There are those who will see it as a baseball executive with longstanding ties to Montreal priming the pump for the game’s eventual return.
Others will take the cynical view, pointing out that Major League Baseball executive vice-president John McHale, Jr., is a former senior management official with the attendance-challenged Tampa Bay Rays, who are trying to negotiate a deal for a new stadium.
This is what McHale, whose father was the founding president of the Montreal Expos, said about witnessing the two weekend exhibition games at Olympic Stadium as the league’s emissary: “There is a fire that burns brightly here for Major League Baseball and that’s a message that I’ll be proud to carry to the commissioner.”
In case there’s any confusion about the tone of his remarks, he added: “I’m going to tell (commissioner Bud Selig) that things were better than even I expected and that I was very, very, favourably impressed.”
And this: “I would say that our perception was that this market had likely lost the intense enthusiasm it once had for Major League Baseball. So I think that this requires us to recalibrate our estimation of how popular our sport might be here.”
McHale added the usual caveats about the fact MLB has no immediate expansion plans, and that relocation is something that only an individual team can initiate, but his remarks will surely be seen as an encouragement to former Expo player Warren Cromartie’s Montreal Baseball Project, which is banging the drum for the team to be reborn.
The prelude to Saturday’s pre-season tilt between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets was all about honouring the 1994 Expos squad – which was the best team in baseball when a players’ strike pulled the plug on the season.
At a pre-game news conference, beloved former Expos manager Felipe Alou said “I don’t want to die before I see a team back in this city.”
Former all-star outfielder Marquis Grissom told reporters that “it will take a lot of pushing, a lot of people, and a lot of money, but I think the Tampa Bay Rays would be perfect” for Montreal.
Expect the speculation to mount, then. And while that serves Cromartie’s agenda, it also serves that of Rays owner Stuart Sternberg.
There was also a game played Saturday, the Jays won 2-0.
Saturday’s attendance was announced at 50,229 – the total number of tickets sold over the weekend topped 96,000 – and the place erupted when Melky Cabrera hit a decisive two-run shot over the left field fence in the bottom of the eighth inning (Moises Sierra had earlier reached with a single).
It was a no-doubter, and the din from the Olympic Stadium as Cabrera jogged around the bases left an impression in the Jays’ dugout.
“That was LOUD, man,” said shortstop Jose Reyes, whose tender hamstring survived a pair of games on the Big O’s improvised turf surface. “It’s what you want to hear as a player, it’s exciting.”
More encouraging than the score – Grapefruit League standings are a poor predictor of success – was the performance from starting pitcher Brandon Morrow.
The hard-throwing righty has been beset by injuries in the past two seasons, but you might say he was crisp in his final pre-season tune-up.
Morrow struck out eight Mets, allowing just two hits and no runs over five and two-thirds innings.
The 29-year-old remarked that he was able to throw his curveball for strikes early, and that his other pitches – fastball, slider, split-fingered fastball – were sharp.
The main question mark surrounding this year’s edition of the Jays is pitching, and Morrow, who is pencilled in as the fourth starter, is eager to do his part to dissipate it.
“I’ve got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “Nobody wants to be labeled as injury-prone.”