Wednesday, September 29, 2004

MONTREAL — Montreal Expos president Tony Tavares yesterday compared the last day of major league baseball in the city to a terminally ill patient.

“It has been a very interesting and difficult day here in Montreal,” said Tavares, the former Anaheim Angels president who was brought here three years ago by Major League Baseball to run the Expos. “It has been like having a patient on life support — you know they are going to die someday, but you don’t realize the impact until it happens.”

The impact for the final Expos game in Montreal yesterday ranged from acceptance to anger, which was on display when the American national anthem was sung before the game against the Florida Marlins began at Olympic Stadium and the crowd began booing. Others cheered to try and drown out the boos, but by the time “and the home of the brave” was finished, the boos were drowning out the cheers.

It went from ugly to dangerous in the top of the third inning when someone threw a golf ball from the stands toward second base. Second base umpire Ted Barrett picked it up while Expos manager Frank Robinson came out of the dugout to talk to home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez. The umpires then called the players off the field, to a shower of boos from the fans.

Security personnel lined the field as the crowd grew more restless during the stoppage. Several announcements were made urging fans not to throw items on the field, and the Expos players came out of the dugout and took the field to resume the game nine minutes after they left.

But after the third inning, there were no more incidents, save for one fan who briefly came on the field at the start of the bottom of the ninth. After the Expos’ 9-1 loss, the Montreal players came back on the field to thank the fans, who gave them a standing ovation, for their support.

The impact might not have sunk in for hard-core Expos fans who have been showing up at the ballpark through all the uncertainty and turmoil of the franchise. Those diehard fans — about 8,000 a game on a regular basis — had plenty of company last night as a crowd of 31,395 turned out for what had become an event in Montreal.

Sarah Szefer of Montreal, for one, refused to accept reality. She had a sign that said, “This is goodbye, not farewell. See you in ‘05.”

Citing the legendary philosopher Yogi Berra, Szefer, who has been coming to Expos games since 1987, said she doesn’t believe it is over ‘til it’s over.

“I believe they will be back next year,” she said. “I am holding out hope that they will be here for the 2005 season.”

But as Tavares said in a press conference before the assembled media here to record the event, there is no hope.

“There hasn’t been any hope here since the day I got here,” he added.

Despite those who refused to believe the end had arrived for major league baseball in Montreal, the mood at Olympic Stadium was one of reflection on the good times and resignation to the bad.

Thousands of fans filed onto the field in orderly fashion — extra security had been brought in for the final home game, including some from the offices of Major League Baseball — several hours before the game to line up for autographs from players. Some sat against the outfield wall and got one last look at the retired numbers of the franchise’s great players. One of them, current coach Tim Raines, lamented the end of an era.

“It personally hurts me and the fans,” Raines said. “I think Montreal should have baseball.”

They had baseball here for 35 years, and sometimes it was very good. In late 1970s, the Expos were winning 90-plus games a season and drawing more than 2million. But there had been too many bad times, particularly over the last seven years. The club drew 1million only once during that stretch — last year — and a little more than 700,000 came to Olympic Stadium this season.

The franchise was plagued with ownership woes and a lack of revenue to hold on to many of the great players that came through what was once an elite farm system.

“There are a litany of things that went wrong here,” Tavares said. “You can point to the 1994 team and the strike, like many people do, but there was also a litany of broken promises about building a new ballpark.”

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