- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2001

MONTREAL — At this point, Harold Stupp is used to being ridiculed.
Of course, as a Montreal Expos season ticket holder, he has little choice in the matter.
Its a muggy, sun-splashed Friday morning, and Mr. Stupp, who represents a sporting goods sales company, is about to take a long weekend: Two days to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary, followed by a Sunday afternoon at the ballpark.
Outside his office near Dorval airport, he runs into Jerry Rotian, a lawyer and friend who works in the adjacent building.
"I dont know how you get worked up for those games," Mr. Rotian teases. "Theres only 3,000 people there."
Mr. Stupp shrugs it off. But later, while driving downtown, he lets out a long, mournful sigh.
"Happens all the time," he says. "I call my friends to go to a game and they say, 'What, are you sick? But they can laugh at me all they want. I dont care. Im a fan."
Given the sorry state of baseball in Montreal, thats no small thing. The Expos have a strip-mined roster that cant win, a charmless stadium that cant draw and cash-strapped coffers that may force the team to fold or relocate — perhaps to Washington. The Expos are averaging just 8,826 fans per game this season — a 37 percent drop from last year, when the club drew a major-league low 926,272.
"Being a baseball person, its sad." said Johnny Elias, owner of the Elias baseball school and a former Expos batting-practice pitcher. "There arent more than 100 to 200 people that come to more than 20 games a year. Everyone else gave up their seats."
The fans that remain, like Mr. Stupp, argue less over the teams shaky play than its even shakier future. Claiming losses of $20 million last year, majority owner Jeffrey Loria has ruled nothing out following this season, including a move.
"I come to the ballpark, and it breaks my heart," said Rocky Rapoport, who along with his wife, Judy, has been a season ticket holder for more than three decades. "No team can stay in business if no one is coming to the games. Every day is like a nail in the coffin."
While many in baseball have lambasted Montreal for its apparent apathy toward the Expos — one writer dubbed it the sports answer to Ice Station Zebra — the city itself has a rich tradition in the game.
Prior to the Expos arrival in 1969, Montreal was the home of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers Class AAA farm team, the Royals, playing host to all-time greats such as Jackie Robinson. And by the 1980s, the Expos average attendance was more than 2 million.
"I still remember the day I became an avid ball fan: September 9, 1965," said Katie Hynes, a season ticket holder who fills out box scores for every Expos home game from her seat behind home plate. "It was my ninth birthday, and I fell in love.
"The first season the Expos were here, I paid 50 cents for a left field seat. It was a fairy tale summer. We didnt care if the team won or lost."
Everything changed in 1994, when an Expos club with the best record in the majors (74-40) was sidelined by a season-ending players strike.
The work stoppage left fans bitter, and the bad feelings were exacerbated by the cost-cutting roster purge that followed. After promising that the Expos would not hold a fire sale, then-owner Claude Brochu rid the team of first-rate talents Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland, Moises Alou and Pedro Martinez.
Since then, the Expos have posted a winning record just once.
"Business was on a great roll that year," said Gary Schwartz, a fan and the owner of Sport Buff, a sporting goods store in downtown Montreal. "Fans went back to the stadium. Buyers were excited, picking up T-shirts and hats. To say this is not a baseball town is completely false. If theres a winning team, the fans will be there."
Montrealers hopes were briefly restored in 1999, when Brochu sold the club to Loria. Loria, a New York art dealer, poured money into the proposed site of a new downtown stadium and promised to keep the teams best young players, including Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro.
However, financing for the new park quickly fell apart, and Loria gave up his $70,000-a-month lease on the proposed location. Expos fans suffered another blow earlier this season when the club fired popular manager Felipe Alou, a 28-year employee of the club.
"Its hard to repair [relations with] disappointed fans," said Expos executive vice president David Sampson. "Its hard to retrain the minds of disappointed fans until you have certainty. And we dont have it. Its been a long number of years for a lot of fans."
The Expos are hamstrung by their out-of-date ballpark, the cavernous Stade Olympique. Built for the 1976 Olympics, the stadium is a domed, multi-purpose monstrosity that sits well outside downtown and has all the ambiance of cracked asphalt.
"Its a short summer here," said season ticket holder Sheldon Leiber, adding that the citys popular Canadian Football League team, the Alouettes, nearly folded while playing in the Stade Olympique. "People want to be outside."
Moreover, said longtime fan Sebastien Robert, a Web designer who spent a year at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, many Canadians dont grow up with the baseball the way Americans do.
"Hockey is a religion in Quebec, and baseball is a sect," he said, citing the 4,000-something crowd that came out to see Arizona pitcher Randy Johnson this season. "The Expos are like the Branch Davidians of baseball."
Mr. Robert has a point: During a recent game against Toronto, the crowd applauded after Guerrero pulled down a spectacular, run-robbing catch, but cheered wildly when the team fired free T-shirts into the stands between innings.
"I have a buddy who says he likes baseball, but he doesnt even know who led the American League in home runs last season," Mr. Robert said. "Yet ask him who the San Jose Sharks backup goalie is, and hell tell you."
Above all, the Expos are crippled by the economic realities of major league baseball. Without the parity-inducing mechanisms of a salary cap or revenue-sharing employed by professional football and basketball, the club simply cant afford to compete with the leagues wealthiest teams, such as the defending champion New York Yankees.
"It becomes a Catch-22 situation," Mr. Stupp said. "If the fans arent supporting the team, they cant afford to keep certain players. And if they cant keep players, the fans get upset and stay away."
Fans still turn out for special occasions. More than 40,000 attended opening night in 1999, and a similar number showed up this season, mainly to support an attempted comeback by veteran favorite Tim Raines.
"When theres people here, its really exciting," said Vahak Herzan, who comes to at least one game of every Expos home series. "It shakes. Its loud. People here love baseball. But the so-so fan and even the good fan have had their hearts broken so many times. Only the hardcore fan remains."
Therein lies the problem. In the rec room of his Montreal home, Mr. Rapoport furrows his brow. Around him is a veritable Expos shrine — a life-size cardboard cutout of Guerrero, framed and signed team posters, two walls covered with autographed bats and balls.
Though no major league baseball team has moved since the Washington Senators relocated to Texas in 1972 — and no club has folded since 1899 — Mr. Rapoport is anything but optimistic about the future.
"Were going to lose our team," he said. "But people do care. Theres a lot of people that would go to the games if the team had a direction. The attitude is, 'If theyre leaving, why should we go? Its a crime whats happening here."
And if the Expos leave, it wont be victimless.

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