Photo Credit: © Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’re talking Tampa Montreal Expo Rays again

The Tampa Bay Rays took down the seemingly-unbeatable juggernaut known as the Houston Astros on Monday afternoon, extending their playoff lives another day.

The big story after the game wasn’t Charlie Morton shutting down his former club over five strong innings. It also wasn’t the Rays’ bats exploding off of Houston’s massive trade deadline acquisition Zack Grenkie. It was the people in the stands.

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The headline from the New York Times about Monday’s game was fairly damning of Tampa Bay’s situation. It read… Rays Top the Astros and, for Once, Fill Their Stadium

32,251 fans showed up at Tropicana Field to watch the Rays take down the Astros. The team had to increase stadium capacity by rolling up the tarps in the upper levels in order to fulfill an increased demand from fans for Game 3. The Rays plan to remove more tarps to increase stadium capacity to 40,000 if the team manages to advance to the American League Championship Series.

This represented the largest crowd the Rays have seen in over three years. Back in 2016, the Rays decided to add the tarps to the upper levels and shrink stadium capacity in order to create a more intimate feel during games. With the tarps on, capacity at The Trop goes down to around 25,000, a number that the Rays come nowhere near hitting on a nightly basis.

In late September, Tampa was in a tight playoff race with Cleveland for the second wild-card seed. They hosted their final series of the regular season against the New York Yankees and, with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance, drew 16,699 and 20,390 fans.

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This was a fair improvement on their 14,552 fans-per-game average over the course of the 2019 season but was still much, much lower than you’d expect from a team battling for a playoff spot. In fact, the Rays boasted the worst full-season attendance for a playoff team in a non-strike season since 1975.

As pointed out by John Romano in a post titled “This may be the Rays’ last chance, and ours…

And yet that bond — that devotion — has not taken hold after 22 seasons in Tampa Bay. Or, at the least, it has not translated to the bleachers. Tampa Bay’s attendance of 1,178,735 this season is baseball’s lowest for a playoff team in a non-strike season since the 1975 Oakland Athletics. In case you’re wondering, that covers 284 different playoff teams.

For two decades, we have sought answers and pointed fingers. And yet nothing has changed.

Winning teams, losing teams, it hasn’t mattered. Days like today are more rare than a quality closer around here. And all of the projections, studies and gut feelings of the 1980s and ’90s have not borne out.

Montreal businessman Stephen Bronfman has been all over this. He attended the American League wild-card game in Oakland, not as a guest of Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, but simply to be there. 24 hours later, Bronfman and his group flew back to Montreal in order to present his multi-purpose land development project at Peel Basin to the Office de consultation Publique de Montréal.

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From the Montreal Gazette…

“Here’s a great opportunity not just to build a baseball stadium near downtown but also to help with a theme of redevelopment of a sector of the city to make people proud,” Bronfman said. “This could add so much to our downtown, to our city, to everything we stand for.”

The public consultation heard proposals about what to do with the 2.3-square kilometre patch of formerly industrial lots between the Victoria Bridge and Old Montreal. The area, known as Bonaventure-Bridge, is home to landmarks like the Five Roses sign, Habitat 67 and a number of silos that hearken back to Montreal’s days as a grain shipping mecca.

Alluding to last week’s climate march, which brought an estimated 500,000 people to the streets of Montreal, Bronfman described the stadium as a “green project.” He said the facility would collect and recycle rainwater, that it would use geothermal energy, compost its waste, donate excess food to local charities and minimize parking spots so people won’t drive to the site.

Though the potential stadium is far from a métro stop and sandwiched between rail yards and the Lachine Canal, he said he wanted to work with Montreal’s transit authority to get a shuttle from downtown to the stadium. Once Montreal’s new commuter REM train is complete, Bronfman said it would have a stop at the stadium.

None of this is particularly new information. Bronfman has been pitching this plan for quite some time and the development of Peel Basin, an area just outside of Montreal’s downtown core, has been something the city has talked about for years. The interesting thing here is the timing.

The Rays have already been given the green light from Major League Baseball to explore a split-custody agreement with other cities. The next step for this wacky Tampa Montreal Expo Rays thing to become a reality is Bronfman’s project getting the thumbs up and Sternberg getting the OK from municipal authorities to pursue the endeavour. The Rays are currently locked into an agreement with the City of St. Petersburg until 2027 to keep the team at Tropicana Field.

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The logistics of sharing a team are a mess. There isn’t a direct flight from Tampa to Montreal, players would have to travel even more than usual, and the team would need to change its name to something that suited both cities. It seems like a massive stretch and is most certainly nothing more than posturing from the Rays in order to get public funding for a new stadium in Florida.

Still, as long as the Rays struggle to get fans to make the trek out to The Trop, Bronfman and his group are going to use it as momentum to get baseball back to Montreal. Even if the Expo Rays thing doesn’t work out, if Bronfman can leverage it to get his new facility built, the possibility of expansion or relocation into Montreal becomes very real.