TORONTO–This Sunday Montreal Expos supporters from across the continent will convene in Toronto to reminisce about their beloved and defunct Major League Baseball franchise.
Meanwhile in Montreal, a prominent player from the Expos heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s will be busy meeting with business leaders in the city trying to finalize his plan to bring MLB back to La Belle Province.
According to a Expos-themed Facebook page with more than 151,000 likes, at least 159 people will be seated in section 240 of the Rogers Centre for this Sunday’s Toronto Blue Jays home game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
The page for this Sunday’s event says the purpose is to “make a statement of support for baseball in Montreal to the baseball world. We will be seen and heard by media, by baseball fans, by league executives and by prospective financial backers of a Montreal Expos rebirth.”
Former Expo Warren Cromartie is not affiliated with the Facebook group, but his Montreal Baseball Project will likely give them plenty to talk about. This April Cromartie held a press conference in Montreal where he stated his intention to bring a MLB franchise back to the city.
In June, Cromartie held a successful reunion weekend in Montreal for members of the 1981 playoff team. On Friday via telephone from Montreal he said he came away from that weekend more convinced that Montreal wants back in the big leagues.
“When we lost Gary Carter this year, I think the city really woke up, realized how much of an impact he made on the city,” said Cromartie. “That had a big impact on Montreal and its sense of being left out and having baseball here since 1969, and before that Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente played here. It brought back a lot of memories.”
The 58-year-old Cromartie said he spent most of the past summer in Montreal meeting with business leaders. His group now stands at 12, two of whom he said are potential part-owners. The obstacles facing the Cromartie-led group are large both in quantity and dollars, with perhaps no bigger logistical hurdle facing them than the lack of a stadium.
On that front, Cromartie conceded any new facility must be built in downtown Montreal. He claims to have visited at least potential downtown sites.
“We’re quietly trying to do things behind the scenes,” he said. “I know this is an ambitious journey. It is a journey, but I feel confident we have a pulse on the city. The real key is putting the right group together.”
A very deep-pocketed group.
The San Diego Padres recently sold for $800 million. Cromartie estimates it will take close to $1 billion in total for the purchase a new team and the construction of a new downtown park.
“I’ve spent the summer talking to potential investors,” said Cromartie. “Getting their attention hasn’t been a problem. First thing first is getting a stadium and making that happen.
“We’d have to have TV and radio deals lined up as well. A lot has changed in eight years.”
In 2004 when the Expos left for Washington to become the Nationals, as Cromartie points out, the Canadian dollar was hovering near 60 cents US and Expos radio play-by-play man Dave van Horne was calling games from his house in Florida.
“I guarantee that won’t be the case again,” said Cromartie. “TV will be huge part of whatever we do.”
Among those expected to be seated in section 240 at Rogers Centre this Sunday will be Jonah Keri. A Montreal native, author, Grantland.com baseball writer and life-long Expos fan, Keri said the biggest hurdle to bringing Major League Baseball back to his hometown has nothing to do with Quebec.
“The biggest obstacle is just Major League Baseball,” he explained Friday from his home in Denver. “The whole situation was so poisonous (in 2004). It was a given that the team was going to move and it was such a headache for Major League Baseball that even if you tell them, it’s 10 or 20 years down the road and Bud Selig isn’t commissioner, even if the circumstances change, to the outside observer, I think that legacy is going to remain there. That sour taste, if anything, is what I think would prevent Major League Baseball from going there.”
Optimists such as Cromartie and others are quick to point to a recent Conference Board of Canada study that suggested Montreal “already possesses the basic market conditions required to support a MLB franchise and will strengthen its position over our forecast horizon.”
Keri, whose book on the definitive history of the Montreal Expos comes out in spring 2014, said if Montreal were to land a team; it would probably be a success, at least in the short term.
“Could it become trendy again? Well sure, anything that has novelty is going to be trendy anywhere, be it Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Montreal, it makes no difference,” he said. “If you literally dropped this new professional sports franchise into Montreal tomorrow, I think it would (become trendy). The question becomes, what happens when the honeymoon effect wears off, with the stadium and with the team? Could it be sustainably cool? That’s tougher to decide and tougher to predict.”
When asked whether Montreal might be best served to host a minor league team before seeking re-entry to the majors, Cromartie bristled at the notion.
“We’re not a minor league city, we’re not an independent league city,” he explained, comparing his recent efforts as front man for the project to that of Magic Johnson with the Dodgers in Los Angeles. “We’re a major league city. There’s four million people in this city. We do want our baseball back, but we have our own legacy. We want our Expos back.”
Cromartie added he hopes to be in a position to make an announcement on the next phase of his project this fall.
“We’re still at first base,” he said. “As soon as we get into into scoring position, the baseball world is going to hear from us. The dream is alive, the light is still burning and I’m going to continue my best to bring it back.”