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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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July 3, 2008 11:12 AM

Losing a team

Posted by Geoff Baker

One of our regular readers, ScottM, wrote in to ask which was worse, the Sonics leaving Seattle, or my hometown Expos leaving Montreal after the 2004 season. I'd argue they are both the same. Neither city is going to suffer for it in the long-term. Both places, Montreal and Seattle, remain dynamic in their own right and a fine place for which to attract tourists. Cities that define themselves based on their sports franchises...well, let's face it. A lot of you wouldn't want to live there when the teams aren't playing. Hey, the visiting Detroit Tigers are part of a city that gets voted among the best sports towns in the U.S. every year. Want to splurge on a downtown condo right next to Comerica Park? You'll get it pretty cheap. Yeah, I thought so.

What will suffer, from my experience with Montreal, is the lack of a place for fans to put their passion for a sport. Unlike the Sonics situation, the Expos spent roughly eight years threatening to pull out of Montreal. When they finally did, relocating to Washington, the fans there had already been conditioned to expect it. The shock was lessened. What remained was a bit of an empty hole in the hearts of baseball fans. It's one thing to be a fan of a sport. Another to be a fan of a team. With a team, there is a target for the passion. And finding another team to cheer for just isn't the same. I know some people who tried to cheer for the Washington Nationals. Some who tried to find a reason to cheer against the Florida Marlins, whose owner, Jeffrey Loria, used to own the Expos and is seen as Public Enemy No. 1 in Montreal.

Some have even tried to cheer for the Blue Jays, Canada's only remaining team. But Montreal and Toronto hate each other in sports and most other things. In 1992 and 1993, Montreal ball fans cheered mostly for the Braves and Phillies to beat the Blue Jays in the World Series. So, that's a no-go.

The sad truth is, a generation of basketball fans who grew up watching and cheering for the Sonics will have no other team to cheer for as fervently. Older fans who grew up with other favorite squads could revert back to that. But for most, things won't be the same basketball-wise.

Still, there is an upside.

One thing I've noticed about the Montreal situation is that sports fans there have seemed to throw their surplus passion into the other sports in town. I don't think it's a coincidence that since 1996, when the Expos began seriously making noise about leaving the following year (which they did every year the remainder of their existence), world class tennis has thrived. Soccer is now a very popular professional sport there as well. Montreal also played host to the last Presidents Cup golf tournament. As far as city teams, the Canadiens are as popular as ever. The Alouettes of the CFL have grown from an afterthought in 1996 to one of that city's hottest pro sports tickets. Oh yeah, I forgot. Montreal is also a Grand Prix auto racing city. For world class sports, that one's hard to beat.

Yeah, it misses baseball. But life goes on. MLB baseball is one American-based sport in an increasingly global arena. So is the NBA. Basketball has been fighting popularity problems for years now. So, yes, Seattle sports fans will miss it. But they will find other things.

This isn't whistling in the dark. I sat in on the Brazil-Canada soccer match a month ago at Qwest Field. Sat behind the net in the stands. That was fun. The fans were educated about the sport. It was a new experience and -- frankly -- meant a heck of a lot more on the world stage than any NBA regular season game. Ask any folks who sat in a bar watching Spain play Germany for the European championship last weekend and see if they weren't having fun.

Sports change. Teams change. It's the nature of the beast. No passion is ever completely satisfied. That's why it's a passion. But Seattle fans feeling a hole in one area of their sports passion will always have new ones they can turn to. Or old friends, like the Seahawks and...sigh...yes, the Mariners. Both of those teams now have a responsibility, to the city and the fans who pay their freight, to step up their efforts just a little bit more in coming months.

There is a sports vacuum in this city. And it will need to be filled. Who is up to that challenge? We'll see.



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