For the second year in a row, the Toronto Blue Jays decided to come and visit Montreal to play their last two spring training game before hitting off their season. After last year’s success, the Jays had nothing to lose and the pressure was on the Montreal Baseball fans: will this year’s success be as great as last year? In 2015, the jays changed opponents for these games so they played the Cincinnati Reds, a team less known by montrealers so we asked ourselves if they would drag enough fans to the ballpark. But in fact we knew that a lot of fans would come out simply to see the newest acquisition of the Jays: the Catcher from NDG, Russell Martin who was signed for 5 years.
The Wednesday before the game, Montreal Baseball Project organized their annual gala to promote the return of baseball to Montreal. Our good friend Warren Cromartie invited us so we could talk a little bit about our project from last summer. We had the chance to see there some great players: Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero, Time Raines and Andres Gualaraga. During this magic night, we heard some great speeches talking about how these players were awesome on and off the field and how Montreal was a great place for baseball. We had great discussions with many actors of baseball in Montreal. We finally had the chance to meet with journalist Jonah Keri who gave us a copy of his book about the Expos. We want to give a big thanks to Montreal Baseball Project for the gala and for the great plaque that they offered to us.
On Friday afternoon, we were really excited to get to the Olympic stadium to see baseball back in Montreal. Adry and I, like we used to do last summer, got to the ballpark right when the gates opened. We were not the only ones out there! From the entrance, we went right away down to field level so we could get a ball signed by Jumbo Diaz. We then went back on the main concourse for our usual ballpark tour.
During the last years, the Olympic Stadium received a few renovations and ameliorations since the Impact rent it to play a few games every year. A few new food concessions appeared on the lower level. It gives us other options than the usual: hot-dog, pizza, smoked meat at the usual stands! Fans were getting to the ballpark in advance so they could eat before the game.
For those two games, a few entertainment stands were installed like last year. Baseball Québec was doing some Promotion, young ones and older fans could test their swings in batting cages specially installed for the games and our friends from Expos Nation were out there to promote their group. Let’s not forget the various selling points where people were buying expos gear and Russell Martin’s t-shirt! Let’s say there were enough activities for the fans before the game. It is something that makes the success of many ballparks in the rest of the league.
While walking around we did pass by some weird and ugly places in the Big O. Empty spaces where there is nothing to do but that we still have access to for we don’t know why! We went out to the bleachers to try and catch some home run balls. The atmosphere was superb: the fans were happy to simply be back at the ballpark. We saw a lot of parents with kids too young to have known the expos. Some parents who just wanted to tell their kids: look, it’s here that mommy\daddy was coming to see the expos play. The kids seemed to love the event and they all yelled out to get a ball when one was rolling to one of the fielders.
All this is great but there were some ceremonies before the game so we walked up to our seats on the upper deck to watch them. Hopefully we went there early since they closed the lights for the ceremonies and it was harder to find your seats in the dark! Before the game, Vladimir Guerrero and Orlando Cabrera were both honored for their career with the expos and what they gave to this team. We could say that the Montreal fans gave them both a great welcome home.
One of the most touching moments of the pre-game ceremonies was the interpretation of the national anthem, with a saxophone, by Russell Martin Sr., the father of the Jays catcher. Fans were crazy for the first pitch. At his first at bat, Russell Martin received a long standing ovation. He struck out and it kind of spoiled his first baseball apparition in Montreal but he went back to the dugout under the cheers of the crowd. The Reds and the Jays offered us a great quality in pitching as Mark Buehrle and Jason Marquis were the starting pitchers. We got some great defensive plays but very few hits. It is during the 8th inning that Skip Schumaker pushed the two first and last runs of the game with a grounder to left field. The Reds pitchers limited the Jays to 4 hits. Final Score: Reds 2-0
What can we say about that game? First of all, 46,000 fans in the stands showed to the league that last year’s games were not for show. The people of Montreal responded well with crowd participation: cheering the whole game, few fans leaving before last pitch and people wearing Expos, Jays and Reds colors. Montreal, to my opinion, succeeds in a big task and now we must wonder what will be our next move. Yes we can talk about hosting regular season games at the Big O but we must concentrate our efforts on building a new ballpark and finding potential investors. I am not going to repeat everything we’ve heard in the Medias in the last weeks about the construction of a new ballpark and the other factors we have to take account to get baseball back in Montreal. For a lot of us, it was simply a weekend to enjoy the great spectacle of baseball.
There was also a game on Saturday afternoon and we were also there but we won’t talk much about it since the vibe around the ballpark was mostly the same. Only exception, the assistance went up to 50,000 fans. Yes this weekend also showed us how bad the Olympic Stadium is: long lines for the washrooms, traffic jams on the road and in the public transit after the games, not-so-fresh hot dogs on the Saturday, etc. We all know that we need a new ballpark but we still believe that the Big O could be used for two seasons before the completion of a new home for Baseball in Montreal, kind of like the Nationals played at RFK before moving in Nationals Park.
Until then, we encourage people to travel around the league wearing Expos Colors. We know that many (including us) from Montreal will visit Toronto to see Russell Martin play but we invite you to visit other ballparks to learn more about the great diversity and culture of this sport!
P.S. We had an idea for the future ballpark in Montreal: to have a section of the old clapping seats removed from the Big O and be installed in the new ballpark. We’d give a special name to this section representing the old times of baseball in Montreal. We are trying to make this idea grow so we never forget where we are coming from!