Baseball in Montreal gets moment in the sun

July 31st, 2017

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- There's something sweet that happens at the end of Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The speeches end and then the people who came from all over spill out into the quiet neighborhoods of Cooperstown.

When they get there, families are sitting in lawn chairs to watch. Some seem to just want to see the parade of people walk by. Children sell lemonade. High school students try to raise money for a class trip to Los Angeles. It's a community celebration. You can get a bottle of ice cold water for a dollar, or maybe 50 cents if you look sweaty enough. The air smells of barbecue.

:: 2017 Hall of Fame induction coverage ::

A man who looks like Babe Ruth wears a wool Yankees uniform and sits on a stone wall on the side of the road. "Yeah, I'm here in Cooperstown," he says into his cellphone.

"Look at this," a guy who is wearing a Jeff Bagwell jersey says. And he points out to the street where you can see perhaps 300 people -- parents, grandparents, children -- and almost all of them are wearing Bagwell jerseys (some have Craig Biggio jerseys on; there is an occasional Moises Alou or Lance Berkman jersey among them too).

"It's like walking up to Minute Maid Park," he says with wonder.

While the weekend is certainly about the inductees -- all five of Sunday's speeches by John Schuerholz, Jeff Bagwell, Bud Selig, Ivan Rodriguez and Tim Raines were touching in their own ways -- this is also that rare moment for fans to go back in time for a few hours, to remember, to celebrate the baseball of their childhood or when they took their own children to their first games.

That's why the coolest thing for me this weekend was seeing all the Expos jerseys.

There's a feeling -- and it's only a feeling at the moment -- that the idea of baseball returning to Montreal is gaining some momentum. Commissioner Rob Manfred, when discussing possible expansion, always seems to mention Montreal. And former Commissioner Selig, who insists he did everything he could to keep baseball in Montreal, spent much of the weekend talking about Montreal baseball, too.

"There's no doubt in my mind," he said, "that Montreal is a big league market. ... Nothing would make me happier than to see baseball in Montreal again."

But even more than the few words anyone has said -- after all, there are many hurdles to clear, like building a new stadium and finding an owner -- this weekend was a reminder of just how wonderful and gripping baseball was in Montreal.

"Moises," Bagwell said during his speech of his beloved teammate Moises Alou, "is wearing an Expos hat."

The celebration, of course, built around the induction of Raines, the third of the great Expos Triumvirate of the 1970s and 1980s. Catcher Gary Carter went into the Hall of Fame first, then it was Andre Dawson and now Raines. With the unlikelihood of Steve Rogers ever getting elected (Rogers was not quite a Hall of Famer, but he was a superb pitcher), you got the sense that this was the last chance for Expos fans to come together and remember how much fun it was. Raines tried to speak a little French to those fans, but couldn't quite get it together.

"I'm sorry," he said sheepishly. "I practiced all night."

Nobody minded. Raines had been the Hall of Fame project of many Expos fans, led by sportswriter Jonah Keri (and seconded by our own Statcast™ guru Tom Tango); for a long time it seemed that Raines, like the Expos themselves, was destined to be overlooked.

A player needs 75 percent of the baseball writers' vote to get elected, and Raines did not get even 50 percent of the vote until his fifth year on the ballot (he promptly fell below 50 percent the next year). But with various fans pushing his case, and with somewhat more modern stats like on-base percentage and WAR shining a brighter light on his career, he jumped to 55 percent in his eighth year, to 69 percent in his ninth and then this year, his last on the ballot, he made it all the way up to 86 percent.

And that meant people from all over coming to Cooperstown wearing the old red and blue of the Expos. Rodger Brulotte, the old Expos French broadcaster, told a wonderful story of a time when the Expos were facing a rain delay.

"Do you want to play this game?" he asked the manager, who said no. So Rodger called the local weatherman and told him that when he was called about the weather, he should say that he expected rain for the next three hours.

"The game was called," Rodger says, smiling. "And it didn't rain at all."

The sun shone brightly Sunday, too, lighting up those Expos jerseys, and I randomly asked a dozen or so Expos fans if they thought baseball might make a return to Montreal. Each and every one sort of shrugged.

"I'd love it," one woman wearing a Raines jersey said, sort of summing up the overall view. "But I don't know."

For the time being, she was just happy being in Cooperstown to remember when Tim Raines was stealing bases and Andre Dawson was throwing out runners from the outfield and Gary Carter was mashing home runs. It was so much fun.