Les Expos: Down to their last out

If the commissioner of baseball has his way, this year will be the last for the Montreal Expos.

Nearly every head is covered with a Mets baseball cap. You can hardly turn a corner without bumping into exuberant New Yorkers – whole families of them in some cases – clad in the Mets' orange and blue colors. Talk of the pennant race fills the air.

But this mob is not headed to Shea Stadium in Queens. They're on their way to the Stade Olympique in Montreal.

Such is the sorry state of baseball, and the Montreal Expos, in this cosmopolitan Canadian city these days. The visiting team's fans regularly outnumber the home team's supporters.

Currently, the Expos have no owner. The team became the ward of Major League Baseball after its previous owner, Jeffrey Lorie, bought the Florida Marlins and moved the entire front office to Miami. When no new owner could be found, Major League Baseball stepped in to run the team for the 2002 season. Commissioner Bud Selig plans on placing the Expos on the disabled list permanently after this season, though they are currently within two games of first place.

Canada's experiment with baseball could be down to its last strike. Toronto, Canada's other baseball city, isn't faring much better than Montreal. A decade ago, the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series championships, and 50,000 fans regularly filled the brand- new Skydome. On Monday, a paltry 15,000 came to see a game against the first-place Boston Red Sox.

No surprise, really. Canada is hockey country. Toronto has been gripped by the Maple Leafs' battle with the Carolina Hurricanes for a chance to play for hockey's Stanley Cup. And earlier in the season, loud cheers at the Stade Olympique were less often due to what was happening on the field than because fans were listening to the Canadiens on portable radios.

But unlike Jacobs Field in Cleveland, or Camden Yards in Baltimore – both built with an eye to the classic ballyards of yesteryear – the Stade Olympique has the sterile ambience of a dirigible hangar. Some nights, only 3,000 of the 43,000 seats are filled.

"It's not tough to get a seat up here," says Mike McLoughlin of Oswego, New York. "You can find whatever you're looking for, not like at Shea."

"It's just embarrassing," says Jessie Baker of Bristol, Vt., one of the few actually wearing an Expos jersey. "Montreal doesn't care. It's just quit on the team."

It wasn't always like this. When the Expos were inaugurated in 1969, more than 1.2 million people filled tiny Jarry Park, the Expos' first home. The francophone city already had a proud history of minor league baseball with the Montreal Royals, where Jackie Robinson played before going to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Expos moved into the Stade Olympique in 1977, and in the late '70s and early '80s, the team regularly averaged 2 million a year in attendance.

But then came the 1994 players' strike. That year the team was 30 games over .500 in August, 10 games in front of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East, and loaded with a roster that read like an all-star team: Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, and John Wetteland. When the strike ended the season, many Expos fans felt as if they had been robbed of the one chance to see their team win it all.

Over the next two years, the Expos unloaded all of their star players to cut the payroll. There was talk of a new stadium in 1998 after Mr. Lorie bought the team, but that, too, evaporated. For many, it was the final straw.

"It was like the fans were booted in the butt again and again and again," says Robbie Hart, a filmmaker who just released a documentary about the team called "Nos Amours" ("Our Loves.") "There comes a point where people say, 'I'm not going to take it any more.' And they stay away."

Mr. Selig would like to shrink the league, shedding the Expos and perhaps the Minnesota Twins. Other teams are in trouble, too. Attendance overall is down by more than 5 percent this year. Selig recently said that he could easily eliminate four or five additional teams.

Yet loyal Expos fans remain, such as Maurice Autotte. Mr. Autotte worked for the Expos for 31 years, 18 of them as the attendant on the visiting team's bench. These days he watches the games from the stands. "I think it's not a worry yet," he says. "Who knows, if the league does contract, maybe they will take Lorie's Marlins instead of the Expos." He smiles at the thought.

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