Expos face the final out

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:55 AM ET

MONTREAL -- Tim Raines stood along the first-base line yesterday as baseballs rained onto the outfield grass during the Expos' batting practice.

One of the Expos' all-time greats looked up to the upper reaches of Olympic Stadium, just beneath the blue plastic roof, up to the farthest yellow seats hundreds of feet away from where we stood.

"I can remember those seats being filled, even the upper tiers," he said. "My first year was September of 1979. This was the loudest place in baseball. We didn't have the roof then. This was the biggest stadium in baseball and it was filled to the roof."

These days, Raines could have looked just a few feet away to the seats up behind the Expos dugout and seen hundreds of seats which have gone empty for much of the last few years.

But not for much longer. It's expected Major League Baseball will announce today its intention to move the Expos to Washington, D.C.

The Expos will then play their last game here tonight, honouring their last proud moment with a salute to the 1994 team that had the best record in baseball before a strike wiped out the rest of the season.

It's hard to believe for this generation of Expos player, but the game they play once mattered in this city.

Today's players look at a city with a hollow heart when it comes to baseball.

"Y'all are buried under snow all year. Why not come out and buy a ticket for a game?" wondered lefty pitcher Joey Eischen the night before, holding court after the Expos' 4-1 loss to the Florida Marlins.

"It costs less than a pack of smokes in this country. That's the truth. All the bitchin' and pissin' and moanin' about the team leaving. There were 3,900 fans here (Monday) night. At least they came to see us. We just do our best for them.

"But all this is a little contradictory. You're (the media) making a big deal of it when the public doesn't care. It's just the press stirring the pot."

BAD TIMES

It matters to some because the crowds Monday night and last night at the Big O just serve to hammer home the depths to which baseball has fallen in this city. This is not a bad baseball city. This is a baseball city that had bad things done to it.

You remember what once was and then you look out over the acres of barren plastic, each empty seat another few ounces crushing what was once the vibrant heart of a baseball town.

Beginning in 1979, right about that time that Raines arrived on the scene, the Expos got good. They were never going to be as big or important as the Montreal Canadiens dynasty that had won the last of its four straight Stanley Cups that spring, but they grew big enough to carve their own considerable niche in the Montreal sporting consciousness.

Times were good.

Two second-place finishes in a row in '79 and '80, one going down to the last day of the season, the other to the second-to-last day.

Then, in '81, a strike-interrupted season, they finally made it to the league championship series.

Raines remembered when he would be recognized as he walked down the streets.

"The fans were passionate," he said. "We didn't do ads or anything. They knew us by coming to the park. They saw our faces on the screen.

''Well, maybe the most recognizable face was Youppi," Raines added with a laugh. "But the fans here really embraced us.

''Even when I came back, kids who weren't even born when I first played here recognized me. That's because their parents told them about me. I feel happy to be a part of something like that."

CLASSY MOVE

Raines, who played for four other franchises before returning to the Montreal organization, managed this season in "A" ball in the Florida State League. In a classy move by a once-proud franchise, Raines was invited to join the club for the final week of the season.

"I feel for the fans, mostly, because it was a new game to them, starting in '69, and I think they really started to grasp the game," said Raines. "And to see it taken away from them, I feel really bad because to me, this is where I grew up as a major-league player. Regardless if they no longer play here, I still feel like my heart is here in Montreal."

"I won two World Series in New York, but I will always think of myself as a Montreal Expo. My passion and my heart will always be here."


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