MLB exec ‘impressed’ by showing in Montreal

Congratulations to the city of Montreal and the nearly 100,000 fans that put on a two-day baseball party that anyone who was there won’t soon forget.

If the goal was to prove that the city still held a torch for baseball and the prospect of the return of the Montreal Expos, consider it mission accomplished. No one can question the passion on display for a pair of exhibition games between the Toronto Blue and the New York Mets.

The games were tight to the final out and with the ‘home’ team, the Blue Jays winning 5-4 and 2-0, respectively. More importantly, the crowds were massive, loud and heartfelt.

And the right people took notice.

"My mandate was to come here and assess for [MLB commissioner Bud Selig] the state of the avidity for major league baseball to see how the facility looked, how the games were staged and the general enthusiasm for baseball [in Montreal]," MLB executive vice president John McHale Jr. said.

"And I’m going to tell him that things were better than even I expected. I was very, very favourably impressed."

As the son of founding Montreal Expos president and chief executive officer John McHale, he admitted to the possibility of pro-Montreal bias but it’s hard to oversell 96,250 fans coming out to watch two meaningless games between teams without a rooting interest. McHale Jr. even went on to suggest that much-maligned Olympic Stadium could be a suitable short-term venue for a team if needed.

"I really like the way the field looks," he said. "It seems to play well and fair me. It would take a much more extensive evaluation … but so far so good."

McHale Jr. stressed that there’s no likelihood of MLB expanding in the near future, which means a franchise relocation would be the most realistic – and we use the term loosely – path to a team. The Tampa Bay Rays will be at the top of that list unless and until they get a new stadium of their own.

In that context there’s the possibility McHale Jr. was laying it on a bit thick to prod municipal leaders in Tampa Bay to explore possibilities of a new stadium for the Rays with greater urgency – but he wasn’t stretching facts to make a case that Montreal put on a good show.

"I was willing to call 25,000 seats per game here a success," he said. "[But] this is astonishing … there is a fire that burns brightly here for baseball and that is a message I will be proud to take to the commissioner."

The weekend was a considerable triumph for groups like Warren Cromartie’s Montreal Baseball Project, which has been pushing MLB’s return from a corporate perspective and Expos Nation, the online movement that has been seeding the grassroots.

"It was never, ever about the fans in Montreal," said Cromartie, the former Expo who’s spearheading the Montreal Baseball Project. "When you have 47,000 Friday night and another 50,000 [Saturday], it proves it."

But what does it mean other than it’s almost certain that the Blue Jays will be returning to Montreal this time next year for another pair of exhibition games?

The Jays were gushing about the atmosphere here — the crowds will dwarf anything they see at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg where they open the regular season with a three-game series starting Monday night.

The Rays drew just 18, 646 fans per game even as Tampa Bay made its fourth playoff appearance in six seasons. The team drew just 66,482 for its two playoff games last fall, or about 30,000 less than Montreal turned out on a cold, wet weekend in March.

Still, the same issues that prompted the Expos to fail and be relocated to Washington in 2004 remain. They need local ownership and a new stadium.

A feasibility study commissioned by the Montreal Chamber of Commerce put the cost of an open-air baseball-only facility near the downtown core at $467 million and allowed for about $600 million to cover the purchase price and relocation fee associated with getting a franchise. It counted on public sector funding to the tune of $330 million.

For comparison the study pointed to the Minnesota Twins who — like Montreal — were slated for contraction after MLB owners voted 28-2 in favour of eliminating the two teams in 2001.

The threat of contraction spurred a private-public partnership that saw Target Field open in downtown Minneapolis in 2010 where the Twins draw an average of 2.91 million fans each year since, well above the MLB average and a vast improvement on the one million fans they drew in 2000, the franchise’s low ebb.

Will taxpayers be willing to contribute? Montreal mayor Denis Coderre is an unabashed fan — he threw out the first pitch Friday night wearing his old Expos jacket — but convincing three levels of government to commit public money to build a stadium for a team that failed in the previous publicly funded stadium could be a challenge.

On this weekend at least, it was a baseball party and the talk was of possibilities, rather than hard realities.

"Negativity is probably the worst way to do it," said Larry Walker, the legendary right fielder on the 1994 Expos team that had the best record in baseball when a player’s strike cancelled the season. The 1994 team was honoured in a raucous pre-game ceremony.

"Calling it a pipe dream is probably not how you want to look at it," Walker said. "Stay positive and say the right things and show everyone there is a commitment. If you start doubting it, that doubt will start snowballing."

Working in favour of those who dream of baseball’s return are improved market conditions compared to 2004. The Canadian dollar was trading at about $0.63 U.S. when MLB took over the Expos from Jeffery Loria in 2002; it’s hovering around $0.90 U.S. now, which is still within the viable range identified by the feasibility study, if at the low end of it.

Another factor is the presence of an increased media competition for content.

In his recently published history of the Expos — Up, Up, and Away — Montreal author Jonah Keri lays out a scenario that could raise some eyebrows: With Rogers taking over national NHL rights from CBC and TSN for the next 12 years, the thinking is Bell Media could look to match Rogers interest in the Blue Jays by bankrolling a MLB team in Montreal.

It seems a stretch that a public company would take a billion-dollar flyer on a baseball team strictly as content play, but could they become partners with a principal owner? It doesn’t seem outlandish.

What seems much less outlandish than at any time since the Expos left a decade ago is that real conversations about what it would take to bring a team back can take place, and everyone would have to listen.

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