On his first night in Montreal, Terry Francona walked south from his hotel to Ste.-Catherine Street. He was 22, a promising outfielder and an Expo. "I was looking for a hamburger," says Francona, who hails from New Brighton, Pa., and now plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, "but all the signs I saw were for 'Smoked Meat.' Later on I learned how great smoked meat is, but that first night all I wanted was some American food. I remember thinking, I'm not going to like this place."
Welcome to Montreal, the dark side of the moon. Or so you'd think if the sports pages were all you read.
If someone were to say the word "Montreal" to you, it would very likely bring to mind Gallic charm and Continental flair, a little bit of Europe just an hour by air from New York City. You might envision a city with splendid restaurants and a renowned symphony, or conjure up the image of vibrant Crescent Street and a town that knows how to play. Perhaps you would see a place that is clean and safe, at least by the standards of many large U.S. cities. You certainly would think of Montreal as a bilingual city, the hub of a Canadian province in which French is the first language for four of every five people.
You probably also have a moderate sense of adventure, are not mortally offended by customs procedures, understand that the quality of life is not solely determined by a tax rate and do not assume that foreign is better or worse—just different. You are, in other words, not a major league baseball player.
Major leaguers are many things—rich and famous being two—but their sense of curiosity about matters other than, say, a new batting stance or the split-fingered fastball tends to be limited. Expecting them to adapt to an alien culture, cold weather and higher taxes might be too much to expect. "You know what the whole thing might come down to?" says Ken Singleton, an Expo announcer who played three seasons in Montreal. "From the first day they go to school, Americans are taught that the United States is the best country in the world. The greatest, no question. So playing in Canada—even though it's still the major leagues—is subconsciously viewed as somehow inferior."
The Expos were ravaged in the off-season by the defection of four free agents. Pitchers Mark Langston, Pascual Perez and Bryn Smith packed up and left, commanding a total of $27.7 million for 11 seasons from their new clubs, the California Angels, the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, respectively. Hubie Brooks, who has been Montreal's most consistent run-producer over most of the past five seasons, signed a three-year, $6 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As a result, the Expos have been forced to look for replacements, and the pickings haven't been good. They have tried to plug the holes in the pitching staff by signing the volatile, oft-injured Oil Can Boyd, by giving a minor league contract to 37-year-old Joaquin Andujar—who spent the winter throwing in the Senior Professional Baseball League—and paying $660,000 to keep Zane Smith in Montreal for 1990. Smith's record last season was 1-13.
The story is an old one—Montreal has traditionally been uncompetitive in the free-agent market—but the number of prominent players who have recently jumped has shaken the franchise. The mass exodus from a team that led the National League East for 42 straight days in 1989 emitted signals that would wipe the grin off the face of the most optimistic chamber of commerce official.
Three hours up the Trans-Canada Highway, the city of Quebec, Montreal's provincial cousin and home of the NHL's Nordiques, has an even worse predicament. You can live your entire life in English in Montreal, where 433,000 people in a metropolitan area of 2.9 million list English as their mother tongue and where many francophones speak it well. Not so in the city of Quebec, where the English-speaking community makes up less than 2% of the population. You can survive in English, but you can't thrive. Indeed, the city of Quebec is as foreign to many Canadians as it is to Americans.
For NHL players, a hitch with the Nordiques is deemed more a prison sentence than a professional opportunity. In a poll of Whaler players that appeared in The Hartford Courant, 14 of 19 said that Quebec was the city to which they would least like to be traded. The survey was taken in December, when Blues goaltender Greg Millen was balking at his trade from St. Louis to the Nordiques. Millen waited 12 days before finally reporting, and his resistance opened old Quebec wounds. The normally reserved Michel Goulet, a Nordique forward, told reporters, "It makes me sick how the city of Quebec and the Nordiques are perceived around the league. I could understand a guy not wanting to be traded to a last-place team [the Nordiques have by far the worst record in the NHL], but this was also happening in the mid-1980s, when we were one of the best teams in the league."