Latest report Montreal’s best sign yet of MLB rebirth

Fans wear Montreal Expos uniforms as they watch the Toronto Blue Jays in a pre-season game against the New York Mets. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

It has always been about the money and the motivation. I mean, it’s nice that Warren Cromartie goes on radio and television and pushes the cause of baseball returning to Montreal. It’s lovely that the Big O gets packed for glorified Grapefruit League games, but emotion won’t bring a major-league team back to Montreal.

That’s why a report on Friday in the Montreal French-language daily La Presse, providing the names of businesses and individuals quietly funding a year-long study into the feasibility of a major-league team in the city, is so interesting. If nothing else, it puts some financial meat on the bones of a story that has gained momentum over the past two years, especially in light of a New York Daily News report during the post-season that Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg sounded out Wall Street peers about moving the team north.

The La Presse story identified Stephen Bronfman, son of former Montreal Expos owner Charles Bronfman and executive president of the Bronfman family’s Montreal-based holding firm, Claridge, Inc., Bell Media, Dollarama chief executive officer Larry Rossy and Mitch Garber, head of Caesars Acquisition Company, an online gambling and interactive gaming company worth $1.38 billion.

It’s an intriguing group: Garber, who dabbled in sports radio and television in his hometown while honing his legal chops under the guidance of Montreal lawyer Morden (Cookie) Lazarus, is a huge baseball fan who in the past has moved within sports circles in Montreal, and has become a significant benefactor in the city. Bronfman, meanwhile, never filled the role of Expos savior that many in the city saw as his birthright, and has been chided for standing idly by while Jeffrey Loria squeezed out his local partners and expedited the departure of the team to Washington, D.C. The suggestion has always been that his father, Charles, counseled his son against getting involved in Major League Baseball.

The La Presse report makes clear that not all of the dozen or so businesses that have been operating during the study period under the aegis of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce are necessarily interested in owning a team — which is good, because right now there is no major league team for sale. At least, not officially.

The Rays and Oakland Athletics remain pressing concerns for baseball and incoming commissioner Rob Manfred, however, because of stadium issues. The Rays in particular are an interesting case: they are routinely among the laggards in attendance at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, and have had no luck getting traction across the bay and getting a new ballpark constructed. Sternberg is viewed as a good owner — there is no indication he wouldn’t retain ownership if the team were moved to another city — and it has been suggested that baseball wants to marshal its resources for one last shot at a new ballpark at the same time as Sternberg begins negotiations on a new regional TV deal.

The screws are being turned. In January, Sternberg told the Hillsborough County Commissioners that MLB “didn’t believe in Tamp Bay any more;” on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the city of St. Petersburg were near agreement to waive a clause in the team’s lease at Tropicana Field that prevented Rays ownership from negotiating with any other jurisdiction in the area –- let alone build a new park.

This is where timing becomes crucial, since the Rays are a hugely popular TV product — Rays games are routinely the second-highest rated and viewed programming on regional television, and they’ve had recent increases of as much as 28 percent year over year — and it is not inconceivable that a hefty TV package might be enough to convince Sternberg and baseball to continue to bide their time in the Bay until the political and economic winds favour a new ballpark.

I have been skeptical about Major League Baseball returning to Montreal because I still believe there will be political blowback south of the border — a lot of state money has gone into spring training sites in the area around St. Petersburg — and at the end of the day it’s going to cost about $1.5 billion (minimum) to buy a team and build a ballpark in Montreal, at a time when neither the city or Province of Quebec seems interested in providing the bulk of the financing.

Still …

Despite the fact baseball’s aversion to connections with legalized gambling might present an issue for CAC’s involvement in any Montreal ownership group; and despite the fact baseball has no interest any longer in letting a publicly-traded company assume majority ownership of a franchise — sensitivities have changed since Rogers purchased the Toronto Blue Jays, with a private control person now considered a necessity — the fact serious money is now involved in the process makes me think this is the best sign yet of a possible Montreal renaissance.

I don’t know if any of these names will end up owning a team in Montreal, but it’s a better group than the limited partners who let Loria maneuver themselves out of the picture. My skepticism has waned some, and my guess is baseball’s has too.