By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
MONTREAL – As planned, 2015’s Toronto Blue Jays-Cincinnati Reds series yielded promising results for not only the city of Montreal, but also its legions of sports fans and those closely involved in the attempt to bring major league baseball back to the province of Quebec.
Of course, following last year’s triumph, who would have expected anything less?
Over two days in the Royal City, some 96,000 fans entered the gates at Le Stade Olympic. Desperately in search of something that, prior to 2014, had been missing for far too long.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Blue Jays president, Paul Beeston, former vice president Howard Starkman, and a long list of contributing Montreal luminaries, baseball returned to la Belle Province for the second year in a row. And, in doing so, drew a pair of distinguished crowds for the two “meaningless” exhibition contests that, to some nearsighted individuals, did no more than serve as the end of spring training for both clubs involved in the weekend’s festivities.
To truly understand the impact of these “fake games”, one must look beyond the box score and in the direction of the fans who, starved for a taste of major league baseball, showed up in droves to catch a glimpse of something that had been stolen from them over a decade ago.
“These are impressive numbers,” explained John McHale, founding president of the ill fated Montreal Expos and current senior vice president of Major League Baseball. “We thought that because of the Easter holiday and the novelty perhaps wearing off this year, there might have been fewer people for this year’s games.”
In fact, there were more. Nearly 500 more as, perhaps to put an exclamation point on a statement made in 2014, this years ticket sales tallied 96,545 by weekend’s end.
Indeed that novelty has yet to wane as for the second consecutive year, local baseball fans flocked to Olympic Stadium, filling their derelict ballpark up to its concrete rafters in support of a team that hails from the rival city of Toronto.
Reinstatement into major league ball remains far from the equation for the city of Montreal. Simply put, there’s still an incredible amount of work that needs to get done before we can begin to seriously have that conversation.
But, what started in 2014, has continued to pick up steam a year following its inaugural run and with the Montreal baseball movement in full swing, people are beginning to take notice.
READY FOR THE SHOW: For players, Montreal’s annual exhibition slate acts as a valuable precursor of things to come.
Having spent the last six weeks in sunny, laid-back Florida, those who made the trip north this past weekend were treated to an environment similar to that in which they will play under during the forthcoming season.
Be it the 45,000 rambunctious fans who showed each night, the spongy Astroturf or something as basic as playing the games under a roof, this series inherits a striking resemblance to the atmosphere created when the Blue Jays return to Toronto for their home opener, and for some of the club’s rookies, the games provide an exciting look in to the major league lifestyle.
In 2015, the Jays brought with them a cache of young, promising talent. Nine of which have yet to catch as much as a sniff of the majors.
Of the nine, eight saw game action including recently named major leaguers Miguel Castro, Roberto Osuna and Devon Travis, the latter of which played a lion’s share of both games at second base throughout the course of the weekend.
Having never played a pro game on turf, Travis fielded his position with poise and ease, impressing those in attendance with his unheralded glove work in the field.
Unfazed by the tricky playing surface, the 22 year-old looked sharp turning a trio of lightning quick double plays and charging a softly hit ground ball off the bat of Brayan Pena in the fifth inning of Saturdays 9-1 Blue Jays victory.
His counterparts, Castro and Osuna, chipped in with a pair of scoreless innings themselves, striking out three and yielding only one base hit between the two.
Although the two game set provided noting more than a small sample showing of what is on the horizon, making the jump from playing in front of 6,000 in the minors to 35,000 fans at the major league level daily doesn’t appear to hinder the Jays’ young guns ability to remain effective and, Castro’s case, downright overpowering.
WHO SAID YOU CAN’T GO HOME?: Arguably the largest focal point surrounding the weekend series came in the form of Blue Jays catcher, Russell Martin who, although having been born in Toronto (East York), spent the majority of his youth growing up in the shadow of Olympic Stadium.
Having not reached the major leagues prior to the Expos demise in 2004, the former 17th round draft pick by the Dodgers (2002) was never granted an opportunity to play pro ball in his home town, and in return, his home town was never granted an opportunity to applaud their favorite baseball son.
Surrounded by a crowd swelling with a sense of both pride and admiration, that injustice was rectified this weekend as Martin suited up for a major league contest for the first time in Montreal.
When the 32-year-old catcher stepped to the plate to face Reds pitcher, Jason Marquis in the first inning of Friday night’s game, some 46,000 rose to their feet, greeting the veteran ball player with chats of “Let’s go Russell” amidst the clanking of metallic seats echoing throughout the stadium.
Moved by the reaction, Martin tipped his helmet to the crowd. Pausing for a moment to take in the occasion and reflect on childhood memories. Many of which come from within the concrete walls of Olympic Stadium.
“It’s surreal” said the Blue Jays catcher. “I remember being 12 years old and being a fan and here I am wearing a big league uniform and playing in front of family and friends.”
Although he remained hit-less over the two game stretch, Martin plated the Jays’ second run after scoring from first base via a double off the bat of Jose Bautista in the fifth inning of Saturdays tilt.
Upon his arrival at home plate, the earth at 4141 Pierre-de Coubertin avenue shook in elation.
FAMILY TIES: With one down in the Reds half of the eighth inning, Saturday, a double-A catching prospect stepped into the box for his first plate appearance of the weekend.
His name, a familiar one to those in Montreal, eliciting a response similar to that of Martins thunderous roar some two innings prior.
From 1980-1992, Tim Wallach manned over 1,700 games at third base for Montreal. Quickly endearing himself to fans within la Belle Province, his outstanding play between the white lines helped earn the former homegrown Expo three gold gloves, five All Star appearances and an eventual induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013.
The fan favorite now coaches third base for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team who acquired his services a following the end of the 1992 campaign.
His son, Chad Wallach, is attempting to carve out a career of his own, and on the Saturday afternoon in Montreal, bounced a two strike Marco Estrada offering softly down the third base line … Directly into a territory once heavily patrolled by his father.
Unfortunately, a bad hop kicked what was sure to be an infield hit slightly to the left of the foul line, rendering the attempt nothing more than a harmless foul ball.
The Blue Jays right-hander would get him on strikes two pitches later.
FINALLY!: Cincinnati Reds second baseman, Brandon Phillips took to social media following a team workout, Friday, posting a picture of himself standing in the carpeted outfield at Le Stade.
“Hello Olympic Stadium” wrote Phillips, who goes by the name of @DatDudeBP on twitter. “I finally made it here even though I’m not wearing that blue, red and white”.
Phillips, 33, was drafted by the Expos in the second round of 1999’s June amateur draft, however prior to his major league debut, the highly touted infield prospect was shipped off in a mid-season, six player deal between Montreal and Cleveland.
To Cleveland went Lee Stevens and a trio of future stars in Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Phillips while Montreal, surprise contenders in the National League East, received Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew.
With relocation steadily approaching on the horizon, Expos GM Omar Minaya decided that in trading for an established ace, he was going to do everything within his power to make one last push at fielding a playoff team in Montreal.
“There wasn’t much focus on minor league players” admitted Minaya years later in an interview with Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, understandably indicating that the Expos were in full on win now mode at the time of the deal.
Despite pitching to the tune of a 10-4 win-loss record with an earned run average of 3.31 across 17 starts with the Expos, Colon wasn’t able to put the Expos over the top as Montreal finished the 2002 regular season with an overall record 83-79 … 19 games back of the front running Atlanta Braves.
– Follow Andrew Hendriks on Twitter (@77hendriks)