|Good seats available at Olympic|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This is the fourth report card in Page 2's summerlong series rating all 30 ballparks in Major League Baseball.
MONTREAL -- It's never a good sign for a team when the scalpers are more aggressive than a telemarketer.
As soon as I stepped off the subway outside Le Stade Olympique (that's French for "Juan Gonzalez Won't Play Here"), scalpers assaulted me with the fervor of religious missionaries, brandishing their Expos tickets as if they were copies of the Watchtower. "Box seats -- cheap!!!" one bellowed, uttering a phrase seldom used south of the border. "Go ahead," another scolded. "Pay full price at the ticket booth. I don't care."
"People don't believe me, but I actually can do quite well here," still another scalper assured me, while selling an $8 seat down the right field line for $7. "If you buy in bulk, the team sells them at half price, so it's easy to make money. You just have to know the right number of tickets to buy."
This guy said he has been scalping tickets in Montreal for 28 years, not counting a five-year "vacation" he spent in the local prison for boosting cargo containers off trucks. "The worst part is all the TV channels were in French," he moaned. "All I could watch was hockey."
Three decades spent either in prison or at Olympic Stadium. And you thought the Texas penal system was tough.
I hate writing negatively about Olympic Stadium, because I know it just reinforces the false view that Montreal is not a baseball town and cannot support a major-league team. That view is rubbish. Baseball has succeeded here -- the Expos outdrew the Yankees in the early '80s and the Mets in the mid-'90s -- and the franchise's current condition is primarily the result of the 1994 strike and Jeffrey Loria's disgraceful ownership. Those two things destroyed 80 percent of the fan base, and the near-constant league threats to move took care of what remained.
Don't blame the fans, the players or the front office for the mess -- they all deserve far better.
We can only imagine how things would be different for the Expos had the 1994 strike not ended the season and kept them from a possible trip to the World Series. As it is, about the only good thing you can say for Olympic Stadium is that it has been years since a two-ton chunk of concrete last fell to the ground.
The rankings (all prices are in U.S. funds) ...
1. Seat comfort: I'll give Olympic Stadium this -- its seats are interesting, at least the ones above the VIP section. They're of a design that I suppose seemed "mod" three decades ago, when designers thought we would all be wearing slick, polyurethane boots and zipping around town on jetpacks, but here in the real 21st century, the chairs look like they were salvaged from the corporate headquarters of Spacely Sprockets. Worse, they are absolutely filthy -- I don't think they've been cleaned since Rusty Staub played for the Expos. Or maybe the architects just assumed that in the future, fans would carry spritzers of Formula 409 in their utility belts to clean them themselves.
The seats do generally face the mound, though. Points: 2.5
2. Quality of hot dogs: One stand sells kosher dogs that have a decent zing to them and the price -- about $3 -- isn't bad. 3
3. Quality/selection of other concession-stand fare: The fare is generally bland and typical, but there are a few nice additions to the usual ballpark menu, including souvlaki, a tasty cinnamon dough dessert and the justifiably famous smoked meat sandwiches. 3
4. Signature Concession Item: If the Expos move, the saddest thing won't be the relocation of Canada's first team. No, it will be the demise of Monsieur's Smoked Meat sandwiches from the major-league scene. I could go all Food Channel on you in describing their taste, but instead I'll just say that they're so good, they almost make up for the Expos losing Larry Walker. Almost. 5
5. Beer: There isn't much variety -- you better like Molson's, eh? -- but the prices aren't bad (about three bucks). For that price, you can drink enough to forget the Randy Johnson trade. 3
6. Bathrooms: The game's announced attendance was 7,099, but I still had to wait in line to use the bathroom during the eighth inning. What, did I suddenly change genders? Guys don't wait in line at stadium bathrooms, women do. But on a positive note, the bathrooms were cleaner than the seats. 2
7. Scoreboard: The large board has a nice video screen and provides full statistics on players, but if there was anything showing the number of pitches or their speeds, I missed it. Manual out-of-town scoreboards ring the outfield, which is very nice. It lets you keep track of how the former Expos greats are doing. 3
8. Quality of public address system: It's loud enough, but I'm not sure if they've changed the music since arthritis set into Andre Dawson's knees. 2
9. Fun stuff to do besides the game: Some teams show subway races on the scoreboard between innings. Others show hydroplane races. The Expos have a local car dealer drive a Mercedes sports coupe onto the field to advertise a $399 monthly lease. I'm just surprised it didn't pick up Vladimir Guerrero and drive him to his next team.
This is Montreal's 35th season -- have the Expos really been around that long? -- and to "celebrate" the anniversary, the team showed a clip of Moises Alou between innings with some wording like "I remember." It was meant as a salute to the past, but given all the great players the team has lost over the years, it felt like an obituary.
God, these fans have been hosed over the years.
There is a dunk tank by the smoked meat stand, which is great fun, but it would be much, much better if Jeffrey Loria was the dunkee and the tank was filled with man-eating crocodiles who haven't been fed since the Expos let Pedro Martinez leave as a free agent. 2
10. Price/selection of baseball souvenirs: There is a website dedicated to the old Seattle Pilots, where you can buy such rare team memorabilia as a framed program, three ticket stubs and three pocket schedules for $795. I thought about that when I wandered into the team gift shop and saw, among the standard jerseys, caps and pennants, a stuffed Youppi! for $20. 3
11. Ticket price/availability/location: Attending a game at Montreal is like stepping into the Way-Back Machine. The best seats right behind home plate are about $25, but almost every other seat in the place is $12 or less, including general admission seats along the base lines for barely $5. Sheesh, they'll charge you that much in Boston if you accidentally glance at Fenway Park without going through TicketMaster first. But you don't need to pay even that much, because the scalpers sell the tickets for less than face value. (This is just a guess, but I don't think the Expos are doing too well financially.)
The sightlines are generally good, other than the fact they're no longer of Tim Raines. 4
And the surroundings might be even worse. I'll just say this: I wish I had the concrete concession in Montreal. 1
13. Interior Architecture: And it doesn't get much better inside. The hole in the roof is covered by some sort of awnings that make it look as if the world's largest soccer ball is balanced on top of the stadium. Worse, there are almost no TV monitors on the concourses, so you can't see the game while standing in line for concessions. And forget about baseball -- you get no sense that the Olympics were ever held here, either.
Sigh. At least the crane is gone from center field. 1
14. Access: It's too bad the stadium is so removed from the pulse of the city, but the subway drops you off right inside the stadium ticket area (watch out for stampeding scalpers). There also is more than adequate parking in the surrounding ramps for $12, and $5 in the neighboring streets. And, naturally, crowds rarely pose a problem. 4.5
15. Trading-up factor: It's fairly easy, but whatever you do, don't screw up and try moving into the lower level VIP seats down the foul lines. Nobody ever buys tickets for those seats, so the local gendarmes know that anyone who sits there must be trespassing. One guy kicked me out within 30 seconds, and then chased away three families who went down to the bullpen to take photos and ask for autographs before the game. This guy was relentless. Simon Wiesenthal didn't pursue Nazi war criminals this zealously.
I was able to sit behind home plate in the fourth inning without a problem, though. 3.5
16. Friendliness and helpfulness of usher staff: Fortunately, there are other, much nicer ushers. Without being asked, one woman kindly helped me get my camera out of its case, while my hands were full with my notebook and a cinnamon dough, then took a photo of me and Youppi!. She single-handedly made up for Inspector Javert chasing fans away from the bullpen. 3
17. Knowledge of local fans: I sat next to one fan who used to be a concessionaire here for 10 years (he sold hot dogs to Youppi!), and he was able to give me the entire history of the Expos and their problems. "I think the Expos will be here next year," he said, "because baseball is a circus and the IQ of the people running baseball is not very high." The other fans couldn't match his expertise, but they seemed about as knowledgeable as crowds in most cities. 3
18. Seventh inning stretch: There is nothing special -- just pre-recorded music with the crowd singing. But at least they didn't have Celine Dion record a version of "My Ballgame Will Go On." 1.5
19. Pre-and-postgame bar-and-restaurant scene: Uranium City is a virtual ghost town on the north shore of Canada's Lake Athabaska near the 60th parallel and the Northern Territories border. It once housed a thriving uranium center, but the mines closed in 1982 and now there are only about 200 people there. It can only be reached by plane. And I suspect that even it has a more vibrant bar scene than exists outside Olympic Stadium. 1
20. Wild Card: I automatically subtract five points for the retractable roof that can't open. But I tack three points back on for getting to hear the players introduced in French. Minus-2
Total Rating for Olympic Stadium: 49
(I just hope this rating doesn't hurt the Expos' chances of staying in Montreal. It really would be a shame for this great city to lose them.
(And $795 for framed Seattle Pilots ticket stubs? God, I should have bought every last one of those damned Youppi!s.)