Blue Jays exhibition series shows Montreal remains a viable MLB city

Toronto Blue Jays' Javy Guerra delivers a pitch during third inning of a spring training baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers in Montreal on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

MONTREAL – The Toronto Blue Jays may or may not be back in Montreal next spring now that their contract with promoter Evenko has expired after six years of exhibition games at Olympic Stadium.

Discussions have taken place between the sides but there are challenges caused by Major League Baseball’s shift to a mid-week opening day. The ideal is for the Blue Jays to play a weekend series in Montreal but they’re not going to head north and then sit idle until a Thursday start to the year. They could, in theory, come up mid-month for a weekend and then head back to Dunedin, Fla., to continue camp, but cramming in all that travel is problematic, too.

So perhaps Tuesday’s 2-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers was the end of a remarkable run that’s demonstrated how Montreal very much remains a viable baseball city. The 96,350 fans who attended the first pair of exhibition games between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets in 2014 captured the imagination of both local investors, led by Stephen Bronfman, and perhaps most importantly, Major League Baseball.

As former commissioner Bud Selig said that summer, “I was impressed and I’ve talked to a lot of people there and they have much work to be done, but that was very impressive, no question about it.”

Fast forward to the present, and Bronfman and his group are nearly there, targeting the Peel Basin area for a new ballpark and discussing a partnership with real estate developer Devimco, which owns a portion of the land.

If that gets locked down, all the groundwork will be in place for the city to host a team, which could come through a relocation of the Tampa Bay Rays, or expansion. Bronfman’s shift from managing expectations in his public comments to raising them was noticed with intrigue by people who have carefully tracked the endeavour’s progress.

Montreal has a very wealthy and engaged local group interested in ownership, the support of all relevant stakeholders, a market with history in the game, a booming economy, a burgeoning property plan and market research suggesting there’s a path to economic success.

Major League Baseball can’t ignore that forever, not with the Rays in limbo, not with expansion on the horizon, which is why people here are starting to believe it’s a matter of when, not if at this point.

Even Mayor Valerie Plante, clad in a Montreal Expos cap signed by some of the former players in town, is throwing her support behind the endeavour. While she remains adamant any city money for a stadium would have to be approved in a referendum, she did say the city could fund the type of regular infrastructure it usually does for the Peel Basin project.

“If I think about all the economic benefits, there’s a lot,” Plante said during an in-game conversation with reporters in the Olympic Stadium press box. “At the same time, as the mayor of Montreal, what I’m interested in is making sure that if this project comes to life, which would be fantastic, that it fits well within the neighbourhood, within the needs of the city, whether it’s about housing, whether it’s about different types of industries or businesses we want there. We want to make sure it’s well integrated with the city’s plans.”

Unlike predecessor Denis Coderre, who stumped loudly and publicly for the cause, she sees her role differently, preferring to act more as a facilitator than investor. As she so bluntly put it, “other mayors have tried that and we’ve seen what happened – I’m not going to play that movie again.”

“I will let the (investors) do their job,” she continued. “I’m here to convene everybody, to raise the energy high like (Monday) at city hall bringing all the older players together, it was such a great moment, and I will be there supporting the people who want to bring the Expos back, or a baseball team back.”

In that way, whether or not the Blue Jays exhibition series in the city gets extended or not, the annual trip to Montreal has served a purpose far beyond making some money for the team and Evenko.

The games offered a reminder of how much fun baseball is in this city when the fans are engaged by a team that isn’t trudging along a heartbreaking death march, the enduring passion that lingered, the opportunity that exists.

Consider that a total of 47,030 fans came out on Monday and Tuesday nights to see a rebuilding Blue Jays team and the Milwaukee Brewers, who are the defending NL Central champions but not exactly a marquee draw.

The way they chanted “Bo Bichette, Bo Bichette” during the top prospect’s at-bat in the seventh inning showed that fans are paying attention to the right guys.

It all can make the imagination can run wild, Blue Jays and Expos 18 times a year in the American League East, competing for the country’s middle-ground fans, forcing the other to be better. It would be like another Jose Bautista bat flip homer in terms of grassroots impact, too.

Man, that could be really, really cool.

For now, reality rules. While it may be au revoir for the Blue Jays exhibition series, a la prochaine may be far more appropriate.

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