BANGOR — The city is known worldwide as a hockey hotbed, its Canadiens as much the signature franchise of that sport at its highest level as the New York Yankees are to baseball.
But America’s sporting pastime has had mixed results in Montreal, Quebec.
Jackie Robinson played for the Class AAA Montreal Royals in 1946 before breaking the color barrier a year later with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
And the city had its own major league franchise, the Montreal Expos, from 1969 through 2004. The Expos peaked in 1994, with a lineup that included the likes of Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, Moises Alou and Marquis Grissom producing the National League’s best record until a labor strike in August prematurely ended the season.
That strike proved to be the beginning of the end of the Expos, the start of a downward cycle exacerbated by the relative value of the Canadian dollar to the U.S. dollar at the time that made signing players to contracts payable in U.S. currency cost-prohibitive.
The Expos ultimately left Montreal for Washington, D.C., in 2005, and while the city has struggled to retain a baseball identity ever since, the success of the Notre Dame de Glace Little League in reaching the 2011 Senior League World Series may offer a glimmer of hope.
“There really is a great history of baseball in Montreal, notwithstanding that we lost the major league team — Expos rest in peace,” said Bobby Titleman, manager of the Notre Dame de Glace Seniors, the first team from Quebec to represent Canada in the SLWS since 1987.
“Our accomplishment has captured so much interest, there’s been a lot of local media coverage, there’s been some local media here covering us and I’ve been interviewed a bunch of times. If that helps build interest back in the game post the Expos’ departure, that would be awesome.”
The Notre Dame de Glace Little League is situated on the city’s west end, and while there are several other leagues in the suburbs, it is the only true inner-city Little League in Montreal, Titleman said.
Some 220 youngsters participate in the league’s various age divisions, but few stay with it through the Senior League level for 15- and 16-year-olds.
This year’s SLWS club, for instance, has just 11 players.
“It was almost to the point where we didn’t have tryouts, we just had to make sure we had enough,” said Titleman. “There’s a limited number of players and they tend to drop off at that age, but again with our accomplishment and the attention it’s getting, we’re hopeful there will be lots more kids playing next year. We’d love to have 20 or 30 kids try out.”
Often, young Montreal baseball players turn their focus to other sports by their mid-teens.
“Hockey is the primary sport, but soccer is also huge,” said Titleman. “Montreal is a very multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community and a lot of people there didn’t grow up with baseball, especially with the Expos’ departure. With no major league team to follow, the interest level seemed to drop off after ‘05, but hopefully we’re going to be able to build it back up.”
Pitching by committee
The 11-player roster being utilized by Notre Dame de Grace Little League has required some coaching creativity, particularly when it comes to pitching.
Pitchers in the Senior League World Series can throw up to 30 pitches in a game and still be eligible for the next game, so Titleman has limited all his pitchers to 30 or fewer pitches per outing.
That was the case in the team’s 7-2 loss to Brewer at Mansfield Stadium on Sunday, when five Canadian pitchers saw action and none threw more than 29 pitches.
“At the beginning of the summer we had 13 players so we had two extra pitchers, but for personal circumstances we had two guys drop out so we realized that we didn’t have the pitching depth to have rest days,” said Titleman. “So our pitching strategy during the Canadian nationals was to keep trotting out guys and keep them fresh.
“I think only one time did we burn someone for a day of rest and it worked for us, so we’re going by the old expression, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Since it wasn’t broke, we’ll probably continue it. If there’s a situation when we need to keep someone in to save or win the game we’ll revisit it, but that’s been our strategy and we’re going to stick to it.”
The Montreal team began using that strategy during the Quebec provincial tournament, then went 7-0 in winning the Canadian national championship last week in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec.
“There wasn’t really that much competition in that (Quebec) tournament, but we wanted to get in the mindset of not using the rest days, and it really benefited us in the Canadian nationals,” said Titleman. “We noticed that some of the other teams burned pitchers because they had must-win games, but then when they got to pitchers three, four and five, they were not as deep.
“We feel we have equivalent-level pitchers perhaps with one ace, Liam Wyatt, and we end up using him more to close out games than to start games.”
With the success the team has had in reaching the Senior League World Series, getting his pitchers to accept the committee approach has come fairly easily for Titleman and coaches Livin Vargas and Rafael Zapata.
“I think they’ve all accepted the roles because that’s been our strategy, and we’ve been employing that strategy for the last two or three weeks very successfully,” said Titleman. “I guess if the string of wins starts to change perhaps there will be some dissension on the bench, but so far the kids have bought into it and they also know they’ll be getting back out there to pitch the next day.”