CLEVELAND – The possibility of a two-city franchise brings with it all manner of logistical and financial complications. There’s no escaping those issues, and both Rob Manfred and Tony Clark highlighted them in conversation with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Tuesday morning.
As both the commissioner and the MLBPA executive director said, the idea of splitting home games between Tampa and Montreal remains in its early stages. But by granting Rays owner Stuart Sternberg permission to explore the possibility, the sport’s other 29 owners made a significant concession, allowing one franchise to exist in – and profit from – two big-league markets at once.
"To address what has been an ongoing issue, I think the owners are prepared to live with the idea that they’d operate in two markets," Manfred said. "It needs to get resolved somehow. If it means we give up a potential expansion site to solidify where we are, so be it."
On paper, Montreal would be a candidate for an expansion team, but Manfred reiterated that MLB will remain at 30 teams until the stadium situations in Tampa and Oakland have been resolved. In other words, Montreal’s chances of getting baseball back are tied to the Rays for the foreseeable future.
In Oakland, Manfred pointed to “really, really positive” progress that should “keep Oakland with a major-league team for a very long time.” When asked about Tampa, the commissioner didn’t make any such statements. While that doesn’t assure Montreal baseball fans of anything, it suggests the Rays are on less stable ground. Clearly, there’s opportunity here for the long-time home of the Expos.
As for the possibility of relocating the Rays to Montreal or elsewhere, Manfred said that has not been discussed. For now, Manfred plans to let Sternberg explore the split-city possibility and see if it merits next steps.
"They just started down that path," he said. "I think it’s just too early to make a judgment as to how likely it is to be successful. The approval from the June owners’ meeting was reflective of the fact that Stu has worked really hard over a long period of time on the Tampa side and the St. Pete side to try to get something done from a stadium perspective. It was sold to the executive council as a way to preserve baseball in Tampa."
While the owners have approved a split-city possibility, that doesn’t account for the players, who would lose the stability of a single home base under the proposed setup of playing early-season games in Florida and late-season games in Montreal.
Eventually, the league would have an obligation to bargain with the players over the impact of a two-city setup. For now, though, Clark stressed that these talks remain preliminary.
"All that has happened is Tampa has received the right to explore it," Clark said. "I don’t know enough about it to know if it’s viable. I do know that it’s in everyone’s best interest to put that organization in the best position possible. To the extent that that’s in Tampa, to the extent that that’s somewhere else in Florida, to the extent that that’s split between Montreal, there’s a lot of work that’s going to have to be done, even on our side to appreciate what that looks like and, most importantly, how players are going to be affected. We haven’t gotten there yet."
"There are a number of hurdles to the two-market solution," Manfred added. "There would have to be provisions made to make that solution tenable from a player perspective. Absolutely no question about that."
At this point, talks remain exploratory. Both Manfred and Clark stressed as much Tuesday. But players and owners both want economically stable franchises. If Montreal can help make that happen, there’s a path for a second Canadian team. For now, it’s just a possibility, but with baseball’s top power brokers involved it’s not mere fantasy anymore.