Fans still carry a torch for Montreal Expos, and Bartolo Colon is one of the last

Montreal Expos pitcher Bartolo Colon throws against the Montreal Expos pitcher Bartolo Colon throws against the Atlanta Braves during the second inning on Saturday, July 13, 2002 in Montreal. Photo Credit: AP / Andre Forget

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Bartolo Colon is in the running for an indelible honor and he doesn't even know it. The Mets pitcher is one of only four active major leaguers in a very special category: They once played for the Montreal Expos. Now it is a matter of seeing who will be the last to say, as the beloved team did in 2004, au revoir.

Being the last one standing is a distinction that often goes to top players. Willie Mays was the last New York Giant in the majors, Reggie Jackson the last Kansas City Athletic, Phil Niekro the last Milwaukee Brave, Jim Kaat the last original Washington Senator (the team that became the Twins in 1961). Which is all well and good. But the honor that awaits Colon, Bruce Chen (Royals), Scott Downs (White Sox) or Maicer Izturis (Blue Jays) will be different because there is just something spicily endearing and enduring about the Expos.

"It's crazy. I got an email from a U.S. soldier deployed in Egypt who said he saw an Expos shirt on the Nile," said Matthew Ross, a Montreal radio host who runs Expos Nation, a nonprofit group with a popular website and a mission to bring the majors back to his city. "There are a lot of things that appeal to people: the colors, the logo, the fact it was the first non-American city in the big leagues. And that a lot of crazy things happened there."

As long as some ex-Expo is playing, there will be a living, breathing connection to Jarry Park, Le Grand Orange, the mascot Youppi!, Gary Carter, Tim Raines, the public address announcer's enthusiastic "John Boc-ca-BELL-la!" introduction and everything else about a club that kept producing star players and trading them.

The sight of Colon pitching Saturday against the Washington Nationals, the team that the Expos became, is poignant for die-hards. And to this day there are many Expos die-hards. This has been a banner year for the team that never did win a championship. It is the 20th anniversary of the Expos' greatest season, when they had the best record in baseball before a strike shut everything down. It is 10 years since they went out of business. Canadian writer Jonah Keri published an entertaining book about the team, "Up, Up and Away," named for the signature home run call of Hall of Fame Expos broadcaster Dave Van Horne.

Big crowds filled the cavernous, charmless, distant old Olympic Stadium in March to watch two exhibition games between the Mets and Blue Jays. Ross' Facebook page has more than 170,000 friends. And Expos alumnus Warren Cromartie is in charge of the Montreal Baseball Project, which is devoted to giving the city another shot. It's a long shot, what with no teams up for sale, no current plans for expansion, no nice new ballpark and no ownership group. But give them time.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

A feasibility study indicated that a downtown, open-air ballpark could sustain a season-ticket base of 28,000.Ross pointed out that the climate is the same as that in Minneapolis, which has just that kind of venue.

Most of all, he said, "We want to let the rest of the world know that there is a fan base here in Montreal." To that end, Expos Nation will have a pilgrimage to Citi Field July 12. Hundreds of fans will sit together, wearing Expos red, white and blue.

Sure, Montreal's crowds were often small, but Ross mentioned that the same could be said about Cleveland before it got a handsome park and began retaining its players. What could you expect from followers of a cash-strapped outfit that said goodbye to Carter, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, Larry Walker, John Wetteland and others?

The Expos went against their own flow in midseason 2002 when they acquired Colon, the Indians' best pitcher. They gave up a ton of promise: Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore. But general manager Omar Minaya, running the team on behalf of Major League Baseball, which owned it, was trying for one big haymaker that could make the Expos a contender and save the franchise.

It didn't work. The team is gone and the individual Expos are going one by one. "It's kind of sad when any one of them [is out of the big leagues]," Ross said, alluding to the likes of Jamey Carroll, Ted Lilly, Endy Chavez and Jon Rauch.

Still, Colon, who declined to be interviewed, and his fellow alumni hang in there. And Montreal is carrying a flambeau, a torch, for the team that was and, it hopes, that will be again.

You also may be interested in: