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Tuesday, April 22
Montreal's house of horrors

By Jeff Merron
Special to

In 1991, after a 55-ton beam that had been part of Montreal's Olympic Stadium tumbled to a walkway and forced the Expos to play out their remaining home schedule on the road, Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette wrote an obituary for the troubled ballpark. "There is apparently some doubt as to whether or not Mr. Stadium is actually dead or whether he is still clinging to life," Todd wrote.

It was, unfortunately, still clinging to life.

The stadium, half-built in time for the 1976 Olympics, has a well-deserved bad reputation. With a grandiose design, poor construction, frequent mini-disasters (explosions, fires, falling beams, roof cave-ins, etc.), and a patchwork quilt of ineffective fixes, the tomb-like structure has saddled Montreal with a mountain of debt and driven away baseball fans in droves.

Question of the Week
What's the worst ballpark you've been in or played in and why?

Peter Gammons
Peter Gammons

Shea Stadium in New York. It's filthy and dank. There are rats in the visiting clubhouse. There's garbage everywhere downstairs. Plus, the noise of airplanes overhead.

Joe Morgan
Joe Morgan

Colt 45 Stadium in Houston, where the Astros played before the Astrodome was built. It was hot, but the main reason I disliked it was the mosquitoes. They were a major-league nuisance.

Rob Dibble
Rob Dibble

Montreal's Olympic Stadium. One time, when they took the retractable roof off, I had an allergic reaction and almost stopped breathing. As long as the roof was off, I couldn't take the field (I had to miss some games in that brutal stadium). After that, I had to take allergy shots every three days for the rest of my playing days. Thank you, Montreal.

Tom Candiotti
Tom Candiotti

For any pitcher (or former pitcher, as the case may be), it would have to be Coors Field in Denver. It's a difficult place to pitch. Because of the altitude, the ball carries -- and breaking balls don't break like they normally do. It's a tough adjustment going from Coors to another park and vice versa.

Tony Gwynn
Tony Gwynn

For an outfielder, it had to be Candlestick Park. The swirling winds, cold weather and constant wetness made it next to impossible to know how to play a ball. Sometimes it was necessary to take two steps back instead of the normal one and you never knew if the ball would hold up or fly out once it was hit.

In that same obit, Todd even called for a return to Jarry Park, the Expos original grounds, "where -- once upon a time -- we all had fun watching baseball."

Twelve years later, Expos fans indeed have been able to have fun watching Expos home games again, in a cozy outdoor park built for baseball.

They just had to be willing to fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to enjoy the action.

Over the past 25 years, the taxpayers of Montreal and Quebec have ponied up about $217 million just for the design, storage, installation, repair, repair, repair, redesign, and reinstallation of the ugly roof. And last May, even the second field cover, made of Teflon, was deemed unsafe with the stadium's overseers calling for a third roof.

The entire stadium, nicknamed "The Big Owe," will have cost $2.4 billion when it's paid off in 2006. By then, of course, the Expos will probably be long gone, to D.C., or Northern Virginia, or Portland.

That's $2.4 billion -- about $100 million a year. That's a commitment to baseball.

Here's what the Expos could have gotten for that money:

Seven A-Rods, one Barry Bonds, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine.

Or eight A-Rods and the Angels.

Or the Yankees. With the Royals thrown in as a farm club. And the Redskins for those football season lulls.

You get the idea. The fact is, Montreal has thrown a tremendous amount of money at baseball since the Expos began play in Olympic Stadium in 1977. Like the U.S. in Vietnam, they followed a French blueprint -- in this case, that of stadium designer Roger Taillibert -- and spent gobs of money and time and suffered countless disasters as they sank deeper and deeper into a quagmire.

Olympic Stadium is, at its core, a mediocre, 1970's style concrete bowl that looks terrific from the outside. And it's the roof and the 556-foot-high leaning tower essential to its proper operation that create the dramatic views.

In 1973, Taillibert, the "Michelangelo of Concrete," described the roof this way: "A strong synthetic fabric attached to cables suspended from the tower will cover the central opening, folding and unfolding easily and quickly." A more pithy description, by MacLean's magazine, said the roof lifted off "like a handkerchief pulled up by a string."

That was the dream of Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau. Taillibert, who now designs stadiums around the world (though, notably, not in North America), was happy to oblige. What the good baseball fans of Montreal got instead was a recurring nightmare that began when construction workers went on strike before the stadium opened for the 1976 Olympics.

In 1991, when the 15-year-old stadium and the 5-year-old roof had already suffered through many structural failures and calamities, Taillibert denied responsibility. "I didn't build it," he said. "All I did was draw the architectural models. I'm not the one who did the engineering work."

(But Taillibert's still proud of his costly creation: his agency's Web site features a drawing of the stadium that looks like it's ripped from the pages of Da Vinci's sketchbook.)

This season the Expos play 22 "home" games at Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That means Expos fans and baseball tourists have 59 more opportunities to watch baseball inside what is in many ways a remarkable piece of architecture. If you go, get a good, long look from a distance. Buy seats as close to the field as possible. Wear a hard hat. And keep an eye on the ceiling.

Jeff Merron is a regular Page 2 contributor.

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