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The spirit of the Expos is alive and kicking. (Shaun Best / REUTERS)

Baseball returns to the ‘Big O’ for annual exhibition series

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Nobody cares about attendance during Spring Training—or at least, nobody is supposed to. Each year MLB teams take a trip to either Florida or Arizona to prepare for the upcoming season. Pitchers and catchers report to camp around mid-February, with position players joining them a couple weeks later. The pre-season starts up around the beginning of March, and while there are winners and losers, and competitions for roster spots, it all tends to feel as though very little is at stake. Nobody worries about how many people are in the stands for these games—ticket revenue does not make or break a team’s Spring Training. That’s what is so unique about the Toronto Blue Jays’ annual pre-season exhibition series in Montreal: Attendance is crucial and it feels as though the season is on the line.

It’s been over 10 years since the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, and until recently, there wasn’t much reason to believe a team would ever be coming back. The four Blue Jays exhibition games—the two this year and the two last March—however, have given Montrealers a reason to believe again. Over 96,000 fans attended the two games against the Cincinnati Reds at Olympic Stadium over the weekend, surpassing last year’s tally.

The games themselves were not all that exciting. The Blue Jays and Reds split the series, with the visiting Reds winning 2-0 Friday night and the ‘hometown’ Jays topping Cincinnati 9-1 Saturday. What these games represent, however, should excite baseball fans in Montreal. Despite a decrepit stadium, an extended holiday weekend, and the fact that these games do not truly ‘count,’ fans still showed up in droves, a signal to league officials that Montreal is serious about baseball.

“These are impressive numbers,” John McHale, senior vice president of MLB, told reporters over the weekend. “We thought that because of the Easter holiday and the novelty perhaps wearing off this year, there might have been fewer people for this year’s games. We wouldn’t even have thought that was bad.”

The possibility of baseball returning to Montreal has gained weight over the past few years thanks to the success of these games. Commissioner Rob Manfred recently stated that Montreal passed the first test in this process, but that a clear plan for a new stadium is necessary before a team moves to Montreal.

Though the weekend mostly centred on baseball potentially returning to Montreal one day, these games also offered a return of sorts to Montreal native and Blue Jays starting catcher Russell Martin. Martin signed a five-year contract with the Blue Jays as a free agent in the off-season and will be a key cog in Toronto’s lineup this season. While a trip to Montreal may not have been the main reason for his decision to sign with the Jays, it was certainly a welcome bonus.

Martin went hitless in both games, but still received a standing ovation from the Olympic Stadium crowd each time he walked up to the plate for an at-bat. His father, a saxophonist from Montreal, played the national anthem Friday night before getting to watch his son get the hero’s treatment from the raucous crowd.

With the MLB’s regular season now underway, the results of these two games are no longer of any consequence. Two games aren’t enough to indicate whether a city can support a team, but to make light of this weekend’s success would be a mistake. Spring Training games aren’t meant to have high stakes, but Montreal proved that doesn’t always have to be true.

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