Karl Lindholm: ‘Play Balle!’ au Montreal; will Major League Baseball return?
They’re talking about bringing Major League baseball back to Montreal. How great would that be!
“They” are Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, big boys who can make things happen, or at least get things started.
It’s a long way off, no doubt, until expansion or relocation brings an MLB team to La Metropole. Manfred has said that the “big thing” for Montreal is to have an “adequate facility to support baseball over the long haul.”
I’m so old that I remember watching the Montreal Expos play in Parc Jarry. That was like watching games in the Middlebury rec park, a horseshoe of seats running from left field around to right, no roof, open air.
The ‘Spos played there from their inception in 1969 through 1977, when Stade Olympique became their home.
Turns out Jarry Park was a better place to watch a game than Olympic Stadium, the “Big O” (or the “Big Oh No!”), an enormous oval with a retractable roof that didn’t retract. Watching a ballgame there was an indoor experience — baseball played on a green carpet in a sterile enclosure.
Nonetheless, it was fun to go to Montreal for Expos games, only a couple hours from Middlebury. A combination of bad luck, excruciatingly bad management, and poor play conspired in 2004 to send the Expos to Washington, D.C., where they are now the “Nationals.”
Vermont’s own Bill Lee, exiled to Canada from the Red Sox, played four years, 1979-82, for the Expos. “Playing in Montreal was a trip,” he wrote in his first autobiographical effort, The Wrong Stuff.
“The fans in Montreal were marvelous, much like the fans in Boston. They deserve a big winner, because they place so little emphasis on winning. All they care about is watching a good effort and having fun. I loved playing for them.”
I loved the biculturalism and bilingualism of the baseball experience in Montreal, which reminded me of growing up in Lewiston, Maine, my home town, which was largely French-Canadian.
The positions on the field had striking English-French translations — the pitcher was le lanceur, outfielders voltigeurs, the catcher le receveur. Tim Raines was le centre voltigeur.
Loosely translated, voltigeur means “acrobat,” “runner,” “tumbler”; originally, a voltigeur was a light infantryman in the military, a foot soldier.
“Voltigeur” was one of my favorite French words. Every winter robust Canadians came down from Quebec to Lewiston to compete in a festival of snowshoe races on the snow-covered athletic fields at LHS, where I played baseball and football in milder weather. They were called “voltigeurs.” The most popular social clubs in Lewiston were the Les Voltigeurs and Les Montagnards (the Monties).
Probably the most popular player in Expo history was Rusty Staub, a powerful hitter (le frappeur) who played right field (le voltiger de droite) and first-base (le premier but). Because of his red hair he was known to all as Le Grand Orange!
The Expos all-star first baseman, Andres Galarraga, was nicknamed “The Big Cat,” so when he came to bat he was introduced with a flourish: “Le Grand Chat, Andres GalaRRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAga!”
The hot dog guy went up and down the aisles calling out “chien chaud (“she-EN show”), chien chaud.” Nothing like un biere avec un chien chaud at the old terrain de la balle!
Generally, I am not fond of big fuzzy mascots. At one game in Montreal, with my kids and their friends, I told Youppi, the Expos’ mascot, to “take a hike.” He was in my way, doing his thing. I couldn’t see the game, my priority.
This suggestion to “get lost” was like catnip to Youppi. He took my Red Sox cap off my head and did unspeakable things to it. He swallowed my head with his large proboscis. He played “keep away” with my hat, to the great delight of all. I felt like a Washington General to his Globetrotter. Word to the wise: don’t upset the mascot!
Then there was the night we decided to avoid the $5 charge for stadium parking and parked on the street a few blocks from the stadium. After the game, we couldn’t find our car. We wandered the streets for an hour or so, thinking the problem was our ignorance of Montreal— “it must be here somewhere.”
Alas, it had been stolen, and that occasioned a number of comical interactions with Montreal gendarmes, a cab ride to a hotel and the rental of a car for the ride home the next day, and then a two-week wait for the recovery of our van.
Among the items stolen from the car were my fungo bat, my beloved Catfish Hunter model baseball glove, and dozens of slides of Ireland from a recent trip of mine on college business there.
I imagined this gang of Big O car thieves getting together, perhaps over wine and cheese (vin et fromage), enjoying my slides of the Emerald Isle.
Ah Les Expos, je me souviens.
Encore, s’il vous plait!
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