Olympic Stadium was home to the Expos for most of their time in Quebec. (John Iacono/SI)
Major League Baseball is returning to Montreal -- at least for a brief time. According to a report by Sportsnet's Shi Davidi on Tuesday, the Blue Jays are expected to officially announce that they will play a pair of exhibition games against the Mets at Olympic Stadium next spring. Via Twitter, Frédérique Guay from TVA Sports says that the games will take place on March 28 and 29, 2014.
The second-largest city in Canada after Toronto, Montreal has a rich baseball history dating back to the 19th century. As early as 1890, ailing franchises from Buffalo and Hamilton of the International Association played games there. In July 1897, when the ballpark of the Rochester Brownies of the Eastern League burned to the ground, the Montreal Royals were born. They spent the next 20 years and the span from 1928 through 1960 as part of that league's successor, the International League.
From 1939 through 1960, the Royals were the top farm club of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1946, that club made history when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player to play for a major league affiliate. Largely accepted by the Montreal fan base -- which exceeded a staggering one million in attendance that year -- Robinson hit .349 and won MVP honors while helping the Royals win the league championship and the Little World Series. That set the stage for his even more historic major league debut the following year. Montreal served as a stepping stone for several other African-Americans who played for the Dodgers including Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella as well as other Hall of Famers such as Duke Snider and Roberto Clemente (who was plucked away by the Pirates in the Rule 5 Draft).
When the Dodgers switched affiliations, the Royals moved to Syracuse in 1961, and it wasn't until May 1968 that MLB granted the city an expansion franchise to begin play in 1969. With the brand new Kansas City franchise claiming the name "Royals," the new franchise in Montreal was instead named after the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, a/k/a Expo 67. Les Expos spent 1969 through 1976 playing at Jarry Park, whose capacity was expanded from 3,000 to 28,500 in time for their arrival. In 1977, they moved into Olympic Stadium, a domed stadium originally built for the 1976 Summer Olympics.
While the Expos were particularly competitive from 1979 through 1996, finishing at .500 or better 14 times in an 18-year span and producing Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Gary Carter as well as Cooperstown hopefuls Tim Raines, Larry Walker and Vladimir Guerrero, they only made the postseason once, in 1981. They had the best record in baseball when the 1994 strike hit, but poor attendance forced the dismantlement of that talented squad. Jeffrey Loria bought the team in December 1999 and choked the life out of it in an attempt to build a new ballpark at the expense of Montreal taxpayers. The Expos ranked last in the league in attendance from 1998 through 2004 despite winning seasons in 2002 and 2003.
By then, the franchise had become the wards of the other 29 teams as part of an unwholesome three-way swap that came out of the 2001 threat to contract two teams from among a group of four (the Expos, Rays, Marlins and Twins). In early 2002, commissioner Bud Selig took the Expos off Loria's dirty hands and allowed him to purchase the Marlins to be his vehicle of future villainy. That in turn allowed Marlins owner John Henry purchase the Red Sox from the Yawkey Trust. The last game on the unloved turf of "The Big O" took place on September 29, 2004, after which the Expos skipped town for Washington, D.C. and became the Nationals.
That move left the Blue Jays (who began play in 1977) as Canada's only major league team, though it didn't guarantee the allegiance of disenfranchised fans from the bilingual province. In April 2011, club president Paul Beeston floated the idea of playing a home game in Montreal as part of an attempt to build a stronger national fan base. How exactly the Jays and the exhibitions organizers are planning to address the condition of Olympic Stadium, which was falling apart by the time the Expos left, remains to be seen. The facility still plays host to special events as well as occasional games by the Montreal Impact of Major League soccer and playoff games hosted by the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, but it will need to be upgraded at least somewhat to host the two-game series, which will happen after the Jays and Mets head north from Florida at the end of spring training.
Davidi suggested that series may fuel the Jays to explore similar exhibitions in Vancouver, British Columbia, something Beeston had also suggested in 2011. Also benefitting, according to his report, is the Montreal Baseball Project, an organization led by former Expo Warren Cromartie that is currently conducting a feasibility study to bring MLB back to Montreal on a permanent basis.
La Belle Province