Sunday, October 17, 2010
Mourning or marketing? The strange afterlife of the Montréal Expos
In 1967, Montréal hosted a world’s fair, Expo ’67. It was Canada’s centenary, and Expo is often looked back at as the moment when both Montréal and Canada came of age and entered onto the world stage. For Montréal, it was a victory, the first Canadian city with an international reputation, and it went on to hold the 1976 Summer Olympics. That didn’t end so well, with the city left under a mountain of debt. The Olympic Stadium, an architectural disaster, took 30 years to pay off. Colloquially, Montrealers refer to it as the Big Owe.
But all of that was in the future in 1969, when the Montréal Expos took to the field for the first time at Jarry Park in the city’s north end. The team’s name, of course, recalled 1967, commemorating and immortalising Montréal’s summer of love with the whole world. The Expos were Canada’s first baseball team (the Toronto Blue Jays followed in 1977). Montréal had a long history with the sport, dating back to the 19th century. It was also in Montréal, on 18 April 1946, that Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, playing for the Montréal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate.
Nevertheless, an entire new vocabulary had to be created to translate the game into French with the birth of the Expos. Much of the credit for this goes to original Expos broadcaster Jacques Doucet. For instance, in French, the field is le terrain, and le lanceur stands on le monticule before throwing to his receveur, unless le frappeur gets in the way and smacks un coup sûr. Montrealers flocked to Jarry Park to watch Nos Amours. In 1976, after the Olympics, the Expos moved to the Big O (the more acceptable nickname for Olympic Stadium).
For their first decade, the Expos lost. A lot. But then, in 1979, in the new stadium, they won 95 games and embarked on a 15-year run as a perennial contender. They made the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season, only to heartbreakingly lose to the LA Dodgers. The irony here is that it was the 1981 strike that got the Expos to the playoffs. The next time there was a strike, in 1994, things didn’t go so well for Montréal and its Expos. When the strike began, the Expos were 74-40, the best team in baseball and comfortably in first place in the National League East. But that was as far as it went: the rest of the season and the entire post-season were cancelled. The Expos lost their chance at immortality and a World Series victory.
The 1994 strike was also the beginning of the end for the Expos. In the aftermath, the owners began a firesale of all their best players, including the Canadian Larry Walker. And the Expos slid into mediocrity, or worse. Ownership was unstable. Plans for a new stadium down the street from the Montréal Canadiens’ new home fell through (the site is now covered with soulless condos). Montrealers fell out of love with the Expos. Crowds dwindled. 8,000 fans in a stadium that seats 50,000 is more than depressing. Ultimately, the team was owned by Major League Baseball (MLB), which farmed the team off to Puerto Rico for some “home” games, and then, in 2005, moved the team to Washington, itself a failed MLB city.
After the Expos left town, Montrealers quickly forgot them, and re-focussed all their passions on the Canadiens, the most successful hockey team of all time. But, in the past few years, the strangest thing has happened. Expos paraphernalia is all over the city. Expos caps, t-shirts, jerseys, toques, hoodies, warm-up jackets (just like the one manager Buck Rodgers wore in 1986). Expos caps come in the traditional “beanie” style, in bleu, blanc, rouge, as well as the more traditional blue version they wore from the early 90s. For the fashion conscious, the cap also comes in purple, black, brown, green, yellow, orange, and even camouflage.
An unscientific study of four sports paraphernalia stores in downtown Montréal this week reveals that Expos’ gear cannot stay on the shelves. It’s easier to find new iPhone than a black Expos cap in this city. I myself own three Expos caps, the beanie, the blue, and a brown one. (In my defence, the beanie and the blue actually date to when the Expos still existed.)
This leaves me wondering how much of this trend is Montrealers mourning the loss of Nos Amours and how much of it is clever marketing? The Expos gear today is part of MLB’s “Cooperstown Collection,” recalling the heritage of the sport. And certainly, vintage sports logos and gear are all the rage. Jerseys and caps of defunct teams are sported by everyone from rappers on MTV to my students. Similarly, disused logos of teams that are still around are just as popular. Thus, one could be excused for forgetting that the New York Titans have been the Jets since the early 1960s. Or that the Hartford Whalers moved to Carolina to become the Hurricanes in 1996. Long-standing clubs like the Chicago Bears and Boston Bruins market their old jerseys as “vintage.” The NFL even mandates certain games as heritage matches, and the teams wear vintage uniforms.
So is the plethora of Expos gear a reflection of this trend? Are we being duped by MLB once again here in Montréal? I know I for one feel slightly queasy in buying Expos gear, or even admiring it. On one hand, it recalls my youth, a time when the Expos were contenders, and it recalls fond memories of games at the Big O, or on the radio or TV, in French or English. And baseball, if nothing else, is a sport that is marketed based on its history, its place in (North) American life. More than that, the mystique of the game also translates north (as well as south) of the border. We have our own fields of dreams here.
And this, ultimately, is the problem when marketing meets nostalgia. Nostalgia isn’t simply some kitschy view of the past, it is a real, tangible emotion. It plays heavily on our hearts, as we recall our pasts. The advertising industry has clearly figured this out. It appeals to our nostalgia in trying to sell everything to us, from cars to beer to food. And, ultimately, the Expos are just another part of this. Certainly, Expos nostalgia is a real, tangible emotion in Montréal, but we are also just the intended targets of a slick marketing campaign. And ultimately, what makes me queasiest is the fact that not only did MLB kill my baseball team, I am now shelling out my money to the very same corporation for a new Expos cap.
~ Matthew Barlow