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Baseball's Electric Weekend in Montreal

Several Buffalo Bisons take to the field at Olympic Stadium

Think about the NBA Buffalo Braves, who for close to a decade captivated hoops fans here in Western New York; who made some amazing playoff runs and came within a hair’s breadth of greatness; who were beset with attendance problems and ownership chaos; and who were eventually sold and brutally ripped away from the community, which deserved better.

Sound familiar?

Because that is just about the same sad story up in Montreal, a proud baseball city with great baseball traditions where the Montreal Expos played major league ball for 35 years, mostly at “The Big O,” Olympic Stadium. The team did have trouble pulling fans in at the gate; in 1994, they assembled a powerful team destined to go to and even win the World Series, only to have it all come crashing down when baseball went on strike that year in August.

It all began to unravel. Attendance continued to dwindle. A new owner came in, Jeffrey Loria, now the infamous owner of the Miami Marlins. And following the 2004 season the team packed and left for Washington, DC to become the Washington Nationals.

So it really mattered late last month when, for the first time since 2004, baseball was back in Montreal. The New York Mets and the Toronto Blue Jays, both with ties to the Buffalo Bisons as the former and current parent clubs, played a pair of exhibition games at Olympic Stadium. In the course of two days, almost 100,000 fans packed the Stade to celebrate the game, to reminisce, to cheer, to revere their former heroes, and most of all, to make a statement that Montreal deserves a chance to be the home of Major League Baseball once again.

Former Expos great Warren Cromartie, who played for the team for over a decade, now leads the Montreal Baseball Project, an organization promoting the feasibility of bringing baseball back to Montreal once again. Cromartie and his group face daunting odds: The city lacks a suitable stadium capable of generating the revenues needed to sustain a MLB club; there are no franchises in play for immediate relocation right now, although there are stadium issues in Tampa Bay and Oakland; and there is no plan for expansion from the current 30 teams. Lastly, the city, for now, lacks a wealthy potential owner with the deep pockets needed to lead the charge.

No matter. Cromartie was on the field before the first of two games at the Stade, leading the chants of “Let’s go, Expos” and promising the robust and noisy crowd that their dreams would come true.

The packed houses on both nights were in full-throated support of the Blue Jays, although the chant of “Let’s go, Expos” was the prevailing theme. Buffalo Bisons players Mumenori Kawasaki and Moises Sierra were in the Toronto lineup for both games, with former Bison Lucas Duda in the Mets lineup. The Canadian team did not disappoint. Both games were won by the Blue Jays, and in dramatic fashion: 5-4 the first game, with Buffalo Bisons’ outfielder Ricardo Nanita getting the pinch hit single in the bottom of the ninth. And thanks to a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning the following afternoon, the Jays won 2-0. Melky Cabrera, who also briefly played for Buffalo in a rehab assignment last July, provided the heroics.

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons like the energy and the passion on display during the weekend. “It’s a neat city. It’s a clean place. I think everyone loves hopping on the subway getting over here too.”

Ah yes, the subway. Montreal’s Olympic Stadium sits on the east side of the city, and the best way to get to Olympic park is via the Metro green line to Pie-IX station. A massive indoor concourse takes you right into the stadium’s main entrance. Throngs of fans packed the trains, many wearing Expos jerseys and caps, with team merchandise flying off the shelves.

The pageantry and the celebration was off the charts—on Friday the City of Montreal retired Hall of Fame player Gary Carter’s #8 and hung it on the Stade’s outfield wall. Carter died of brain cancer in 2012, and is revered in Montreal as one of the greatest Expos ever. The following day, all the members of the famed 1994 team made a pregame appearance, with a celebratory video of that magic season showing on the centerfield video board.

“It was a tremendous weekend. All these fans. All this emotion,” said former Expo Tim Raines. “To see it all come together once again here would be a good thing for baseball.”

Around the Bases…

• Seven postponed games, home and away, in April thanks to snow and rain, and the Buffalo Bisons have rescheduled five of those postponements in June and July. The weather at Coca Cola Field has been awful for most of the month.

• After a horrible start, outfielder Kevin Pillar is finally getting his bat swinging, and had put together a 10-game hitting streak going into this week.

• Closer Neil Wagner is back with the Herd after a brief call-up to Toronto. Consider every game he plays in Buffalo a gift. He is totally big league material.

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