O, Canada Day: Memories of Montreal
Montreal was, and presumably still is, a terrific city. I haven't visited since the National League stepped out of international play and created the Washington Nationals. I do miss the charm, restaurants and the exchange rate that made visits to Montreal enjoyable.
I don't miss getting there and certainly don't miss the Expos' former home park, Stade Olympique. It seemed like a giant mausoleum. But any frequent traveler comes away from any city with stories, and every baseball writer can't help but collect anecdotes involving games and travel.
Today, as a means of recognizing Canada Day, we present one man's primary memories of that beautiful city.
We apologize for the delay
We stepped from the plane into the jetway, anticipating a brisk walk to the luggage carousel and customs. We had taken a relatively early flight from Newark, N.J., in order to avoid the pedestrian traffic that was likely to choke Dorval Airport (now Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport) later on Canada Day. When we stepped from the jetway, though, we realized our hope was not to be realized. We were stopped as if John Boccabella, Barry Foote, Gary Carter and their Expos catching brethren were blocking the faraway exits.
We were packed, stacked up like delayed flights above O'Hare. The walk wasn't the least bit brisk; indeed, we weren't walking at all.
Eventually we moved though at the speed of Ernie Lombardi carrying Cecil Fielder up Tal's Hill at Minute Maid Park. Step-by-step, inch-by-inch, we made our way toward customs, trying to be patient.
As we stalled for the 38th time, we noticed Ralph Kiner was in line, about 15 people -- or 30 minutes -- behind us. He was traveling solo. Ralph was great company and we estimated he could regale us with at least a half-dozen stories about traveling with the Mets over the years. So we joined him.
It was July 1, 1991. The Mets were in their 30th season, and Kiner had been on their flights in every one of those seasons, sitting in first class with Casey, Gil, Yogi, Torre and the rest of them. He'd have stories to share that would make the wait seem shorter.
Ralph did entertain us, and the lines did move to a point where we came to see the customs desks. There, the stories stopped.
Ralph Kiner was, above all, a gentleman. He was pleasant, understanding and tolerant. And at 10:45 a.m. on July 1, 1991, he also was angry. He'd been on line for 75 minutes, he said.
Finally, we all made it through. Ralph paused and turned to the customs agent who had recognized his Hall of Fame presence. This was the one and only agent on duty. Nine other desks were unattended. One agent, 14 gazillion travelers and nearly one-and-a-half hours in line.
Now Kiner turned the table on the agent. He asked the question: "Exactly how many people have to be in line before you bring on a second man?"
Not every baseball game begs to be covered. Some fall well short of compelling; they are little more than a series of ground-ball outs, weak popups and occasional baserunners without superlative performance, and -- baseball writers' dread -- no viable angle. And if the involved teams are lacking talent, then ... well, the boys in the press box are less than energized. Clever and insightful thoughts can be in short supply in those circumstances.
So it was on May 16, 1993, when the Mets were in Montreal. Seven weeks into the season, the Expos were the second-place team in the NL East, and the Mets, 35 games in, already were 13 games out of first place, a margin that would grow to 38 games by the time they had lost for the 103rd time.
Their 36th game was going well by their standards, and when Todd Hundley hit a solo home run in the ninth, the Mets drew even, a victory of sorts for that challenged bunch. The Mets writers still were empty-handed, though. "Is there a story here?" was the question. The answer was, "It hasn't happened yet."
But then, in the bottom of the 10th inning, Dallas Green summoned John Franco from the bullpen to protect the Mets' chance to win for just the fifth time in 20 games. Shortly thereafter came an announcement in the press box: "Warming up in the Mets' bullpen, Anthony Young."
Those words prompted an immediate response from Steve Adamek, the Mets beat reporter for the Bergen Record. "Warming up," Adamek said joyfully, "an angle."
Young with a chance to pitch in extra innings on the road. Oh, the possibilities! They didn't favor the Mets, of course. Almost nothing did that year. And when the Expos' Larry Walker led off the 11th with a single and Green replaced Franco with Young, it served as a green light for the writers -- "Go ahead, fellas, start your stories. This one will be done shortly."
But Young escaped the inning with two runners in scoring position. He walked to the dugout with a chance -- albeit slim -- to emerge as the winning pitcher in the event the Mets were to score in the 12th. They did not. And AY, as Young was called then, surrendered a run in the bottom of the inning.
Young was the losing pitcher, a familiar designation for him. We suspected his teammates called him AY for "Always Yielding." The loss was his fourth without a victory that year and his 18th since his most recent win on April 9 of the previous season.
Oh yes, Young was an angle -- win or lose. And he remained some sort of angle for two more months and, remarkably, nine additional losses. Then on July 28, 1993, Young pitched in relief in a tie game against the Marlins at Shea Stadium. And -- ta-dah! -- he won.
But before he won, Young allowed the tying run to score in the eighth inning and the go-ahead run to score in the ninth. He was in position to have his losing streak extended to 28 games. But hits by Ryan Thompson and Eddie Murray in the bottom of the ninth made Young a winner. And, for sure, the one and only angle.
Traveling beat reporters routinely stayed in Marriott hotels in the 1990s to take advantage of the chain's rewards program. A bunch of us stayed in the Marriott property in Montreal for a weekend series in July 1996.
The hotel also provided an advantage in addition to the rewards points. It had access to the subway that, after one simple transfer, took its passengers to Stade Olympique. Quite convenient, I was told.
But my friend Danny Castellano and I preferred taxis, even though the cabs in Montreal were better suited for folks the size of Jose Altuve, Mickey Rooney and Brenda Lee. We'd been cabbing it for 15 years.
But after Danny had left the beat, other colleagues persuaded me to try the subway. I reluctantly agreed on a Friday afternoon. The trip went well. We avoided the heavy street traffic and arrived early.
I was assured the return trip would be equally convenient, so long as we arrived in the bowels of the hotel before 1 a.m. We did. We arrived at 12:22 and quickly made our way to the sub-street-level hotel entrance.
It was locked, and it wouldn't be unlocked for hours.
But my colleagues assured me that an alternate, though less convenient exit, existed. Great. But the forces that had locked the gate prematurely also had switched off the escalators. So we were forced to climb 78 stationary steps. And I had 58 pounds of reference books and a laptop in my shoulder bag. And it was hot and stuffy.
But we cooled off quickly. The alternate exit left us three blocks from the hotel. And it was pouring.
I cabbed it from then on.