Montreal’s love affair with major-league baseball was left for dead when the Expos departed in 2005 after 36 years in the city, but there is a flicker of hope after the Tampa Bay Rays received formal permission to explore the idea of a dual-city franchise, split between the Tampa-St. Petersburg area and Montreal.
The proposal, approved by Major League Baseball, is the most promising development in recent history for Montreal, but is it realistic?
In June, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the concept was “silly” and said he had “no intention of bringing the idea to our city council to consider.”
St. Petersburg’s role in this negotiation is substantial. The city owns the Rays’ stadium, Tropicana Field, and, as a part of the negotiated lease with the club (which extends until 2027), the Rays must play all 81 home games at the park.
Tropicana Field, where the Rays have averaged fewer than 16,000 spectators for each of the past five years, is not well liked. In the age of open-air, downtown ballparks, the Trop is neither. Situated 30 kilometres from downtown Tampa, the 29-year-old domed stadium creates an aesthetically poor backdrop for baseball fans. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg has been pushing for a new stadium for a decade.
The dislike for the stadium is reminiscent of the Expos’ last seven years at Olympic Stadium. Before the Expos left Montreal to become the Washington Nationals, they were playing to crowds under 12,000 in the cavernous and enclosed multi-use facility in the city’s east end.
For the proposed split-city plan to work, both Montreal and St. Petersburg would each have to agree to build new, intimate open-air ballparks. Tampa Bay fans could therefore enjoy outdoor baseball in the early part of the season, when it’s too cold in Canada. And Montreal fans could enjoy outdoor baseball later in the season, when it’s too hot in Florida.
At a news conference in June, Sternberg said the plan offers smaller stadium construction costs (still around US$600-million in each city) because no roof would be needed. Further, he said St. Petersburg’s lost revenue could be recouped by Montreal fans travelling to Florida to watch their team in the spring and early summer.
Kriseman, though, is balking at the use of public funds for a ballpark. He has always said that any new stadium in the Tampa area would have to be privately funded.
In Montreal, however, Stephen Bronfman, the son of former Expos owner Charles Bronfman and a leader of a potential Montreal ownership group, told the Montreal Gazette’s Jack Todd that a new stadium would not require direct financial investment from the municipality. Instead, the Canadian businessman said his group would seek the city’s help only with infrastructure, a common request in big developments.
Logistically, the plan is still a long shot, with even MLB executives expressing caution.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the other owners have approved the idea of a potential split-city franchise, but conceded the plan’s details are still not fleshed out.
Similarly, Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said more work needs to be done to determine the impact on the players.
Even if the plan gets the green light, the team will have to pitch players on the idea of splitting their home games between two cities in two countries. The concept of maintaining two residences – and playing much of the season away from either home – will not be an easy sell.
In the meantime, Expos fans have something to dream about. According to Matthew Ross, a TSN690 radio host and founder of ExposNation (a non-profit corporation designed to engage baseball fans in Montreal), fans have to appreciate the magnitude of MLB’s decision.
“Right now, the fact that we’re even talking about major-league baseball and Montreal in the same breath, and MLB has approved the Rays to look at Montreal as a partial market, that’s huge,” Ross said. “In an ideal world, you’d like a full-time team here. You have to take any opportunity that’s given here."
Ross said there is competition, too, as other cities would jump at the chance for a major-league expansion team, or one that is relocating. “The fact that Montreal [is] a front-runner doesn’t mean anything [unless a team moves to the city].”
A little hope would be welcomed by fans who were crushed when the Expos departed.
“There were a lot of things that just eroded the fan base very slowly until there was nothing left,” Ross said. “[At the end] people looked at it like, basically, a dying patient – a disease-stricken patient. The end was coming and it was just too painful to still be aligned with it. The final attendance numbers … are not really indicative of the passion for baseball in the city.”
Even if the return of major-league ball to Montreal is uncertain, few can deny the province’s passion for the sport. From 2005 to 2015, registration in Quebec youth baseball jumped 63 per cent.
According to Ross, that number could continue to grow if professional baseball returned to the province’s largest city.
“There’s a lot of Canadians in baseball, which is great. But the next Eric Gagne is not going to come, or may not be as likely to come, unless you have some stars to watch … here in Montreal on a regular basis.”