Obligatory Montréal Baseball Thoughts

It’s that time of year again. The Blue Jays have headed north for their annual baseball celebration/cock-teasing of Montréal. Shit, they can probably even milk this thing for a few more years by bringing the prodigal son, Vladito, with them next year and for the foreseeable future.

Might baseball actually return to Montréal before the younger Guerrero’s playing days are through? I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. But as for it returning anytime soon, I’m not exactly holding my breath.

And yet, like clockwork, with the city and the large crowds we’ll see this weekend at le Stade olympique due to be directly in the league’s focus, this week we got a dose of the usual rumblings about the city’s readiness for baseball’s return.

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Every year it seems like their ducks are more neatly aligned, and in fact, on Wednesday the Canadian Press (here via the Globe and Mail), reported that the city of Montréal has met the conditions laid out by MLB to bring a team back.

Well, well, well!

What that actually means in the real world, I have no idea, but I assure you I’ll be first in line to take advantage of Montréal’s cheap rents and general awesomeness and go write about that team (as well as this one, obviously) if they ever do manage to bring baseball back there.

The problem is that MLB still needs the possibility of Montréal for a while yet, so they can hold it as a threat over the various governments in Oakland and Tampa while those franchises sort out their own stadium issues. The whole thing has a very Hamilton’s bid for an NHL team vibe to it, and the reality is that it’s hard to see MLB going the relocation route to bring a team back there. A lesson that surely isn’t lost on Expos fans is that the league has shown itself very willing to let a team fail spectacularly and linger and wither on the vine for a very long time before that happens.

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But there is hope that such a delay can be avoided. Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet explained on Thursday that “Montreal’s chances of getting a baseball team are inextricably tied to the ongoing stadium searches in the Oakland and Tampa areas. … If the A’s and Rays get stadium deals, Montreal can bid for an expansion team. If the stadium deals fall through, Montreal becomes a top relocation candidate.”

He also notes that “after years of apparent inactivity, both the Athletics and Rays expect answers this year (though many will believe it when they see it).”

And when we get those answers, Montréal is ready to go, right? Right???

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Uh, yeah… about that. Mitch Garber, one of the members of the potential ownership group (and definitely not longtime Montréal Gazette columnist Michael Farber), walked back a lot of the CP story in a chat with TSN.ca, saying the article “is not true, but it’s not false.”

“Yes, there’s a group of wealthy Montréalers who have met and expressed a real interest in owning a Major League Baseball franchise in Montréal. And yes, the mayor of Montréal and Stephen Bronfman have publicly come out and said that they have talked to Major League Baseball about wanting to qualify to have a Major League Baseball team in Montréal,” he said. “But there is no agreement among government branches about how to finance a baseball team. There’s no five sites I’ve heard of for a Major League Baseball park. There’s no group of owners that wouldn’t welcome other owners into the group.”

That doesn’t sound like the group’s plans are nearly as far along. Of course, partly this may be Garber trying to avoid pulling a Jim Balsillie (pardon the second Hamilton NHL reference) and having the group talk its way out of the league’s good graces. “Major League Baseball is run in a very discrete way — I think very well and very professionally — and what Major League Baseball doesn’t like is loose lips and loud mouths and lots of chatter,” he says, ” and this article is not helpful, but it’s also not accurate.”

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So… I don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s a little too easy to let the cynicism and the who is paying for the obviously necessary stadium question and the business side of things distract from what really ought to be a celebration. It was 70 years ago this spring that Montréal fans learned that the star of the previous season’s Little World Series winning Royals team, Jackie Robinson, would be moving on — to the big leagues, and Brooklyn, and his destiny. It was 35 years ago this spring that Expos fans returned to the stadium for the first time since the gut punch that was Blue Monday. And it was 20 years ago that Pedro Martinez entered his last training camp as an Expo, the last star remaining from the doomed 1994 version of the club — and Vladimir Guerrero entered his first camp as a potential everyday player (he’d played nine games the previous September, and would be called up for good in early May).

There is a rich and long history there — one that obviously goes way beyond the city’s most indelible big league moments — and these weekends are a great new (hopefully temporary) tradition and fun as hell. And they serve to remind us of the good side of the business aspect of MLB’s return, too. Because if the size of the crowds and the scale of the interest does anything, it underlines the fact that if they brought back the Expos and put them in the AL East, baseball would have a very, very profitable rivalry on its hands. A rivalry not just on the field, but for ownership of a vast and baseball-hungry Canadian market. It would be great for baseball itself. It would be great for Canadian baseball. Dude, it would be fuckin’ great.

Do it already! Vive les Expos.

  • Joseph W Bats

    Thanks for the post.

    I wish I’d cared more 20 years ago. To be perfectly frank, like most Jays fans, my interest in the Expos was very superficial. I checked the box scores. Took a peripheral interest in their stars. But, yeah, didn’t really care.

    Fact is, Montreal was (is?) a good baseball town and in recent years it’s become more important to me to keep that distant memory alive.

    Raines. Dawson. Carter. Grissom. Vlady. Pedro. Vidro. El Presidente. Le Grand Orange. Moose Lips. Eli. Wetteland. El Gato. As successful as the Jays have been, few of their stars can top those guys.

    • baseball history in mtl goes back further…not sure how many of today’s fans are aware that it was brooklyn’s farm team way back when, jackie robinson’s last stop before the dodgers. king dong laid it out pretty succinctly, the fan interest was *always* there, at least for as long as ownership was interested in having it there.

      i kind of liken it to what may happen to the raiders this year if they’re forced to play in oakland…no one would/should expect fan interest in oakland to be high. fans in mtl new the team’s days in the city were numbered, so there wasn’t much interest in remaining invested, apart from the die-hards who held out hope to the end.

  • Nice Guy Eddie

    Montreal is a great baseball town if you have a 2 game schedule. If you have a 162 game schedule, I wouldn’t put a nickel on Montreal’s chances. MLB would need to see the money up front for a viable stadium, and see 20 year ironclad agreements for a lot of season ticket holders. Otherwise, you’d have to have a short memory to forget how badly Montreal failed. No fans. No TV. No radio. It was a baseball disaster.

    • King Dong

      Baseball failed in Montreal because (1) the team was gutted after the 1994 strike, (2) Loria had every intention of making Montreal an unviable franchise, and (3) radio expected the Expos to pay them to broadcast their games. Not too sure about the situation surrounding TV, but it’s not as if Montreal woke up and decided to hate baseball. It was a long and drawn out process that took a decade to move the franchise to another city where baseball failed twice before.

      • A Guy

        In response to a Montreal booster on another site, I looked into the Expos attendance. The team only outdrew the NL average for 4 years (1979-1983). Even during their very competitive window of the early 1990s, the team drew over 65% fewer fans that the NL average. So those people with distorted memories should realize that fan support WAS a significant issue. I’m not saying all the other issues didn’t cause problems too, but the market wasn’t there even during the good times. Canada is a one sport country, and only winning supports other sports, which we know is never sustainable over the long term.

  • Trevatron

    You should probably leave Toronto out of the ‘Canada is a one sport country’ comment. The Raptors have had consistently had very good attendance despite very inconsistent results and the Blu