Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, left, greets baseball legend Jim Fanning before the start of a preseason Major League Baseball game between the Blue Jays and the New York Mets at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal on Friday March 28, 2014.
Photograph by: Allen McInnis, Montreal Gazette
MONTREAL — Mayor Denis Coderre greets a visitor to Montreal’s Hôtel de Ville not with a handshake but with an unexpected hug.
“Good to see you, brother,” Coderre says, ushering me from an anteroom into a historic ground-floor corner office, once the private chamber of legendary mayors Jean Drapeau and, before him, Camilien Houde.
Not since long-ago talks with pro wrestler Hulk Hogan have I been called brother, but from Coderre it somehow works.
We’re two oldish crows getting together for a bull session about the mayor’s lifelong love of sport. I ask him, as we settle at a table in the corner, coffee arriving, how far back we go, our paths often having crossed over many years.
I suggest it might be the 2000 Sydney Olympics, about a year into Coderre’s 29-month term as Canada’s Secretary of State (Amateur Sport).
“No, before that,” he says. “When you wrote about me being a guy who would fight for Canada’s athletes.”
Coderre summarizes in detail, from memory, a November 1999 column I had long forgotten but later find in a database, a piece written three months after PM Jean Chrétien had handed him the federal sports portfolio.
There are many offices in this grand Old Montreal building that Coderre could have chosen when he was sworn in five months ago as the city’s 44th mayor. But it is this one into which he moved, without hesitation.
It is devoid, for now, of many personal effects but soon, he vows, it will be a bit of his man cave. There’s been one important addition on his watch: a modest television beside his desk, which he reckons is the first TV ever within these heavy wood-panelled walls.
“I just brought in the cable a month ago,” Coderre says. “I’m always in the field, but I’ll watch the Habs every time there’s a game and I’m here.
“There was a magazine with Ken Dryden’s mask on the cover,” he jokes, nodding to another table. “But this is going to be Habs, Alouettes, Impact and future Expos.”
Not the Expos of yore, but the Expos that Coderre believes with his every breath will be reborn, back in the city he says is a great sports metropolis of the world.
He chose this office, he says, “because of its history and legacy. When I was an MP (representing Montreal’s Bourassa district from 1997-2013), I always wanted to be in an office near the door so when people came in, they’d have direct access.
“This,” Coderre says, looking around, “is the office of the people. Jean Drapeau was here, Camilien Houde was here. All those big discussions. …
“I’m reading Jean Drapeau’s biography now and I’m living it because I’m in his office. Every time (Drapeau) is negotiating with unions, when they’re organizing getting the 1976 Olympics, or the Expos (in 1968), it was in here.”
It was probably in this room that Drapeau crafted his legendary 1970s news release during the Canadiens’ monotonous run of Stanley Cup victories that the team’s victory parade “would follow the usual route.”
Coderre will speak reverently about and send his wishes to Canadiens icon Jean Béliveau, who is in fragile health.
And we will speak about Coderre’s instantly infamous Twitter-burst in November about then-slumping centreman David Desharnais.
“I know, we’re going there,” he jokes about discussion of his tweet calling for Desharnais’s expulsion to the minors, saying now as he did then that it was the venting of a frustrated fan.
If Coderre will never take himself too seriously, he is deadly serious about his responsibility in this job.
And this office …
“If these walls could talk,” Coderre says. “There’s a soul in here and you can feel it. You can go outside and look at the city. You take that with a lot of humility. It’s very humbling. It’s truly a privilege.
“I’ve been a public figure for the past 20 years but to be elected, you have to keep it humble all the time. Montreal is one of the great metropolises. To be one of those 44 mayors … you feel that you’re part of that history. Every time you’re taking a decision, you say, ‘My God, the guy who was sitting in that chair was the famous Jean Drapeau.’ ”
Coderre rattles off the names of a half-dozen of the 43 mayors who have gone before him; he references the first, Jacques Viger, who would invite Montrealers inside just to talk, and the larger-than-life Houde, “another man of the people.”
“There’s nothing more important for a politician than to remain grounded,” he says. “I’ve not changed from when I was a federal minister or an MP. I’m the son of a carpenter who’s close to the people. It’s important that you’re there to be a voice for those who don’t have one, or who have less. That’s why I fit well and why I enjoy this. Low expectations, high delivery. The buck stops here. I call a spade a spade. It’s working.”
We talk for an hour until Coderre’s chief of staff slips in to move his boss along to his next appointment. His work day will end near 11 p.m., he says.
“Sure, my wife sees me,” he answers the question, grinning. “On TV. She knows where I am.”
Perhaps Chantale Renaud follows her husband on Twitter, with 137,000 others. Coderre is a social-media beast, often tweeting photos of himself (or his clones) at three, four or more public events in a single day.
Long before Twitter, Coderre was a high-profile, community-minded Bourassa MP with a reserved seat at countless benefit or celebration suppers.
“How many plates of spaghetti did you eat all of those years?” I ask, and he pats his midsection and roars in reply, “All of them!”
The mayor punctuates his thoughts with laughter, winks and even asks, “Can I say that?” when he expresses the sentiment that Jeffrey Loria “screwed” Montreal by killing the Expos a decade ago.
“I said ‘bull----’ on TV,” he adds parenthetically, pleased with his naughtiness.
Coderre recalls his first meeting, in New York in 1999, with Loria and his stepson, David Samson, the struggling Expos’ alleged saviours who ultimately would run the club into the ground, figuratively driving a cross into the soil beneath which Major League Baseball buried it.
“I had the dishonour to meet Loria at his art centre. I was just an MP, but a Montrealer and a big baseball fan who wanted to do what he could do,” Coderre says.
“I didn’t have a good feeling. But we all fell for it because we so much wanted to save the team. After that, we were screwed. We know what happened, and it’s the same problem with the Marlins now,” he adds of Loria’s current dog’s-breakfast ball club in Miami, where on a good day fans call the owner a liar and a carpetbagger.
Coderre remembers how Loria and Samson reminded him of the 1960s cartoon characters Grand Galop and Petit Trop; in English, those characters are the sheriff Quick Draw McGraw, a horse in a bandana and cowboy hat, and his Mexican burro sidekick, Baba Looey.
(You will never see Quick Draw or Baba Looey the same way again.)
Coderre, 50, has been a baseball fan since his youth, spending the first 10 years of his life in the town of St-Adolphe-de-Rodriguez, near Joliette, before the family moved to Montreal North in 1973.
“At 10, we negotiated. I said, ‘OK, I’ll follow you,’ ” he jokes of the move. “I had started making speeches in kindergarten, before Ritalin. It was the only way to canalize my energy.”
Coderre loved baseball as he loves it today. He started playing organized ball at 11, a catcher, and realized the quickest way to reach first base was to imitate Ron Hunt, the Expos’ human pincushion of the day who forever led the majors by being hit by pitches.
“Always a fan of baseball,” says Coderre, who saw his first Expos game during their inaugural 1969 season. “In the winter I was Guy Lafleur or Jean Béliveau, and I would become interested in football, but to go to Jarry Park as a 6-year-old. …”
As did every Montrealer, Coderre loved popular outfielder Rusty Staub. But he had a soft spot in his heart for infielders Coco Laboy, Bob Bailey and Hunt, outfielder Mack Jones and the wonderful peanut vendor who could throw strikes with a bag of goobers from a dozen rows away.
Coderre reminisces about late-night games listened to in bed on his tinny transistor radio, the action called by Jean-Pierre Roy and Claude Raymond, and he remembers “the amazing sense of community. The Expos were our team.
“I remember the big, ugly scoreboard with the cartoon of the visiting pitcher going to the showers,” Coderre recalls. “The cartoon sucked, but outdoors in the summertime we felt great. When we have those kind of evenings now, we say, ‘Gosh, this is a night for baseball.’ ”
Coderre was in his glory last weekend during the two-game spring-training series between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets. More than 96,000 fans trooped out to Olympic Stadium for a wonderful show that did not go unnoticed by Major League Baseball executive John McHale Jr., son of the late first general manager of the Expos.
The mayor speaks glowingly of the leg work being done by former Expo Warren Cromartie and his Montreal Baseball Project group to bring a ball club back to this city.
“They’re for real and I’m helping them,” Coderre says of Cro.
“And Montreal is in John’s DNA,” he adds of McHale Jr. “I was sitting about 100 feet from him and I’d look over at him. He was very stoic, but I know John. He was really thrilled. Montreal was sending a strong message. When fans started chanting, ‘Let’s go, Expos!’ …
“Baseball is in our DNA, too. As mayor, I can play a role in bringing it back. Last weekend proved that we were all Montrealers, all Expos fans.”
Coderre grins again.
“I’m sorry, but I cheered for the Blue Jays, for God’s sake. Last weekend was kind of a healing process. It wasn’t just about the team of 1994. Now, let’s move on.”
So in your heart, I ask him, is baseball returning to this city?
“Yes. I’m sure of that,” Coderre replies. “Maybe I’m wrong, but I still have the feeling that in 2004 and after the fire sale in 1994, we didn’t do what we had to do to save it. When they were having bring-your-dog nights and cheap hotdogs, we weren’t talking about baseball.
“In the 1980s, the Expos were drawing two million fans. I hated (Pittsburgh slugger) Willie Stargell, but we had great games when the Pirates came to town. I was so proud when we had the (1982) All-Star Game. When we had Gary Carter, The Kid.
“You know why I’m saying a return of baseball will work? We have to be responsible, we have to connect the dots, you don’t negotiate in public, there are ways to talk to Major League Baseball. But what happened last weekend wasn’t just the good old days, or something for a certain generation.
“You felt that something was going on. I said it will take the time it will take and we’ll do what’s right, but this town is a baseball town. It’s a professional sports metropolis — hockey, football, soccer, it just misses baseball. And of course, there’s a limit to the (financial) pie. But truly, passionately, I believe that there’s a place for everybody.”
Montreal’s Formula One Canadian Grand Prix is on the June calendar, but not yet beyond this year.
“Of course I want that race. Sleep tight. I want to do it. I’m not going to be the mayor who pulls the plug,” Coderre says, hinting that contract-extension talks might be further along than the silence suggests.
He speaks glowingly of Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact and the leadership of team owner Joey Saputo; he speaks about Montreal’s role in considering a bid for Canada — and this city — to stage the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
Like Drapeau in this office before him, Coderre has grand dreams and already isn’t reluctant to stick his neck out to pursue them.
He says that coaching minor football for a few years, when his son played, taught him many things. Single mothers often with lesser means would bring their sons to practice.
“I would tell them, ‘I need your help. Take care of that kid and four times a week, at practice and in games, I’ll be his dad.’
“Many of those boys are great citizens now. That’s what life is all about. Help to bring back their self-esteem, their hope. It’s a field of dreams — you are strong individually, and as a team you can make things happen.”
In his days in the federal sport ministry, Coderre would learn from the late Jack Donohue, the inspirational, motivational national-team basketball coach.
“A city, like a team, is about mentorship — making people work together through leadership, surrounding yourself with stronger people,” Coderre says. “This is judo, not karate. Sometimes, it’s good to just light the fire.
“It’s like a sculptor. When he’s looking at his marble, he doesn’t see just the rock, he sees what’s inside it. That’s the strength of a coach. Of any leader.”
Coderre says it’s “unfair” to try to single out a greatest or most influential athlete he’s met through the years, though he does mention the legendary Canadiens like Béliveau and the late Maurice Richard.
And he lists retired divers Alexandre Despatie and Sylvie Bernier as great role models, adding that every athlete he’s met has added to his own life experience.
“I’ve been privileged to meet a lot of great people,” Coderre says. “I’ve never had a problem with my own self-esteem or self-confidence, always going after them to talk.
“This is how I’m doing politics. You have to take care of everybody. You’re as strong as your weakest link.”
As his stately corner office slowly takes shape, Coderre says, it won’t be overwhelmed by trinkets and pieces of sports memorabilia that have marked his days.
“I collect pictures,” he says with a grin, taking many of them himself. “Pictures and handshakes.”
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