MONTREAL — The man at the helm of a group trying to bring Major League Baseball back to Montreal said Wednesday that not only does he support the plan for the Tampa Bay Rays to split games between Quebec’s biggest city and Florida, he was the one to propose it.
Stephen Bronfman said the plan to have the Rays play half of their 81 home games in Tampa, Fla., and half in Montreal brings the dream of baseball’s return closer than ever.
"I think even in a split scenario, it’s a return of baseball permanently to Montreal," Bronfman told a news conference on Wednesday.
"I think the first step is to start playing ball …. We’ve got an opportunity to explore and study this sister city concept. We’re in a different world. Hats off to Major League Baseball for being so innovative in their thinking and their progressive nature of even considering a concept like this. It’s very groundbreaking when you talk about sport."
Stu Sternberg, the principal owner of the Rays, said Tuesday a shared season with Montreal is the best option for his team.
Bronfman and Pierre Boivin, who heads Claridge Inc., the Bronfman family investment firm, added their support for the plan but warned there were still many obstacles to overcome.
"We have to put things into perspective," Boivin said. "It’s an incredible opportunity, but we’re all starting with the same questions, the same anxieties and the same reservations, up to a certain point.
"In our day, there isn’t a business model that isn’t being questioned, why would that of a baseball team not be?"
The pair said it was still not clear how many games would be played in each city, where the team would play during playoffs, or what the team would be called. But Bronfman said the opportunity was too good to pass up.
"We have the chance to have baseball soon," he said. "I’ve always said we have two options: relocation or expansion. We don’t know when expansion will come, if it does. We have a chance to start the work now to bring baseball back with an existing organization that is very professional."
Commissioner Rob Manfred said last week the Rays have "broad permission to explore what’s available." Tampa Bay is averaging 14,546 fans a game, lowest in the American League and well below the MLB average of 27,360. Only the Miami Marlins draw worse at 9,378.
An agreement between the Rays and St. Petersburg for Tropicana Field runs through 2027. St. Petersburg’s mayor has shot down the two-city possibility.
Sternberg envisions open-air stadiums in both cities but noted there are no plans yet in place to pay for them. He said an ideal target date would have everything ready for the 2024 season.
The Montreal group acknowledged it was at the mercy of their would-be Floridian partner when it comes to moving ahead.
"We have to wait for them to be able to move forward," Bronfman said. "But we’re going to get to work."
He said he had no problem with Sternberg remaining the team’s majority shareholder.
The Rays have played at Tropicana Field since their inception in 1998 and drew their lowest home crowd of 5,786 against Toronto last month.
Montreal has been without a big-league team since the Expos left after the 2004 season for Washington and became the Nationals.
Bronfman’s father, Charles, was the original owner of the Expos.
Bronfman said he believes the city’s fan base would get behind the team and the unusual split-city concept.
"Montreal is an innovative city," he said. "We’re creative and open, and I think if it can work anywhere, Montreal is the best place."
— with files from The Associated Press.