COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — It took Tim Raines 10 years to finally win election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. For Bud Selig, who retired as MLB’s ninth commissioner just two-and-a-half years ago, the wait was much shorter. It felt fitting that they were both inducted on the same day.
Nearly 13 years have passed since it was announced that the Montreal Expos would cease to be. Instead, they would change cities, nations, nicknames and logos to become the Washington Nationals. The reasons for the move were numerous and complex enough to be the subject of books, some of which have already been written.
The Nationals are flourishing as one of the most star-studded teams in Major League Baseball and have been around long enough that Ryan Zimmerman — a career National and the franchise’s first first-round pick after leaving Montreal — is moving atop some of the team’s career leaderboards.
But this is not about the Nationals, because by any measure, the Washington baseball project has been successful. It’s about Montreal and what might be best summed up with a line from “Game of Thrones”: The North remembers. Thirteen years later, the passion for baseball is still strong in Quebec, whether it’s expressed in English or French. This was perhaps my most stark takeaway from the 2017 Hall of Fame weekend.
The Expos came back to life over the last few days. Their classic logo was found all over Cooperstown on ubiquitous red, white and blue hats that featured the iconic log of an italicized “M” and lower-case “e.” It was great — and moving as well — to see so many wearing it to celebrate Raines and the team they lost. There were many, many Expos fans in Cooperstown, having come from about five hours away by cars and by bus. They were all together again, rooting for a common cause, and in the process showing a national American audience on television — not to mention current commissioner Rob Manfred — that if MLB should return to Quebec, their arms would be wide open.
Let’s not overlook the strong Texas contingent in Cooperstown. With Ivan Rodriguez going in as a Ranger and Jeff Bagwell drawing legions of No. 5-wearing Astros fans, the Lone Star State was out in full force. Rodriguez is the first player to go in as a Ranger, while Bagwell joins longtime friend and teammate Craig Biggio in the Hall. During the prespeech introductions of returning Hall of Famers, it was Nolan Ryan who generated the most thunder because the native Texan has sentimental ties to both teams. Biggio drew plenty of love as well.
That said, Montreal’s presence was certainly felt, and stunningly so. Because, you know, they haven’t had a team for 13 years. There are few things as benignly positive as a Hall of Fame induction ceremony, but insofar as drama existed, it came from Montreal fans. Emcee Brian Kenny alluded to each of the inductees not by name, but by descriptive synopsis of their accomplishments in his opening remarks. When Selig’s resume was mentioned, there was a solid round of boos emanating from the Canadians, some even rising to their feet to do it.
But later on, when Selig was announced and introduced, the reaction was more of a mixed bag. Mild boos, polite applause and pockets of standing ovations. That potpourri of reaction is a solid metaphor for Selig’s reign as commissioner. Certainly, in Milwaukee, he is ovation-worthy — not just as the franchise owner and the face of the effort to return baseball to Brew Town after the Braves left in the 1960s, but also because the changes to the economic structures of the game he advocated for helped level the playing field for markets like their own.
Selig was a main driver of those changes, and on Sunday, he reiterated that he considered that financial overhaul to be his greatest legacy as commissioner. However, he also called the 1994 strike “the most painful time of [his] life.” That was a pain we all shared. No one more than the fans of Montreal.
All through the lead-up to induction day, Selig was hounded by Montreal-related questions sprinkled into his press availabilities. To paraphrase his responses, they all mentioned that Expos owner Claude Brochu is, to this day, one of his closest friends. He mentioned that by 2002, there was no ownership group and no stadium. Here’s how he summed it up on a conference call last week: “What would you have me do?”
None of this is to suggest that Selig shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. He should, and for a lot of different reasons. It’s also not to place all the blame for the Expos’ departure on his shoulders. However, the Montreal-saga is certainly not a happy part of his legacy. Before this weekend, I had mostly considered those issues old relics now buried in baseball’s historical works. That might be the case for most of the baseball world, but it clearly isn’t a dead issue in Montreal.
Which brings us to Manfred. The issue of expansion in baseball seems to be gradually gaining more traction, and when asked about it again about three weeks ago, Manfred called Montreal a “great candidate” for expansion. As usual, he emphasized that dangling stadium situations in Tampa-St. Petersburg and Oakland must be resolved first. Still, the idea of the Expos being reborn feels more realistic now than it has since 2004.
The strong turnout and boisterous response from the Montreal segment of Sunday’s crowd can only help Manfred’s perception of that city as a baseball town. It’s one thing to talk to civic activists trying to catch baseball’s attention, or to honor those who once wore Expos uniforms. But it’s a whole other thing to see the strength of the passion for a franchise that still exists after this much time.
The nouveau Expos would not be an expansion team in the pure sense anyway. Already in place would be a familiar brand, an existing and enthusiastic fan base and an established history. Theirs was a story clipped in medias res, and a Washington Nationals World Series title would do little to provide a satisfying ending for Expos fans.
The good news is that Raines’ induction need not be the last whisper of a team that no longer exists. It can be a reigniter for the rest of us, a reminder that there was a good franchise in Montreal and the things that led them to leave were anomalous and should never be repeated.
The book of the Expos might not need a final chapter, just a new beginning. And if it does, one of Selig’s disappointments would be righted. On Saturday, when asked about that very possibility, he said: “I would love to see that. It would make me very, very happy.”
Us too, Bud. Us too.