MONTREAL – There’s an assurance to Stephen Bronfman’s latest public messaging about baseball’s rebirth in Montreal that’s striking, a not-so-subtle shift from his previously measured tones that were aimed more at raising hopes than raising expectations.
Phrases like, “I think we’re pretty close,” and “we are ready,” don’t just get dropped into the discourse carelessly unless there’s some substance behind them. As the executive chairman of Claridge Inc., who has so methodically worked to revive the Expos put it, “I don’t like to drag people down the wrong road.”
So, it meant something that he was there on the Olympic Stadium field Monday evening, practically inviting everyone to follow him down the path.
Well, word filtered out Monday that Claridge and real estate giant Devimco, which owns 30 per cent of the Peel Basin lands where Bronfman’s group wants to build a ballpark, are in talks about developing the area together.
Nothing is done just yet, and other pieces need to fall in place – the Quebec government and the Canada Lands Company both own property needed for the project. But locking the site down is the final piece of groundwork that must be laid to get a team. After all, commissioner Rob Manfred has said Major League Baseball doesn’t need to see shovels in Montreal’s ground, just a concrete plan and the financing to pull it off.
“We’re not just going to build a stadium (without a team),” said Bronfman. “We’re going to tie up the land and God forbid if we don’t ever have baseball, well we’ve got a good site to develop real estate.”
The vision is for the type of mixed-use development project that’s becoming the new normal for sports venues, with a commercial/residential community surrounding an intimate ballpark that would naturally extend from adjacent Griffintown.
Done right, it would be “a project for all Montrealers, not just fans of the sport,” a contrast to inhospitable Olympic Stadium, which is removed from the downtown core and plunked in a non-descript neighbourhood.
And by appealing to a broader range of interests, the concept seems to have won over all relevant stakeholders, from the government on down.
“I’ve been living this for a long time and all I feel is positive movement,” said Bronfman. “I’m hopeful, but I think this is a big year. It’s like in business, you get a gut feel and you go on that. That’s how I’ve been successful in my life, you pair the gut feel with the analysis and we’ve done our analysis, the analysis has come out really, really strong and the gut feel is feeling pretty good, too. There’s just so much passion, I don’t know how it’s going to turn back.”
Well, the small matter of getting an actual team could still force a U-turn.
The Tampa Bay Rays remain a frequent subject of speculation, particularly since a stadium project in Ybor City fell apart in December and Manfred blasted local officials in a letter, writing that he encouraged owner Stu Sternberg to “explore a path that is in the best interests of his Club and Major League Baseball,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.
The team has a usage agreement at Tropicana Field that runs through 2027 and Sternberg said in December there were no plans to try and leave beforehand. Manfred, meanwhile, has consistently said he won’t consider expansion until the Rays and Oakland Athletics resolve their stadium situations.
Still, during an April 2015 interview with Sportsnet, he noted that “some of our expansion has been driven by ownership issues, others have been driven by the fact that you get to the point that you have a market that is so appealing, you feel you need to be there.”
Perhaps Montreal is reaching that point, especially with attendance on the decline and six teams averaging less than 20,000 fans a game last year.
“Without throwing names out there, I can tell you some teams in the U.S. that don’t deserve a baseball team right now for just the horseshit fan attendance/non-attendance that they’re getting,” says Canadian baseball icon and former Expos right-fielder Larry Walker. “The team was here for a long time, there were some great times here, some close times that some good things could have changed it around and there would still be a team here.”
What matters most now for Montreal is staying ahead of the competition.
Major League Baseball maintains a constant pool of interested cities, with Portland, San Antonio, Nashville and Charlotte also chasing a big-league team. “Montreal is by far bigger, by far has more history, by far much more ready than anyone else,” said Bronfman. “We’re excited by that.”
A crowd of 24,482 taking in the Toronto Blue Jays’ 10-5 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers suggests the city feels the same way. The total was pretty good considering it featured a rebuilding Blue Jays team that traded away prime attraction Russell Martin on a Monday night.
This is the final year of the Blue Jays’ contract with promoter Evenko to stage the exhibitions, and while the sides have discussed an extension, whether those games are back in the city for 2020 is unclear. If these are the last of them, in reinforcing how much Montrealers still care for Major League Baseball they’ve more than served their purpose.
“There have been no curveballs thrown our way,” said Bronfman. “Everything has been a nice hanging slider that’s nice and easy to hit. We’ve been getting them.”
Sure sounds like a man who knows what’s coming.