Les Red Sox arrivent!  Les Red Sox arrivent!

It was the summer of 2001, and the Montreal Expos were on life support. I had to pay my respects before it was too late. Not that I was a big fan of the team, but I did want to visit their much-maligned stadium before they skipped town. I always feel a sense of urgency to visit a baseball park, even a universally despised venue like Stade Olympique, if it is in its final days and I have not been there before.

I didn’t know the Expos were going to be around for three more years, or I might have waited. At the time I made my travel arrangements, I merely noted that the Expos were at home in the middle of July. I didn’t really care who they were playing. The first three games on the agenda were inter-league contests against the Red Sox. The Expos could have been playing Tampa Bay or Baltimore or anybody, and I wouldn’t have cared. The opponent was irrelevant.

Upon my arrival on Saturday, July 14, I truly felt like a stranger in a strange land, but not because I was in a foreign country and the locals were speaking French. No one asked to see my papers after I cleared customs, but I quickly discovered Montreal was an occupied city!

As soon as I got downtown, I noticed Red Sox fans everywhere! You didn’t need a field guide to spot them. They wore Red Sox caps, long-sleeved Red Sox T-shirts, short-sleeved Red Sox T-shirts, and Red Sox jackets. It was literally impossible to walk a block in any direction without coming across someone wearing an item of Red Sox apparel. I had no doubt that at hotels all across Montreal, a number of people would be sleeping in Red Sox pajamas, or at least Red Sox underwear.

Now if you’ve ever been in the stands when the Red Sox come calling, you probably know the drill. At such contests, Red Sox fans appear to be as numerous as the hometown fans. Indeed, if you keep your ears open, you may hear some authentic New England accents. “Sahx” instead of “Sox” is a dead giveaway.

Most of those folks in Sox attire, however, are not from New England. They just want a visa to establish temporary residence in Red Sox Nation. When the Sox leave town, the Red Sox clothing will go back in the closet, and these fans will revert to their traditional allegiances.

In fact, I suspect some of the younger guys have become Red Sox fans just to have a reason to approach female Red Sox fans. This doesn’t work particularly well in Boston, as Red Sox fans there are more plentiful than Dunkin’ Donuts outlets. You might as well resort to “What’s your sign?” or “Do you come here often?”

But if you are wearing a Sox T-shirt in St. Petersburg or Seattle, it’s a different story. Much like running into an American tourist in a foreign country, you have a perfect excuse to exchange pleasantries. If he’s wearing a Red Sox cap, even a world-class dork has an excuse to approach the most attractive, unattached woman he can find and holler, “Let’s go, Red Sox!” and see if anything clicks.

In fact, during Red Sox away games, you can be sure that sooner or later, someone will start a “Let’s go, Red Sox” chant, and the hometown faithful will attempt to drown it out with a “Let’s go, [Rangers, Tigers, Angels, whoever]” chant. The end result is something like, “Let’s go, Ritjkhvdowlt.” Based on that, it’s difficult to tell which team is the home team. Red Sox fans can turn any home park into a neutral site.

But for the first game of the Red Sox-Expos series on Sunday, July 15, 2001, it was no contest. As I perused the people on the subway, on the escalator leading to street level, and standing in line at the stadium ticket windows, I estimated the ratio of Boston-to-Montreal attire to be about 100-1. It was almost like one of those games kids play on long car trips…first one to spot an Expos fan gets five points!

Before I entered the stadium, I finally descried a lone man wearing an Expos T-shirt. In my mind, after eleven years, he is still the ultimate poster boy for dispossession.

Once inside the stadium, I noticed a concession stand that had several picnic tables with patio umbrellas affixed. Since the eatery was on the concourse and never saw the light of day (in fact, neither did anyplace else in the stadium, thanks to the fact that the retractable roof was intractable), I didn’t understand the purpose of the umbrellas. And you might not understand the purpose of this observation, but a few paragraphs from now, all will be revealed.

The attendance for the game was 32,965, an astounding turnout for a team that drew a mere 642,745 for the season. In truth, there just weren’t that many attractive dates on the Expos schedule. Even a three-game series against the cross-Canadian rival Blue Jays could only draw a total of 28,245. You’d think more people than that would show up just for the novelty of witnessing a major league baseball game that isn’t preceded by the American national anthem.

The Red Sox, however, were a much bigger attraction than the Blue Jays, even though the latter had the distinction of bringing back-to-back titles to the Great White North in 1992 and 1993. In fact, the stadium management had to open the upper deck to accommodate the crowd. I’m guessing they hadn’t done that since opening day when 45,183 showed up to see the Expos take on the Mets.

Clearly, the stadium employees were overwhelmed. The uniformed ushers in Montreal were legendary for their surliness. (I found that out a few games later when, amidst a throng of 40,000 or so empty seats, I had the temerity to sit in a seat that was not assigned to me.) I sometimes wondered what happened to those ushers after the Expos left town. My guess is they emigrated to the United States and became TSA agents.

On this day, the ushers were fairly docile. They realized they were outnumbered and it would not be wise to cross any of the Red Sox faithful who had imbibed a bit too much Molson or Labatt’s. (Note to American tourists: remember when you order beer in Canada, they probably have your favorite brew, but it is not on the domestic list.)

For the record, the game itself was a Red Sox victory, 8-5, featuring two home runs by Chris Stynes. Consequently, the visiting Sox fans were jubilant. They were loud and borderline rowdy, but I wouldn’t say they were out of control. Except for one guy.

Remember a few paragraphs ago when I mentioned the presence of patio umbrellas in an indoor stadium? At the time, it seemed absurd, but after the game, the purpose became obvious: to provide souvenirs for Red Sox fans!

As I joined the throng of Red Sox fans exiting the stadium, I saw up ahead of me a patio umbrella opening and closing, opening and closing, slowly gliding forward with the crowd on the way to the exit. At the time, I clearly remember thinking to myself, “I can’t believe that guy actually thinks they’re going to let him make off with that!”

And then I thought no more of the matter until I was on the subway back to my hotel. I glanced down to the far end of the subway car and there was the umbrella, fully open and shielding nearby strap-hangers from any errant sun rays that might penetrate the Canadian permafrost and zap the Montreal Metro. Somehow, it seemed like a fitting way to cap off a singular major league experience.

The next two games with the Red Sox, played on week nights, attracted more modest crowds (16,005 and 13,348). But by Expos standards at the time, those were good crowds. Indeed, after the Red Sox left town, the attendance for the next game (against the Phillies) was 5,157.

Attendance figures to the contrary, hard-core fans in Montreal were surely sorry to bid adieu to their team after the 2004 season. I’m sure a significant number of Boston fans felt the same way. Montreal was made for road trips! To be sure, you had to stop at the Canadian border, and it was a little further than New York, the closest major league venue. But you didn’t have to put up with any Yankee fans! Plus, you could resurrect your high school French. The only drawback was, at least at that time, the fast food restaurants didn’t offer free refills.

In fact, depending on where you lived in New England, Montreal might even be more convenient than Fenway Park! Certainly the tickets were cheaper and more plentiful! The only drawback was that you couldn’t go every year, as it was an inter-league series.

Though the Expos have moved, there are still occasional inter-league match-ups between the two franchises. Indeed, the Red Sox were in Washington, D.C. to play the Nationals as recently as 2009. But it’s just not the same when Red Sox Nation invades the nation’s capital.

It’s been almost 200 years since the first time Washington was invaded (1814), and the British burned the White House and the Capitol. That remains a tough act to follow, but I can envision some of the more ardent Red Sox fans doing something of that magnitude.

But first, they’d liberate the patio umbrellas.

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