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Snippets of My Past

Justin Ward

i remember only the little episodes of my youth...tiny memory bytes that seem to occasionally creep into my brain from time to time while I toss and turn waiting for sleep. It's funny how they always manage to return like clockwork with the same incomplete images that take me back to better or stranger times. This is one of them.

I suppose I was a misguided youth of 10 or so when it was my turn to complete the American ritual of attending my first sporting event. It was a baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Montreal Expos. I don't remember much about the circumstances of the long road trip from the small town of Carmel Valley to Candlestick Park other than being on a great big gray toned freeway for hours and hours and asking my father if the Montreal Expos were any good. After all, I had never heard of them. "Sometimes they play great, sometimes they don't" was his cryptic reply. That pretty much shut me up for the rest of the drive, as I couldn't really come up with an adequate response.

We pulled into the stadium parking lot and I felt no special warmth to the huge concrete-slabbed monstrosity that sat near a stinky piece of polluted marshland. Buildings this ugly must be required by some sort of law to be isolated from the rest of society in abandoned radioactive landfill. But once I entered the first chain link fence to enter the concourse, my opinions of the place were radically altered. So much food! So many souvenirs I had always wanted and had never seen outside of magazine ads! Hats, bats and balls! Books filled with unfathomable statistics and pictures of the stars. Key chains, pennants and bobbing headed dolls smiling back at me from under the glass displays. Hotdogs with endless combinations of sweet green relish, onions and mustard. Cotton candy on a stick in endless varieties of psychedelic colors not generally found in a typical Carmel Valley rainbow. Vendors with pushcarts filled with ice cream treats unknown to my eyes. The smells constantly mixing and melting in the air. I stood transfixed at this hectic product bazaar. I could have sucked it all in forever. Forever lasted exactly as long as it took dad to drag us through the crowd to the entry of lower box section 21 which stood between us and my first view of baseball.

He tugged at the wind proofed doors and like opening the magical gates of some far off Eden, I saw a picture that burned into my childlike memory forever. The field. The grass greener than any shade I had ever witnessed. Bigger than any playground park I'd ever seen. Bigger than any open space imagined. How can such a place exist hidden behind the cold gray concrete? And who has to mow this thing everyday? The players were tossing balls at a leisurely summertime pace and the crack of batting practice echoed through the near empty park. I, of course, learned later that no one comes to see the Expos play anywhere at anytime unless you are handed a good deal of money on the way in. We sat and my father immediately started to bombard me with choices. "Do you want a hot dog? A malt? A pennant? An ice cream? Peanuts?" I took one of each. My father was always good on the treats. Somewhat of an overload at times though. A boy of 10 cannot really sample one of each from the constant parade of vendors hawking, no, screaming out their wares. You could try, but were doomed to stomachache or infinitely worse, public vomiting. Even at 10, I knew the social stigma attached to coughing up hotdog bits and candy corn in seat E, aisle 22, section C.

Then I had another mental image burned into my memory. The Expos wore these incredible powdered blue uniforms. Damn near circus like. Never before had this particular color shown up in my Crayolas or finger-paints. Their hats were tri-colored slices of red, white and blue. The combination was both repugnant and wildly exotic. Montreal must be a wonderland of bright colors and fancy foreign languages unknown to regular people like me. Otherwise how could they get away with looking like this? I studied their names intensely looking for clues to this far off place where they dressed their baseball players so very strangely. Rusty Staub, Ron Fairly, Coco LaBoy, Gene Mauch, Carl Morton. I could name the entire roster from rote. Still can. Only later did I find out none of the players were even remotely Canadian.

That particular year in baseball became some type of frozen time capsule for me. I collected every baseball card I could, studied their statistics and pinned them to my wall. Mostly Expos but others as well. They didn't have to be stars, after all, none of the Expos were. But they all had something special to me. A great pose on the card, most times hit by a pitch (Ron Hunt), maybe just because I liked their name or because I felt sorry they had only batted .218 (better luck next year). As the months wore on I wrote many letters to the Expos players requesting autographs and I don't think one of them screwed me. I would love to remember what I wrote to them. Probably promised them dates with my mother.

I collected baseball cards for a number of years before cars and girls became the principle side shows of my life. I never studied the statistics so thoroughly again. The cards went into shoeboxes or were sold off to middle aged collectors who knew my Pete Rose card was worth $20 and I didn't. But I never forgot that first game or the Expos. Every year I would read what I could find about them as they constantly failed to get anywhere. Poor Expos. Doomed to failure. Year after year. The odd thing was, I was the only person I knew who actually cared. California is not known for supporting radical powdered blue invaders from the north.

The stake through my heart came when I was in art school and the Expos had finally gotten into the playoffs. The season had been split due to a strike and Montreal had beat the Phillies, I think, to advance to the NLC against the Dodgers. Went to game 7. By God, I thought, the Expos were finally gonna do it. Reach for the crown. Grab the golden ring. Others would finally know what I knew and what they had been missing all these wasted years. They lost. Rick Monday, who should rot in Hell for all eternity, smacked a home run in the 9th off of the Expos ace pitcher, Steve Rodgers, to win the game and ultimately finish off my love affair with not only the Expos, but any team affiliation in any sport. Never again have I rooted with enthusiasm or the madness that others would. I follow sports still, but from a distance. I study it like a scholar now, not as a fan. Poor Cub fans, I think. Too bad, Red Sox. Maybe next year.

Over the years I have collected various mementos of my love affair with the Expos. Game worn jerseys, broken bats used by marginal players and yes, bobbing head dolls that greet me happily in the kitchen when I scramble the eggs. I still cling to this childhood memory that prevents me from ever forgetting yet not allowing me to ever get as close as I was again. Friends come over to visit from time to time and ask about the weird obsession with a baseball team so far removed from my hometown or the ever present lure of the powerful dynasties like the Yankees, Braves or even the Oakland A's. Why would I follow such an odd and twisted path? I tell them truthfully; "Hey, sometimes they play great, sometimes they don't".

Justin Ward is an art director from San Francisco who made the mistake early in life to always root for the underdog. His heart has been broken more times than he can count by fluke home runs, dropped infield flys and bumbleheaded decisions made by 80 year old arthritic managers. He is now a social watcher of professional sporting events and tries not to care who wins or loses. He often fails at this miserably.

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