On Friday night, more than 43,000 fans turned out to see the Toronto Blue Jays take on the Pittsburgh Pirates in an exhibition game at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. More than just an exhibition game at a former major league ballpark, the contest served as both an excellent reminder of how Montreal supported Major League Baseball during the heyday of the Montreal Expos and what it could be if the sport ever returns.
This year marks the fourth consecutive spring in which the Blue Jays have played a pair of games in Montreal. In each of the trips the Blue Jays have made to Montreal, there has been an element of nostalgia that helps to lure fans to Olympic Stadium. Pre-game ceremonies revolve around celebrating the legacy of the Expos—with Friday’s celebrating Tim Raines’ recent selection into the Hall of Fame—and Expos gear is easily spotted throughout Olympic Stadium.
Olympic Stadium also stands as its own form of nostalgia. The facility was deemed a white elephant by the end of its MLB tenure and, in the more than 12 years that have passed since it hosted its last Expos game, seems even more out of date when compared to the ballparks that dot the major league landscape today. Yet, a game at Olympic Stadium is not so much a step back in time as it is a showing of the present—a today in which Montreal fans are very eager for the return of baseball.
An exhibition at Olympic Stadium can draw a few types of fans. From spectators supporting the teams on the field, to those wistful for the days of the Expos, the atmosphere at the game is an effective clash of the different fan bases who have come together for the evening. The appeal the Expos hold today is evidenced by the reception to any element that reminds fans of the team. As noted, the ceremony honoring Raines was one of Friday’s most memorable moments, but not just for the presence of one of the sport’s newest Hall of Famers—fans also responded with enthusiasm to the introduction of several former Expo greats, with Warren Cromartie, Bill Lee, Steve Rogers, David Palmer, Al Oliver, Jeff Reardon, and Dennis Martinez also receiving warm receptions as they walked onto the field during the pre-game ceremony.
What happened over the remainder of the evening, however, ultimately dismissed any notion that Olympic Stadium serve only as annual bursts of nostalgia. While Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin, who graduated from Polyvalente Édouard-Montpetit High School in Montreal, was given the warmest reception of the night, the fans at Olympic Stadium were very much into the action on the field.
The atmosphere only intensified as the game worked towards it conclusion. Fans were very involved—even as the better-known players from both teams made their exits before the game concluded—hanging on every pitch and ultimately making the crowd at Olympic Stadium seem even larger than the final reported figure of 43,180, a crowd reminiscent of the days of Raines, Gary Carter, and Andre Dawson, when the Expos were among baseball’s top-drawing teams.
Much of the focus on Montreal in the present is whether baseball will return, a scenario that for many cannot play out soon enough. At this point, there are many unknown variables and the process of getting a team is going to require completing numerous steps—from securing a willing and capable ownership group, to coming to an agreement for a new ballpark, and finally securing a franchise, which could take years regardless of whether a team comes via relocation or expansion.
It is also important to remember that the atmosphere produced at the annual Olympic Stadium exhibitions is not one that can be replicated 81 nights a year. Inevitably, there would be slow nights and growing pains as the franchise establishes itself in Montreal and, just like any other baseball city, Montreal will have to find a way to endure the ups and downs.
Yet, it is hard to not come away from an exhibition game at Olympic Stadium and wonder what could be if the stars align and Montreal finds its way back into Major League Baseball.
As for Friday’s game, the on-field result was somewhat anticlimactic—a tightly-played 1-1 contest ended in a tie after the Blue Jays stranded a runner on second with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. However, thanks to the fans in attendance who made the atmosphere unique, the night at Olympic Stadium was not one to forget—leaving not only a reminder of what baseball once was in Montreal, but what it could be one day in the future.