At 6 a.m. on Sunday, 93 people gather on the sidewalk in front of the Montreal Convention Center dressed in blue, red, white, and gray, and with names like "Carter", "Dawson", "Raines", and "Guerrero" spelled out on their backs. Soon the group will pile into two charter buses and head for Cooperstown, New York, where one of the most beloved players in Montreal Expos history, Pedro Martinez, will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The plan is to arrive around noon, watch the ceremony—which will also feature the inductions of Craig Biggio, John Smoltz, and former Expo Randy Johnson—pile back into the buses, and hope to make it back to Montreal a little after midnight. Yes, 93 people set an alarm to get up insanely early on a Sunday morning, put on a baseball jersey, and spend 11 of the next 18 hours crammed into a bus. Yet, they couldn't be more excited.
Holding the list of passengers is Matthew Ross, founder and chairman of ExposNation, a non-profit organization for fans of the defunct franchise who want baseball back in Montreal. Ross is smiling more than should be allowed at this hour. He makes his way through the crowd shaking the hands of familiar faces, alternating between French and English as he greets his fellow diehards. The trip was organized not only so to show support for Martinez—and, to a lesser extent, Randy Johnson, whose career began in Montreal but wouldn't take off until after he left the team—but also to show Major League Baseball that, yes, there are still baseball fans in Montreal, and yes, they want a new team. Commissioner Rob Manfred, who will be at the ceremony, recently said he would be "open to the idea" of expansion, making the demonstration all the more pertinent.
Expos fans are a diverse bunch, especially those who are still passionate after 15 years without baseball. On the bus, there is Manuel, a boisterous Dominican who has lived in Montreal for the past seven years and whose wife got him interested in the team; there is Robert, a 70-year-old who is on the trip with his wife, who says he's such big Expos fan that he used to root for the Canadiens to miss the playoffs so they wouldn't take up room in the Montreal Gazette that otherwise could have been used to cover the Expos; there are Gabriel and Adry, a couple who last summer toured all 30 ballparks to "promote the return of baseball to Montreal."
There are also fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, and middle-aged men traveling alone, the precise kind you might see at ball games diligently keeping score as they listen to the radio broadcast through an old pair of headphones.
Sitting next to me is a 56-year-old named Glenn, who like many making the trip has been a fan since the team played its first game in 1969. The entire history of the franchise is contained neatly within his own life.
"What team do you root for now?" is the first question he asks.
As an outsider this strikes me as depressing. But it's something every Expos fan has had to confront since their team ceased to exist. Glenn now favors the Cubs while his hatred has shifted toward the Yankees (because they're the Yankees), the Marlins (because they're owned by Jeffrey Loria, the man who presided over the Expos before they moved to Washington), and the Brewers (because of Bud Selig).
"I don't want that son of a bitch to see his team win a World Series in his lifetime," Glenn says of Selig. "Not before Montreal gets a team back."
Once we're settled on the bus, Ross puts on a cobbled-together DVD compilation of memorable moments in Expos history. We see an inning of one of Johnson's first big league appearances. We see Cliff Floyd belt a home run against Greg Maddux during the Expos magical 1994 run that was cut short by the strike. We see Martinez charge the mound against the Phillies' Mike Williams in 1996. We also see a champagne-soaked Martinez speaking with a reporter in the Red Sox locker room after they won the World Series in 2004. "I would like to share this with the people in Montreal that are not going to have a team anymore," he said. "My heart and my ring is with them, too."
Ask any Expos fan why Martinez is so beloved, and this interview is the first moment they'll mention. The Red Sox won the World Series only a month after the Expos played their final game, and for Martinez to think of his former team amid the chaos of breaking the most notorious championship drought in professional sports endeared him to Montreal at a time when the city needed consolation the most. "It was like a warm hug," says Ross. "We just lost the team. It was very important for us."
Martinez, who played four seasons for the Expos and brought them a Cy Young in 1997, may be adored by Montrealers even more than he is by Red Sox fans. This isn't only because they have so little to cling to, but because they have nothing tangible on the horizon. There are a finite number of Expos memories. There are no up-and-coming prospects, no potential aces they can build around. There are only the teams and the players and the moments that have come and gone, and fans are left flipping through the same photo album over and over again. Era-defining but merely solid players like Ellis Valentine and Warren Cromartie are glorified. Near-perfect games and specific regular season home runs are cherished. Anything remembered is precious; the inherently unforgettable Pedro Martinez is a crown jewel.
The fan movement to bring a team back to Montreal began in earnest when Andre Dawson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010, and really gained traction two years later when Gary Carter died of cancer at the age of 57. "It was a big turning point," says Ross. "There was an outpouring of love and affection for him and nostalgia for the team. People just began to think about the team again. It was an absolute outpouring."
There's still a long way to go before a new team in Montreal becomes anything close to a distinct possibility. Not only does Manfred have to decide to expand or relocate another franchise, the city has to make a compelling case to the league. A new stadium would need to built and, more importantly, paid for. A solid TV or radio deal would imperative since the lack of those things doomed the Expos. "When you look at the model of how the Blue Jays are run, it's owned by a communications company that has TV, that has radio, that has cell phones," says Ross. "They need content. Content is king. The Blue Jays have 162 games a year on their channels. That type of model is the model that could work in Montreal. It's just a question of who would want to step forward from that perspective."
Since its inception in 2012, ExposNation has done everything it can to rally support and give dormant fans an outlet to rekindle their passion for the team. More fuel was added to the fire when in 2014 Grantland's Jonah Keri published a comprehensive history of the franchise that became a national bestseller. Ross notes how in recent years Expos hats have started to sell better than those of several current teams. The Expos are cool again, and for Montrealers, enough time has passed since the team moved away to not only celebrate what they lost, but to take steps to get it back. Martinez's induction into the Hall is a ripe opportunity to make the case public.
Quaint, pastoral, impossibly well-landscaped Cooperstown, New York, seems more like the set of a movie than a place where people actually live. Even the grass of the bus parking area is perfectly manicured. Patrons set up folding chairs, grills and coolers on pristine corn fields that abut the lawn.
After posing for a few pictures next to the bus, the horde of Expos fans descended upon the fray and settled into an area in the middle of the crowd. They had made a grand entrance by carrying a banner that listed all of the Hall of Fame former Expos players. Over the course of the ceremony, they raised signs and waved flags. The fans orchestrated a repetitive "Let's go Expos!" chant every time Manfred took the stage.
Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, wearing a pinstriped Expos jersey, was also in the crowd. He spent a few minutes shaking hands and taking pictures with fans. Unlike the politicians that preceded him, Coderre is passionate about bringing baseball back to Montreal, and he's already met with Manfred to pitch his city should baseball expand. The previous night Coderre, Keri, and some of the ExposNation committee members crashed a party for Martinez hosted by the Red Sox. "He's opening doors that otherwise wouldn't be open," says Ross. "There have been a lot of great efforts moving things forward, and I think with the mayor pushing things along. It's definitely going down the right track."
Martinez was the last of the four to be inducted, and the loudest Expos cheer yet came when "Montreal, N.L. 1994-97" was read from his plaque. Every Expos fan was standing. Keri arrived to watch the speech with the ExposNation committee members. More loud applause from Expos fans came when Martinez mentioned Dan Duquette, who constructed the '94 team, and especially when Martinez mentioned beloved manager Felipe Alou.
"Montreal, I hope you get a team," Martinez then said.
Martinez continued to talk, but I couldn't make out what he was saying. I couldn't hear anything but cheering.