The former Expos are finally in the World Series, and Montreal isn't sure what to think
By JACOB BOGAGE | The Washington Post | Published: October 20, 2019
In the middle of the summer, as the Washington Nationals were turning around their sorry start to the season, John Colwell of New Brunswick, Canada, called up his daughter and swore up and down this was the team's year for a World Series run.
He repeated the claim over and over until the Nationals came within mere outs of clinching the National League pennant, when his daughter, Abby Northrup, finally asked, "Well, are we gonna go?"
The Montreal Expos may have left Canada for Washington in 2005, but a small cohort of their fans never abandoned the ballclub.
"When I throw on the (Nationals) hat and the jersey — because I've got everything, and my son has everything — people ask me, 'How could you?'" said Montreal resident and Nationals fan Fred Corey, 43. "I say, 'I was a fan of the players on the team. They're not the ones who moved the team. We didn't have anyone who stepped up to own that team in the community. I can't be mad at the players.'"
But plenty of other Montrealers can, or at least can actively not pay attention to the team they once called "Nos Amours," or in English, "Our Loves." And as Montreal's former team prepares for its first World Series — leaving the Seattle Mariners as the only active franchise never to make the Fall Classic — baseball fans in that city are variously proud, insulted or indifferent.
"There's certainly a small hardcore base that feels spurned and hurt that the Nationals are being linked to the Expos," said Matthew Ross, president of the ExposNation Committee, a nonprofit that promotes Montreal as a site for a future expansion team, as well as a host on TSN 690, one of the city's sports radio stations. "There's a group that feels pride that Montreal is linked every time the Nationals play a playoff game. But the biggest group is apathy. I think the first few years (after the Expos left), people reveled in how poorly the team did, but when the players who used to be here dissipated, the interest waned and fell off."
There are many Nationals fans who share the conviction that this team should be divorced from its Montreal past, and who want the Nationals instead linked to Washington's lengthy baseball history, regardless of franchise timelines. Others, though, can't forget the past. And so a contingent of Montreal fans, including Colwell and Corey, traded in their tri-color Expos hats and powder blue jerseys for curly W paraphernalia and figured out how to follow a baseball team from 600 miles away.
Now that their team has finally reached the World Series, even if it is in another country, it's time for them to celebrate. (The Expos famously had the best record in baseball in 1994, before a strike wiped out the season.) Northrup has spent the days since Washington defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series planning a father-daughter trip to the District to see the Nationals' home games in person.
On Saturday, she secured a pair of tickets to Game 3. How? She bought 2020 season tickets online, because the team is giving season-ticket holders first crack at seats for the championship series.
Colwell, 64, learned his love of the Expos as a teenager while accompanying his father on business trips to Montreal from rural New Brunswick. And though the team for generations was thoroughly rotten, Colwell could never quit rooting them on. Northrup remembers hearing roars coming from her father in the other room as he watched Montreal squander another lead or crater down the stretch and miss the playoffs.
"His mood would depend on how his team did, so you could imagine the silent treatment in the house when the team was losing," she said.
And even when the team moved to Washington, he couldn't give it up. A youth baseball team he helped coach around that time gave him a curly W Nationals hat for his birthday. He could never break the habit of calling the Nationals "we."
That kind of reaction mostly elicits eye-rolls from Montreal sports fans, Ross said. When the Nationals arrived in the District, they spent years trying to distance the franchise from the memory of Montreal.
The team waited years to honor past Montreal players and franchise heroes, while its new fans asked why those heroes should be honored at all. The Expos had retired jersey Nos. 8, 10 (twice) and 30, in honor of Gary Carter, Rusty Staub, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines, respectively. By the Nationals' second season, all three numbers were in use.
"After the first few years, they did everything they could to erase the Montreal brand, and then after a few years of losing, they trotted the Expos back out for marketing," Ross said. "It's never felt sincere."
Montreal fans aren't necessarily mad about that, at least according to Ross. Philippe Cantin, a sports columnist at La Presse, Montreal's French language newspaper, reinforced that notion by publishing a column on Thursday, with the headline, "The Nationals: nothing to do with the Expos!"
Most Montrealers have accepted that the team that was formerly their Expos belongs to another city now, Cantin said in an interview. When the Nationals wore Expos throwback uniforms for one game this summer, it was fun to see the old logo again, they thought, but not a meaningful statement about embracing the franchise's history. It's past time for Montreal and the Nationals to move on.
"It's a new team. They need their new traditions," Cantin said. "And for me, the essence of pro sports is to build bonds with the city where you play. And how is that built? It's over years. It's championships, it's great games, it's memories and souvenirs that last a lifetime. But it's also built on terrible memories and disappointment and frustration."
Those, at least, are things Expos and Nationals fans have in common.