Source: STEPHANIE MYLES, The Montréal Gazette
The 10-and 11-year-olds, more than 50 of them, went through their paces last Saturday under the brand-new bubble over Stade Hébert's football field.
They were just one group among the many who kept the venue buzzing all day long with the encouraging sounds of spring: ball landing in mitt with a satisfying thud, crack of ball on bat, kids laughing.
Spring training began in February and wrapped up last weekend in St. Léonard. Team tryouts are starting as Montreal kicks off its seventh baseball season without the Expos.
The game has been down, but it is hardly out. In fact, there has been a significant revival, and the St. Léonard program is just one shining example.
Five years ago, the association was in serious trouble. But with the dedication of a group of volunteer parents and coaches, it is now thriving.
"The program has just gone through the roof. Compared to surrounding cities, it's ridiculous," said Gerry Dupuis, a parent, coach and board member who along with Marco Macri has piloted baseball's revival through the challenging waters of a soccer-mad part of town.
In 2006, when Dupuis and Macri came on board, there were six teams. Despite mass emails, a committee meeting drew four parents. A year later, the association was out of money.
An annual poker tournament was started and became a huge success, easing the financial burden. Slowly, they built it, and they came. The last meeting drew close to 40 parents - on the night the Canadiens played the Boston Bruins last month. This season, St. Léonard will field 14 teams.
In the last few years, the association has gone from 77 summer registrations and about 180 players in all for teams and camps to 180 for summer baseball alone, with a total of 580 players registered by the end of this season. There are waiting lists for the peewee, mosquito, atom and novice age groups.
"We're pulling out all the stops to bring baseball back to where it was," Dupuis said.
Added Macri: "We helped it get along, but it's everybody else, the community. How they have stepped up is impressive."
St. Léonard is a great success story, but there is growing evidence that the game is coming back to life all around the area.
"The wheel has turned," Alex Agostino said. "Old associations may have been dying out, but new ones are coming back strong. We've got some associations on the South Shore that were dead five years ago who have over 200 kids."
Agostino has long been a major baseball figure in Montreal: a major-league scout, Baseball-Québec's technical director, he also now does colour commentary for Toronto Blue Jays games carried on CKAC.
Yes, the Blue Jays.
The very notion that anyone in Montreal would follow that team from Toronto once the Expos left was nearheresy a few years ago. The Boston Red Sox, maybe. But the Blue Jays?
"There are more games on TV now than when the Expos left," Agostino said. "The kids can identify and the Jays are doing something they've never done - slowly creeping into Quebec. The kids are watching them, and they imitate what they see."
When Agostino was growing up in St. Bruno, there were 250 kids playing baseball. Five years ago, it was down to about 50.
"The association was dying," he said.
This year, St. Bruno will be back up to 150 kids. Not where it once was, but leagues ahead of where it has been lately.
Agostino said that at the grassroots level, the game was struggling long before the Expos left - a victim of the ebbs and flows of the franchise's often-heartbreaking history. The effects of the devastating 1994 strike showed up as the century turned, when the kids born around that time got to age 5 or 6 and starting picking a sport. For five years, they just stopped registering for baseball.
But despite the absence of major-league baseball to lead the way, the game wouldn't die. The kids may not have a hometown team to root for any more. But their parents did, and they played the game, too.
Now they're in their 30s, they remember how much fun they had, and they're trying to get the next generation interested.
Or they're former players who got into the physical education field and have a passion to teach what they know best.
"We went from three sportsétudes programs to 12, from 100 kids to about 400 kids," Agostino said. "Midget triple-A was down to five teams five years ago, but we're back up to 10."
There are about 80 players playing at the collegiate level in Quebec City and Trois Rivières, Agostino said. And there are 41 Quebecers competing in the various divisions of the NCAA.
In 2004, the year the Expos left, there were 20.
Macri was a huge Expos fan, and a baseball player, while growing up in St. Léonard.
When the time came for his kids to pick a sport, he didn't want to push them into baseball just because he played. But if they chose it, he could help them.
Macri's nephew, 12-year-old Johnathan Rinaldi, played soccer for two years, was introduced to baseball by his uncle, and has been playing ever since.
"You have to have the eyes, because of the eye-to-bat contact. The arm, the glove," said Rinaldi, who is a diehard Blue Jays fan and saw his first live game last year when his team travelled to Toronto and watched the Jays defeat the Detroit Tigers.
Dupuis says the hope is that they're creating a legacy, a big baseball family that keeps bringing in the kids 10 years from now, the kids who will be yet another generation removed from major-league baseball in Montreal.
"What they have to look up to and aspire to (in the Expos' absence) are the other kids," he said.
Macri said the reward is in watching the development.
"Seeing the progress of kids who, two years ago, could barely catch a ball and now are trying out for the A teams," he said.
And his association is trying to create a family atmosphere, scheduling Fridaynight doubleheaders featuring two different age groups that act as a drop-in centre, keeping the St. Léonard baseball family close-knit even as it gets bigger and better.
"Like Cheers, where everybody knows your name," Macri said. "You stop by for 20 (minutes), you're there for two hours."
Minor league baseball in Quebec (Novice to Midget)
YEAR Total players Number of teams
1985 33,369 2,888
1990 33,528 3,048
1995 46,618 4,238
2000 29,469 2,679
2005 20,423 1,721
2007 18,076 1,490
2008 18,954 1,534
2009 19,212 1,578
2010 20,059 1,624
(Statistics provided by Baseball-Québec)