Part I: Stade Olympique
This visit was possible thanks to the Toronto Blue Jays, so I want to thank them publicly. Also, they have some of the best people working for their organization… more on that later. After last season’s journey, I waited patiently for the regular season schedule to come out so I could start planning for the other fifteen ballparks. Additionally, I took a peek at the pre-season schedule and saw something that piqued my interest. The Cincinnati Reds and Blue Jays were to play two exhibition games at the old Olympic Stadium in Montreal! This wasn’t a ballpark I ever made it out to, and I quickly asked the masses. Would this count as another stadium to see a ballgame in despite the fact the team that used to play there is now in Washington, DC? The answer was a resounding “YES!” That meant I would be visiting 16 other stadiums during this season instead of 15. Plus, with the usual games at Los Angeles and Anaheim, I would visit 18 different ballparks in one season. This was beginning to get really insane as I saw that this trip was not only possible, but a very strong possibility. Visiting this many ballparks in a span of five to six months may seem like an insurmountable task to the vast majority of baseball fans out there. However, with a great group of supportive friends and colleagues, this was looking like I could actually do this.
Planning for this was a bit difficult because of the hockey season and my work schedule. Luckily, I had a vacation around that time and could take a couple additional days off. Even more lucky, I would be able to revolve this around other work I already had going on and would just mosey to Montreal on the back end of an East Coast trip that was mostly planned. All the dominoes were falling into place.
Fast forward months later, and after a great trip to New York, I took the train up to Montreal on April Fool’s Day. This train ride was no joke, the scenery was that beautiful looking outside. Snow-filled woods surrounded me on a breathtaking train ride. Ultimately, I’m glad I took the train instead of a plane because it saved me money and gave me time to catch up on some writing and e-mails. I had arrived in Montreal armed with a fluency of the French language and quite a bit of Canadian money. I was ready for this short trip.
Ballpark 16: Olympic Stadium in Montreal, elevation 30 metres
The game: Reds @ Blue Jays on April 3, 2015
The buzz around this game was very real as soon as I arrived in Montreal. First off, half of the TV stations were in French, and even some of them were talking about the upcoming games at Olympic Stadium. When I arrived, it was Wednesday. I attended a Montreal Canadiens game on Thursday, and one of the guests of honor at Centre Bell was former Expo, Vladimir Guerrero. He got a very loud standing ovation and is considered one of the finest players to ever put on a Montreal Expos jersey. Another fantastic story to come out of there was the return of Russell Martin to his home town of Montreal. He was also at the hockey game and got another standing ovation. Apparently, he stayed with his family while he was there and painted the town blue, as it were. In fact, he rode the Montreal subways around town just like when he was a kid.
After the hockey game, I looked ahead to Friday’s big game at “The O” where over 40,000 fans were expected to watch a pre-season game. Because of the recent snow, walking around was a bit tough. But, I left with enough time to buy myself a Montreal Expos hat, get my scorebook stamped from Olympic Stadium, and take a good look in and around the stadium.
The subway ride from Pie-IX to Stade Olympique is filled with memorabilia and signs all about the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. It’s a nice nod to history and something that most fans wouldn’t think to notice. Just outside the ballpark, there is an excellent nod to Jackie Robinson that I feel should be done in Los Angeles. There is a Jackie Robinson statue outside the Big O honoring the breaking of the color barrier as a member of the minor league Montreal team. In 1946, before Jackie broke the color barrier in the major leagues, he had to play a year in the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate before coming up the following year. The statue is a great tribute to one of the greatest athletes of all time.
Ticket prices: I knew to buy my ticket in advance because of how large the crowds might be. With the rate conversion, I got a nice upper-deck seat for about fifteen bucks. From behind the plate, the views are not bad at all, and the sight lines from there are like watching a Montreal hockey game. You feel as if you’re on top of the action because the park is built more vertically than most. Since I had a single seat, I was closer behind the plate than what was available. Of course, I’m glad I bought my seat somewhat early and arrived at the park early because…
The fans: They came in droves for this game! When I neared the stadium, there were massive lines at each gate with fans waiting to get in. I took my time and enjoyed the surreal atmosphere of hardcore baseball fans everywhere. I saw my fair share of Blue Jays jerseys, but I saw thousands of Expos jerseys all around the lower concourse! Many of those fans were incredibly jovial and just happy to have baseball back in Montreal for a couple days. They expected over forty thousand fans, but over 46,000 fans showed up to watch a pre-season game. Think about that figure, folks. Forty-six thousand fans came to watch an exhibition game at a stadium that hasn’t housed a major league team in a decade. Many of those fans brought signs asking to bring the Expos back.
The people I sat around were all older gentlemen who kept telling stories about the old team and watching their Expos frequently. In fact, one of the gentlemen in my section had brought an old ticket stub from an Expos game in 2003! I could tell these were die-hard fans I was seated around, and many of them still harbor a strong hatred towards controversial owner, Jeffrey Loria.
The food: In short, the food was about as average as you can get. Not expensive at all, but no frills. I got what I expected, and I was totally okay with that. I was there for the experience.
The game: Before the start of the exhibition game, there was a special ceremony held to honor the great Expos player, Vladimir Guerrero. He came out to a loud ovation and spoke a few words about his time here, and was touched by the overwhelming positive response he had gotten in the city, and at the stadium. The next loud ovation was for both Russell Martin and his father, who is an accomplished jazz musician. The homecoming had made the news in Montreal, but the elder Martin had a surprise for everybody. He would play both national anthems on his saxophone! He started with the American national anthem, which sounded beautiful. The following two minutes after that had me in tears. “O Canada” was played on that saxophone with such passion that everybody started singing along as proudly (and loudly) as possible. Because I, of course, knew the words to the Canadian national anthem, as well, I sung along as I tried to hold back tears. Several people around me actually were in tears. The emotion of that anthem was something I will never forget.
The actual game went so quickly that fans barely had time to get drunk and take everything in. Most of the first five innings were so quick that it was “three-up, three-down” for the most part. In the first six innings, both teams combined for only 6 hits with no score. I had realized that we were already close to the 7th inning stretch, and the game had only lasted one hour, twenty minutes by that point. Most of the fans were panicking that they couldn’t grab another beer… some of them didn’t as the seventh went just as fast as the first six. Finally, the Reds broke through with two runs in the top of the 8th to give Cincy a 2-0 lead. That score would hold for the remainder of the game.
But this was more than just a game, this was a baseball community joining together to cheer one more time, and even let out a few “Let’s Go Expos” chants. One neat feature that I noticed was on the outfield walls. There was a banner dedicated to Gary “The Kid” Carter, who recently passed away, and a banner for the 1994 Montreal Expos who had the best record in all of Major League Baseball before the player’s strike ended the season prematurely. This is a reminder of how good the Expos really were when they had superstar players taking the field. Many thought the Expos would go all the way to the World Series in that 1994 baseball season. Sadly, we will never know if that dream would have come true. Montreal recognized that team as the best in baseball that year, and they represent that with a nice banner. That unrealized potential would plague the Expos as they sold off a few of those star players before the 1995 season. Coupled with an inability to finance a new ballpark, the fans began to turn on Loria who had fire-sold his most talented players. Those factors would lead to the demise of the Expos. In 2004, the Expos would officially be sold and moved to Washington, DC to become the Nationals.
Yes, the ballpark is old and sits in north Montreal as a kind of white elephant, but it is not that bad of a ballpark. At least the blue roof makes it easier to see fly balls hit high in the air. Overall, I could see Olympic Stadium host a few more exhibition games. Those huge crowds that weekend definitely sent a loud message to MLB. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to see crowds react so passionately to a team that they have adopted simply because [the Blue Jays] are the only Canadian MLB team left.
One thing I loved after the game was that the ushers let the fans take their time with pictures and reminiscing about old Expos games. I took several pictures and talked with so many fans who all think that there should be a baseball team back in Montreal. I can’t say I wholly agree with them, but I certainly do not disagree with them. Yes, over 46,000 fans came for a Friday exhibition game (and as it turned out, over 50 thousand for the Saturday afternoon game). Yes, they came out for a one-time only weekend. But, could those type of crowds sustain an entire season? I’m not so sure yet. However, I was convinced that the city of Montreal should be considered for a future franchise… as long as Jeffrey Loria goes nowhere near that team.
A final anecdote that I had to share with you all. Remember how I said that the Blue Jays have the best organization in baseball? This started with a hat. As you know, I obtain hats from each stadium as a memento from that stadium
. Even though I was attending a Blue Jays game, this was a game at the old home of the Montreal Expos. Luckily, the Blue Jays organization realized that and stocked their merchandise stands with Expos hats! I would still count this as an Expos park, so I bought the tri-color Montreal Expos hat in my size, and I was happy as a clam… until I got back to my hotel room. The top button had come off the cap and the ribbon underneath the hat was coming off! At least I found the metal portion where the top button was, but the cap was coming apart, unfortunately. I had never seen or heard of such a thing happening.
I tried contacting New Era to no avail, so the next best thing I could think of was call the Toronto Blue Jays offices and at least tell them my situation. I was surprised to hear back from them very quickly. I got a couple phone calls asking about the hat, and I told them exactly what had happened. I still had my receipt and could have shown them this picture of the top of the cap. Their response?
“Don’t worry about it! Just tell us what hat you bought and we will send you a new one!” I didn’t even have to send them the old hat that was damaged. I was filled with such joy, and I didn’t know what to say! The organization didn’t have to do anything and could have ignored my request. They went above and beyond the call of duty and I am so grateful. I sincerely hope to meet some of the people in the organization when I make my trip up to Toronto later this summer. In fact, I will bring my new Expos cap up there to Toronto.
Thank you all for reading this journey to Montreal. This season will be memorable, and I can’t wait to visit these new places and meet some readers. Don’t forget to follow my travels on the Twitter! You can find me @StimpyJD on there, with the hashtag #JDsBallparkTour. Have a wonderful day, and let’s play ball!