BURLINGTON, Vt. — The last vestige of the Montreal Expos can be found here, a 90-minute drive southeast of Montreal, in what was once Howard Dean country and remains the home of the oldest minor-league ballpark in America. Centennial Field will celebrate its centennial next season, but this year’s historic, too: The last time a professional team will wear the word “Expos” on its uniform.
“It’s Your State. It’s Your Call,” is the campaign to rename the Vermont Expos, the short-season Class A team in the New York-Penn League and an affiliate of the Montreal Expos-turned-Washington Nationals. All season long, fans can submit suggestions for a new nickname, either at the ballpark or online at nameyourteam.com. Already, however, the effects of the parent club’s move are evident even this far down the organizational food chain.
“During the offseason, I’ve never seen the phones and e-mails light up like they did,” Expos general manager C.J. Knudsen said. “Ever since Major League Baseball moved the Expos from Montreal to Washington, we’re the only baseball team within a 100-mile radius of here.”
The interest in the province of Quebec is so great, the Vermont Expos now have a French-language Web site for fans to follow the team and buy tickets. July22 will be a “Tribute to Montreal Night.” Former Montreal star Andre Dawson will make a personal appearance here next week.
Knudsen speaks animatedly of the likely “trickle-down effect” of the Expos’ move to Washington, their current success and the Nationals’ increased revenues — in part from a huge spike in attendance but also once the franchise is sold later this year.
One immediate improvement: two-toned Vermont maple bats, nonexistent in recent, leaner years.
While teammates at Central Florida, John-Michael Howell and Dee Brown played before crowds ranging from 800 to 1,500. After being selected in last month’s free-agent draft, they played before 4,402 at this season’s home opener and equally boisterous, if slightly smaller, crowds since.
“You have fan support; you get the whole town involved,” said Howell, who already refers to the parent club in the first-person plural.
“The fact that we moved to D.C., it excites us even more because the fan base is so huge. On top of that, we’re in first place right now, playing real well with no A-Rods or anything like that. You always want to play for a good team. It’s exciting to know that when you get up there for your debut, you’re going to have a packed house.”
Indeed, these little Expos now have a prime target: A packed, raucous RFK Stadium (and a gorgeous new ballpark scheduled to be ready for the 2008 season) and, likely, a pennant race. It’s all so different from Montreal.
“I remember when they had $1 hot dog and $1 beer night and they drew, what, 5,000? If you can’t draw with that, what can you draw with?” said David Travis, playing his second season here. “This organization always develops a lot of players, and they have nothing to [retain them with] when they get good. Maybe now they’ll be able to keep ‘em.
“There’s definitely a new attitude this year,” Travis said. “We belong to somebody. We belong somewhere. Last year, you’d go home and your buddies would say, ‘You play professional baseball? For who?’ You’d say, ‘Uh, the Expos.’ Now, we’ve got D.C. You’re prouder to wear your stuff around. Now, we’ve got a home for ourselves.”
“Last year, they were playing [occasional home games] in Puerto Rico,” said shortstop Brandon Conway, whose home in West Virginia is a 75-minute drive from D.C. “It would be great to make it and play pretty much in front of my home town.”
For now, he’s still a Class A Expo for the second consecutive season.
“The Vermont Expos are still the Vermont Expos,” Conway said. “People said, ‘Wait, I thought you guys were going to become the Nationals.’ We are.
“It was tough for the guys who were in Montreal, playing in front of 5,000 fans. Those guys, you really didn’t know their names. Now that they’re in D.C. and doing well, everybody knows their names.”
cDistributed by the New York Times News Service.