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Separatism killed the Expos

Jonathan Kay
National Post Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Now that baseball's 2002 season is ending, will the Montreal Expos finally leave town? No one knows. They might stick around and spend another season playing to four-digit crowds -- or they might be shuffled to a new host city this winter. Portland, or, Washington, D.C. and San Juan, Puerto Rico are all rumoured to be candidates. I'm rooting for San Juan. Youppi would feel at home there.

The stock explanation for the Expos' demise is suffocation: Montreal is a small, hockey-obsessed town and the Canadiens take up all the available sports oxygen. But hockey monomania can't be the only culprit. In the 1970s and 1980s, Expos attendance was always respectable, and sometimes the team even surpassed the league average (including in 1979, a year the Canadiens won the Stanley cup). Moreover, in equally hockey-mad Toronto, the Blue Jays draw respectably and the Raptors regularly sell out the 20,000-seat Air Canada Centre.

What has distinguished Montreal is not the indifferent nature of its fans, but the poor quality of its ballpark -- a sterile, Astroturf-lined blimp hangar. The Olympic Stadium was built in the 1970s, long before Baltimore's Camden Yards made nostalgia the dominant architectural motif for new ballparks. Yet even by the standards of its era, La Stade is a terrible place to play baseball.

Making matters worse is the location. Though Montreal is predominantly French, a disproportionate number of hard-core baseball fans -- the type who attend games with score-pads and AM radios -- are anglophones from the city's Western suburbs. For this crowd, the drive to the Olympic Stadium takes half an hour. The city's fun-loving French professional class also shuns the dreary working-class neighbourhood where the ballpark sits. Montreal has hundreds of outstanding bars and restaurants. La Stade is miles away from all of them.

The Olympic Stadium's deficiencies have been well known for years -- and there has long been a movement afoot to build a replacement. As recently as last year, people were talking about Labatt Park, a 36,000-seat, natural grass venue that would have been built on an unused patch of downtown real estate close to the city's major office buildings and hotels.

If Labatt Park were already standing, my guess is the Expos would be getting 25,000 fans per game and no one would be talking about San Juan. But by early 2000, when the plan was put forward, few people had any hope the team would stay in Montreal. The Expos' fragmented ownership was bickering and there was a lack of financial support from the public sector. The province of Quebec runs what is, in both fiscal and ideological terms, North America's most statist government. Yet the only cash Quebec City would offer was $5-million per year for payments on construction debt. That is peanuts: The average public contribution to a new NFL or MLB stadium in North America is $230-million.

The question then, is not why Montrealers never fell in love with the Expos, but why an otherwise interventionist provincial government was so hesitant to bless the marriage.

The answer goes straight to the mindset of the Parti Québécois, which has ruled the province since 1994. To help sell separatism, the party does everything in its power to promote the idea that French-Quebecers comprise a "people" who, like Palestinians, Tibetans and Kurds, suffer a form of foreign occupation. The PQ has agitated strongly to keep non-French immigrants out of Quebec, and desperately tries to maintain the French "character" of the province. Quebec City spends about $10-million per year -- twice what it offered the Expos -- on its Office de la Langue Français (AKA Language Police). Thus, it shouldn't surprise us that it has little use for a sport played by people with names like Graeme, Masato, Jose and Vladimir -- instead of Guy, Maurice and Yves.

Montreal's sports history has presumably reinforced the PQ's prejudices. During the Hockey Riot of 1955, Canadiens fans took to the streets to protest the suspension of Maurice "Rocket" Richard. Modern scholars cite the fracas, which quickly took on a tone of generalized resentment at the wealthy anglophone establishment that ran both hockey and Canada, as a seminal event in the creation of a separatist movement in Quebec.

It is unfortunate for the Expos that the players' strike of 1994 -- which cost the team, then 74-40, a possible World Series -- did not provoke similar chaos. If a few Anglo stores had been trashed, perhaps the PQ might have judged the Expos an asset worth keeping -- and Youppi would not be taking Spanish lessons.

Jonathan Kay is editorials editor. jkay@nationalpost.com