No saving grace for Expos

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:35 AM ET

MONTREAL -- Dave Van Horne slipped into the visitors' radio broadcast booth up behind home plate at Olympic Stadium early yesterday evening and, like he has almost 6,000 times before, arranged his pencil case, five highlighters, four pens, Scotch tape, media guides, scorebook and binoculars just the way he likes them.

In an everyday sport like baseball, routine is the thread which holds together the tapestry of 162 games in 16 cities.

But last night was not routine for Van Horne or the other folks who showed up for the first game of the Expos-Florida Marlins series.

There is the feeling now that this is it -- really -- and the Expos, who have slowly suffocated in a vacuum of indifference over the last decade, are finally embarking on their last homestand.

When they make the last out tomorrow night, the small flame that has been carried for baseball here the last 10 years will finally give way to the dark.

Most importantly, there are the rumours that a deal to move the Expos to Washington, D.C. is imminent, all but a few low hurdles to overcome.

Then there is the karma, the sense there are just too many other things coming together to make you think finally, this is it ...

- The Marlins, owned by former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria, are in town. Loria is despised here where it is believed he conspired to buy the Expos, not to save them as he led everyone to believe, but to use them as barter to further his ownership aspirations. That his current team -- the reigning World Series champs, to twist the knife even deeper -- would play the last game in Montreal is too cruel a twist of fate to ignore...

- After finishing up this last homestand, the Expos will conclude their season in New York against the Mets at Shea Stadium where this improbable, sometimes wonderful, finally sad ride began in 1969. The Expos won the first game of their history at Shea. It would complete the circle if that's where their last game is played as well.

- Van Horne was in the house last night and it would complete another circle to have the man who broadcast that first Expos game -- and the first one in Montreal at old Jarry Park -- broadcast the final game here tomorrow night.

For the many thousands of people who once breathlessly followed the Expos' rise from an expansion team in 1969 to the model major league franchise just 10 years later, Van Horne was the Expos.

He was the voice that filled our summer nights and days ("Glad to have you aboard" would always make me smile), our link to Nos Amours, as much identified with the Expos in English Canada as Le Grand Orange, Gary Carter, Steve Rogers, Larry Parrish or Larry Walker.

To show you how long this terminal illness has lingered, the only emotion Van Horne, who broadcast Expos games for 32 years -- the sixth-longest tenure in the major leagues -- can work up now is a feeling of resignation.

"This is the inevitable," he said, clutching a coffee and leaning up against a wall in the Marlins' clubhouse a few hours before game-time last night. "I shed my tears in the late 1990s. The handwriting was on the wall back then.

'VERY SAD'

"It's very sad that it's become the reality. I spent over half of my adult life here and it's sad to see it go down the way it did. But it's been a long process."

The popular theory is the demise of the team can be traced back to the strike of 1994 when the Expos were the best team in baseball. The World Series was cancelled and the Expos were dismantled the next spring in the legendary fire sale.

Van Horne puts the beginning of the end even earlier than that. He points to the late 1980s when original owner Charles Bronfman put the team up for sale and the new ownership group spearheaded by Claude Brochu didn't put the money into the team to keep it competitive like Bronfman had.

"Here's what a lot of people forget," said Van Horne. "It took Charles two years to sell the team and that was at a drastically reduced price. From the time Charles put the team up for sale to this day, the business leaders in Montreal, Quebec and Canada had a chance to step up to the plate and rescue the Montreal franchise. They had a chance to put their money where their mouth is and reinvigorate and promote the game and they didn't want to do that."

At the Big O late yesterday afternoon, the Rolling Stones sang in the background "this will be the last time..." over the sounds of baseballs thudding into leather, crackling like popcorn, as the Marlins warmed up for last night's game.

This time, it does look and feel like it is the last time.

Van Horne will be here to call it, the man who welcomed many of us to Major League Baseball here, on hand to perhaps usher it out.


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