Manfred says Montreal could support own team, but sharing Rays surer bet

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions at a press conference. (John Raoux/AP)

NORTH PORT, Fla. – The dual-city plan to share the Tampa Bay Rays isn’t the only path for Major League Baseball’s return to Montreal, but it is the city’s best current bet for a team, Rob Manfred said Sunday.

Speaking with Sportsnet and the Tampa Bay Times after primarily addressing the Houston Astros cheating scandal during a 30-minute news conference, the commissioner said he’d be “excited” if he could both resolve the Rays situation and add another international market in one fell swoop.

“I see that as a 2-for-1,” he said. “It would be a good thing all the way around.”

Still, if the ongoing effort to have the AL East club split its seasons between South Florida and Montreal being pursued by Rays owner Stu Sternberg and prospective partner Stephen Bronfman hits a snag, it doesn’t end the chances for a second Canadian team.

“Montreal could be a standalone market. It could be,” Manfred said. “I think the judgment you have to make if you’re Montreal is, if and when we’re going to 32, and you have an opportunity to have some baseball here, it might be a good plan. They have to make that judgment.”

Right now, the dual-city plan remains a focal point for Bronfman and his group, and during a Feb. 6 owners meetings in Orlando, Manfred said MLB officials and owners were “100 per cent” convinced by Sternberg that the team-share was the franchise’s best path forward.

The groups are aiming to have plans in place for new ballparks in Montreal and the Tampa area by the end of the year, with the goal of splitting the team starting in the 2028 season, once the Rays’ current lease at Tropicana Field expires. Efforts to try and accelerate the plan have been rebuffed by city officials in St. Petersburg.

On Saturday, a report in the Journal de Montreal quoted Bronfman as saying he was in “very advanced” negotiations with Sternberg for a minority stake in the Rays, and suggested a deal would be done “over the next few months, maybe three or four without a doubt.”

Sternberg quickly refuted that, telling Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times the claim “isn’t true,” and adding “eventually, at a point, I would expect and believe they could and would become minority partners. … I need some representation up there. But there’s nothing happening in months. No way.”

Manfred was unconcerned by the exchange, saying, “I don’t think there’s anything particularly newsworthy in that, if in fact he can make the two-city situation work, you obviously want to have some hook in the Montreal community in terms of your ownership.”

“That happening down the road, or the idea that people have said, ‘Gee, it would be nice if you had some Montreal ownership down the road,’ that doesn’t surprise me,” he added. “I do feel the Rays are working very hard to move this plan forward. I’ve been called crazy a lot this week – I don’t think this is a crazy idea. I think that it is a really legitimate effort to preserve baseball in Florida for benefit of the Rays fans. And I do think there is some momentum to it.”

Another hurdle is approval from the players’ association, which is concerned about the burden on players and their families of having to play half the season in the Tampa area and then half the season in Montreal, among other issues.

Manfred doesn’t believe that will be insurmountable.

“The right arrangement could be approved on the ownership side,” he said. “And with some creativity it could be approved with the players.”

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