Expos open with awkward reunion

Posted: Wednesday, April 03, 2002

MONTREAL -- Cab driver Claude Labelle didn't know the Montreal Expos were opening their season Tuesday night. Yet he could easily reel off the Canadiens' place in the NHL standings.

In a nutshell, that's why major league baseball will probably leave this hockey-crazed city after this season.

''I don't care if the Expos leave,'' Labelle said. ''I'm just worried about the Canadiens making the playoffs. The only thing I'll miss if the Expos leave is that baseball players tip better than hockey players.''

There was little buzz in Montreal for the baseball opener but there was plenty of intrigue and 34,351 fans inside Olympic Stadium who were both bitter and joyous.

They were rewarded for their loyalty with a remarkable Expos' rally, capped by Orlando Cabrera's game-winning single in the ninth inning.

Trailing 6-1 in the eighth, Montreal scored three runs in the eighth and three in the ninth to set off a raucous celebration. New manager Frank Robinson waved his hat wildly to the crowd following a 7-6 victory and gave the fans a thumbs-up as he left the field.

''Who said there's not baseball fans in Montreal?'' Robinson said. ''They were great out there tonight.''

About three hours before the game, there was a most unusual reunion when Expos players saw their former coaches walking out of the visiting dugout and went over to exchange hugs.

''You change uniforms, but you don't change friendships,'' Marlins manager Jeff Torborg said.

Seven weeks ago, Torborg and his coaches were getting ready to start spring training with the Expos.

Then, baseball's ownership switches turned one of the game's most mundane matchups into one of its more intriguing ones: Montreal against the management that abandoned the city.

''It seems like I got traded,'' Cabrera said after seeing his all his former coaches in the other dugout. ''That was a great time last year when they were here, especially Jeff. He gave me so much confidence in myself.''

The relationship between the departed coaches and their former players is much warmer than the one between the deserted fans and the ownership group many believe accelerated the collapse of baseball in Montreal.

Jeffrey Loria sold the Expos to the other 29 teams on Feb. 12 and took everything with him from Montreal's organization to Florida's -- including computers, scouting reports and even cardboard cutouts of Expos star Vladimir Guerrero.

Loria missed the reunion, saying he had a prior business commitment, but sent his stepson and former Expos executive vice president David Samson instead. Fans heckled Samson as he walked around the field during batting practice.

''They came in here like saviors,'' said Marcel Page, who has been coming to games since the Expos' first season in 1969. ''Looking back at it, they looked like people who cheated us. A lot of people see them as liars.''

Samson dismisses the venom directed at him and Loria, which continued with derogatory chants and profane signs during the game.

''This game isn't about me,'' Samson said. ''This game isn't about Jeffrey. It's about the players and the game of baseball.''

One fan even climbed onto the top of the Marlins dugout and handed a sign to a Marlins player, who threw it to the ground.

''That's my friend they're talking about,'' Torborg said. ''That's disgraceful.''

If this is the final season of major league baseball in Montreal, the Expos put on a good show. There was a good crowd -- although more than 10,000 fewer than last year -- and the pregame introductions included players coming through the stands, each accompanied by a young fan.

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