Skip to main content

Mayor Denis Coderre attends Friday’s exhibition game between the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.Eric Bolte

Knowing how to work a room is a basic skill in politics, though some practitioners are better at it than others.

Some are accomplished to the point of earning italics.

As in: Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre works the place whenever he walks in (the circumstance and crowd seem largely irrelevant).

He jokes. He flatters. He pulls people in for conspiratorial asides.

And these days, Coderre is talking a lot of baseball.

Whether he's in a meeting with the mayor of Mexico City or in town for a civic leaders' conference in San Diego – Coderre gets around a lot – baseball and his beloved Expos are never far from the conversation.

So much so the former federal cabinet minister has become the de facto standard-bearer in the long and gruelling campaign to bring major-league baseball back to Canada's second city.

As Rodger Brulotte, a well-known Montreal gadfly and former baseball broadcaster, put it recently: "He isn't just on the bandwagon since he became mayor. He's the band."

The odds of Major League Baseball returning to the city it abandoned a little more than a decade ago may be improving. They're still slim: no ownership group has yet revealed itself publicly to pay the billion dollars or more it will require, there is no firm stadium plan and no prospect of government financing.

Asked recently if it's something of a lonely, quixotic crusade, the burly politician burst out laughing.

"Why, do I look lonely? I'm having fun," he said. "I travel around and watch baseball games. I'm taking the hot-dog tour of North America."

He is also methodically sowing the seeds for what he hopes will be his lasting legacy.

A few million for baseball diamonds here, a strategic agreement with Toronto and Mexico City there (to foster youth baseball exchanges).

Whenever he has the opportunity to meet with baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, he seizes it. There have also been trips to Cooperstown – he was part of a Montreal contingent that crashed former Expo Pedro Martinez's Hall of Fame induction party – and to a great many major-league parks.

Coderre refuses to be pinned down on how long he expects the campaign of seduction to last, saying that for now his primary function is to tend to the grassroots.

"It's a bottom-up process … we have to keep the flame burning," he said before Friday night's exhibition game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox.

It's the third annual preseason showcase at the cavernous hall of concrete that is Olympic Stadium, and the most successful yet.

Nearly 110,000 tickets have been sold for the two-game set. Saturday's tilt is an honest-to-goodness sellout.

Baseball Quebec reports that its minor baseball registrations will shortly surpass 30,000, and have returned to the level that immediately preceded the Expos' departure for Washington in 2004.

Manfred has made soothing noises about an eventual return to Montreal, should a "serious" plan for a new downtown stadium and well-heeled ownership group be put together. This week he even mused about how long it might take for MLB to expand to 32 teams in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune: six to 10 years.

Coderre has become an expert at deciphering the often gnomic utterances of MLB head office and evidently is determined to tick as many boxes as possible.

"Field of Dreams is real. If you build it, they will really come," Coderre said.

So it was that the mayor was on the Big O's turf glad-handing with various Blue Jays before batting practice – clad in his Pedro Martinez Expos jersey (Martinez was one of the pregame honorees).

Coderre posed for photos with local boy Russell Martin, a fervent booster for an Expos revival. "[Montreal is] a baseball town that's hungry," Martin said. "They only get a couple of meals a year."

Coderre rated a pat on the shoulder and a warm greeting from Jose Bautista near the home dugout.

He also wandered off down the tunnel with a borrowed catcher's mitt (an aide swiftly shuttled back to its rightful owner).

After the ceremonial first pitch, Coderre chatted at length with Martinez at field level and posed for a group photo with the other Expos legends on hand – they included Tim Raines, Vladimir Guerrero and Marquis Grissom.

While the work continues behind the scenes – mostly involving organizations such as former Expo Warren Cromartie's Montreal Baseball Project – the movement needs a public champion and convincing pitchman: Coderre, who Cromartie called a key ally this week.

Matthew Ross, a radio personality who co-founded the fan group Expos Nation, said Coderre's long political experience adds credibility to the movement, particularly in government circles.

"He's all-in on this, and thank goodness," Ross said.

Coderre, a lifelong Expos fan, has seen failed efforts to save professional sports teams from the inside.

Presumably that's why he's starting to gently push back on the idea that public financing for pro sports is a terrible idea.

"It depends on whether you see it as an investment or an expense," he said in an interview last week.

It might not work. Baseball may never return. But Coderre will have enjoyed himself trying to make it happen.