“I guess nothing can last forever. Forever, no.”
Summer Of ’69 by Bryan Adams
Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group
Each season is brought about by the yearly orbit of the planet around the sun and the tilt of the earth’s axis. Seasons are the main periods into which a year can be divided; and life revolves around them. In Canada, there are four seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter. In New Brunswick, there are two: hockey and baseball. And life revolves around them.
Okay. So, this has no basis in fact, but it was certainly my reality as a kid growing up in New Brunswick. For most Canadians, the cold season is synonymous with hockey and there’s no denying the game has become deeply intertwined with our national identity. I mean, like it or not, ask anyone in or outside Canada what makes our country different from the rest of the world, and nine times out of ten—except at any of the 3,630 Tim Horton’s restaurants across Canada where it’s ten times out of ten—hockey will come up as something characteristically Canadian.
According to authors Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane, “hockey is the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.” This statement still holds true 45 years later. But what of the scorching heat of summer? What’s been making Canadians tick over the past centuries during the hot season?
Baseball, that’s what.
The first baseball game ever recorded in Canada dates to the 1830s. And while baseball has a long history in the country, the major leagues didn’t include a Canadian team until 1969 when the Montreal Expos joined the league.
The team was named after the Expo 67—a Category One world’s fair held in Montreal and the pinnacle of Canada’s 100th anniversary celebrations. The event was a unique moment of national achievement that put our country on the map, changing the way Canadians thought about themselves: it made us feel modern, cultured and edgy. And based on the praise bestowed on Expo 67 by the international press, the rest of the world thought so, too. Some of the most prominent people on the planet made the trip to Montreal, including Queen Elizabeth II, Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy to name but a few.
Yes, Canada was cool in the eyes of the world. And speaking of eyes and Montreal, I’ll never forget the time I set mine on the Olympic Stadium (aka The Big O).
In 1976, Canada hosted the Olympic Games for the first time and the Olympic Stadium was built as the Games’ main venue. The Expos baseball team moved from cozy Jarry Park to The Big O the following year. And just like in the unofficial national anthem of baseball, my dad made arrangements to “take me out to the ballgame, take me out to the crowd, buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks…” (You didn’t read that, right?! You sang it.)
There’s something so utterly breathtaking about that first glimpse of a wide-open professional baseball field. I vividly remember walking through the portal that opened up to the park. I was completely taken aback by what I saw next: the greenest, cleanest, most immaculate place I’d ever seen in my entire 8 years of existence. I remember being stopped in my tracks, smiling from ear to ear. And when I turned to look at my father, he was all smiles as well. We had found common ground through Expos baseball and that great moment will forever remain ingrained in my memory.
Walking through The Big O, it struck me that every sign, every call of vendors walking up and down the aisles, and every player introduction was bilingual—French and English, just like back home. And just as the city of Montreal is different from any other Canadian city, the New Brunswick experience is different from that of any other Canadian province. Like visiting Montreal—considered by many to be the most welcoming and open-minded city in North America1—a visit to New Brunswick is like a cross-cultural adventure. When you take a stroll in downtown Montreal, you can’t really tell which language is most predominant. Sometimes you hear French, other times you hear English. As I reflect on my childhood and baseball, the neighbourhood kids who come to mind have the following last names: Cameron, Cormier, O’Regan, Melanson, Wall, LeBlanc, McNeil, Caissie, Britt, Thériault, Spencer and Surette. And regardless of culture, language and religion, everyone was on the same playing field, both literally and figuratively. The little freedoms we take for granted in Canada, right?!
To this day, any time I see the Expos logo, my mind fills with images of my childhood and my heart stirs with nostalgia. I remember connecting with my brother over the Expos and collecting O-Pee-Chee2 baseball cards that included 5″ x 7″ pinup posters that came folded down to the size of a regular card in the early 80s (I still have them!). I remember those weekend afternoons spent sitting next to my dad on the basement living room couch watching baseball. I remember when he let me take a sip of beer: Schlitz. Yes, Schlitz beer! Google it. Thank goodness my overprotective mother never found out about this or else the Schlitz would’ve hit the fan some quick. Good times, good stuff. I also remember avidly following the Expos’ run for a World Series berth when Rick Monday of the Los Angeles Dodgers crushed my father’s and my championship dream with one swing of the bat in the ninth inning.
One moment in time. One split second. Game over.
I was devastated. My dad, not so much. He’d already had his fair share of hardship in life; which reminds me of the time I came home after being cut from hockey tryouts. My dad came into my room and sat down next to me on my bed where I lay crying.
“I realize this is a bad day for you, Marc. Unfortunately, bad days happen and we all have them at times. Do you want to hear about a bad day I had when I was right around your age? It was the day my dad died.”
I stopped crying and have never forgotten that talk and its intended powerful life lesson: There are plenty of people on the planet who would love to have your bad days.
While I feel my dad has an innate love of baseball, I also believe he welcomed the distraction that the game brought when he was growing up without a father. Let’s face it. Life isn’t always “a walk in the park”. We have our hearts broken. Friends die. Family members die. And sports have a way of lifting us up, away from those bad days. When you watch a sporting event, go to a concert or a movie, and so on, you forget about life for a while. Sure, it’s a classic form of escapism, but it’s a healthy one.
My dad’s love of baseball carried over into adulthood and his passion was handed down to my brother and I. Throughout history, sports have been a rite of passage between fathers and sons, and more recently mothers and daughters—girls were once considered too delicate to play sports. Crazy, eh?! I have two pre-teen daughters, and believe you me when I say there’s nothing “too delicate” about their full-out fist fights. Ouch.
Speaking of escapism, let’s go back to talking about baseball, please.
Growing up, my favorite baseball player was Tim Raines of the Montreal Expos. Raines retired 15 years ago and the Expos closed up shop in 2004 as the team relocated to Washington. I guess nothing can last forever. Forever, no. But when I heard the news in January that Raines would finally be inducted into the Hall of Fame in his final year of eligibility, forever securing his place in baseball lore, I got goosebumps and my eyes welled up a little bit. True story. But why should I even care about Tim Raines and his accomplishments? I mean, I never met the guy—although I did dart past Security at OlympicStadium one time in a desperate attempt to meet him, but instead ended up setting a popular trend known to Millennials as photobombing right before I hauled adidas (see what I did there?) out of there and bolted back towards the roped off area, away from said Security who came chasing after me. Good times, good stuff.
Photobombing. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
But seriously though. Why even care about a baseball player who retired 15 years ago? Why do sports even matter at all? Here’s why.
It’s because we see parts of ourselves in these athletes; we look up to them as examples of our own potential and we psychologically make a connection between their stories and ours. And then there’s the nostalgia factor where we look at our heroes as having played a part in the good points in our past, which explains why some people actually go to their grave wearing their favorite team’s jersey.
When my friend and teammate Denis Pellerin was 11 years old, he met the most popular Expos player of them all: Gary Carter. Denis was even lucky enough to chat up Carter and have his picture taken with him. I’ll never forget the time I saw it. In fact, it marked me for life. Not too long after it was snapped, this great picture was displayed for all of Denis’ friends to see… at his funeral visitation, in his casket. Denis was killed tragically in a dirt bike accident at the age of 14.
One moment in time. One split second. Game over.
He was a kind-hearted boy, humble in spirit, always smiling, a superstar athlete and an Expos fan. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to use this platform to honor his memory.
So, while Tim Raines’ induction into the Hall of Fame keeps the defunct Expos in the consciousness of Major League Baseball, it keeps the important people from my past in mine. In baseball as in life, things can change as fast as you can swing a bat. And if that change happens in the ninth inning, well, guess what? You still managed to stay in the game until the end. Sure, they threw you curveballs, and you struck out sometimes. That’s life! But having the opportunity to step up to the plate for another “at bat” and chance to “knock it out of the park” means you’re luckier than a whole whack of people whose playing time was cut short in the game of life.
Never regret growing old. It’s a privilege denied to many.
So, there you have it, the reason this 44-year old man teared up upon hearing that his childhood hero—who could easily have chosen to wear a New York Yankees cap (he won two World Series in the Bronx), or maybe even that of the Chicago White Sox (whom he helped lead to the 1993 American League Championship Series)—will be wearing an Expos cap when his Hall of Fame plaque is officially unveiled next month in upstate New York.
And yes, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re absolutely right. I’ll need to put an order in with NB Liquor. This definitely calls for a Schlitz!
“I’m in the Hall of Fame! There’s going to be a lot of proud people in Canada.” – Tim Raines
Did you know?
The 1990s were a golden age for baseball in Canada. The Toronto Blue Jays won two World Series in 1992 and 1993, the Montreal Expos were arguably baseball’s best team at the time of a season-ending strike in 1994, more Canadians played in the majors in 1993 than at any time since 1884 and New Brunswick was well-represented in the MLB by Rhéal Cormier (Saint-André-LeBlanc), Matt Stairs (Fredericton) and Jason Dickson (Miramichi).
Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier in 1947 and entered American history books. What many baseball fans may not realize, however, is that Robinson was embraced by Canadian fans one year earlier as a member of the Montreal Royals, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a 2013 interview with The Globe and Mail, Jackie Robinson’s wife remembered a welcoming Montreal.
The O-Pee-Chee Company, Ltd. was a Canadian confectionery company founded in 1911 that produced candy until the mid-1990s. The company produced its first trading card sets in the 1930s and the name is kept going today through licensing. In 1970, OPC cards became bilingual, and card backs were in English and French. This was a legal requirement, as federal legislation demanded that items produced in Canada carry both languages. This applied to other items such as cereal boxes, etc.