium. I remember the PA announcer speaking in english and french to announce everything. I remember the pitcher throwing so fast I couldn't see the ball. When I did finally make it to Fenway Park when I was in high school I couldn't believe the contrast of how heavenly it was to walk in there compared to Olympic Stadium (from one of the worst to probably the best).
I had a classic red, white and blue Expos hat from the previous trip to Montreal that I wore to the game. I lost that hat in a couple of years then found it by the end of high school and wore it through college and after. I don't know where I lost it, but it was the all-time leader in attention for a piece of baseball clothing I've ever had. It was the hat everyone wanted after they stopped wearing it but when I got it, it was an ugly thing.
Tonight MLB network showed a great documentary on the history of the Expos. I loved it. It brought back so many baseball and life memories. It left out a few favorite Expos players like Randy Johnson, Tom Foley (I liked him because he had the same name as the Speaker of the House and I was a huge nerd when I was eight years old), Andres Galaraga, El Presedente, and Vlad Guerrero but it also taught me a lot about the early days of the Expos. I learned Rusty Staub had an amazing three years the first three years of the franchise before being traded (29, 30, and 19 homers from '69 to '71). I only knew him as a Met even though he just missed their two World Series wins (he was a Met from '72-'75 missing the miracle Mets of '69 and '82-'85 missing their 1986 win). I enjoyed the documentary although I don't think I can count it as movie being less than feature length, but it finished on such a high note of hope, the hope of Montreal getting another MLB team someday (with a new stadium of course... maybe Mexico City will also get an expansion team, too) that I have to recommend all baseball fans watch it if they get a chance.