Rays owner Sternberg changes rules of engagement with Montreal bombshell

Stephen Brunt joined Tim and Sid in studio to talk about the wild idea floated that Tampa and Montreal are interested in splitting an MLB team, and why it at least signals a path for Montreal to return to the MLB somehow.

TORONTO – The shock and awe in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal is significant – permission from Major League Baseball for the Rays to explore splitting home games between the two cities, a bombshell surfacing an audacious plan long whispered about in private.

First thought? Just, wow.

Upon further reflection, though, once the initial astonishment ebbs, the question that keeps lingering is what’s the end here for Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg?

Having a team split time between cities – as the Expos did in 2003-04 with 22 home games a season scheduled in San Juan, Puerto Rico before leaving Montreal for good – can work as a temporary fix to infuse a franchise with cash, inconvenient as it may be. Essentially, the games at Hiram Bithorn turned into extended road trips for those MLB-owned clubs, but everyone went into them understanding the whole situation wasn’t sustainable.

It was a bandage for a gaping wound en route to the hospital.

So, Sternberg can’t be serious about making a go of it in two cities on a permanent basis. Major League Baseball may be desperate to wring more revenue out of a franchise that has the second-lowest average attendance in the majors despite sitting second in the American League East. But, let’s not kid ourselves, such an arrangement isn’t feasible over the short term, let alone the long term.

And, given that the Rays haven’t been able to work out a stadium deal for 81 home games, does anyone really think the Tampa Bay area is going to suddenly ante up for half that number? Or suddenly figure out how to get a stadium after so many failures? More pressingly, how will the Rays be able to get out of a lease that runs through 2027 and requires all home games to be played at Tropicana Field if that doesn’t happen?

"My priority remains the same, I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come," Sternberg told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. "I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration."

Maybe.

More likely, though, is that by bringing Montreal into the public eye and presenting the city as a real, viable market, Sternberg is forcing the entire matter toward a definitive resolution.

And without directly putting a gun to Tampa Bay’s head, he’s drawing a line in the sand, justly saying that the Rays have done all they can, fielding a terrific team, examining stadium sites in multiple municipalities and failing to get sufficient support from government or the corporate base, and that if it’s not going to happen, there’s a landing spot at the ready.

In that way, Montreal has moved from a theoretical leverage point to a very real alternative, even if right now it’s being positioned as a cash cow for a revenue-draining franchise.

The Montreal investment group led by Stephen Bronfman has worked diligently, professionally and intelligently to get the city to a point where Major League Baseball sees it as a desirable market – Sternberg isn’t getting approval to explore the plan if not.

But why settle for half a team?

Well, it’s a start, and it’s taking a bird in hand now, one that positions Bronfman to have first dibs on the Rays if – once? – things totally fall apart there.

There’s no guarantee that if Major League Baseball decides to expand the process would end up handing a team to Montreal, even if it’s miles ahead of other prospective cities such as Portland, San Antonio, Nashville and Charlotte thanks to strong local prospective ownership, property to develop and market research to build on.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

At the same time, Montreal would be doing Major League Baseball the service Tampa Bay once did when the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants used the threat of a move there to leverage their way to new ballparks. Tampa Bay was twice abandoned at the altar, but the eventual reward was the expansion Rays.

Perhaps that’s part of the long game for Montreal here, too.

Regardless, no one is putting a shovel in the ground for the promise of 40 games, which makes the feasibility of splitting the Rays dependent on making Olympic Stadium – one of many dire flaws that helped kill off the Expos – workable for an extended period.

Not ideal, and an open-ended run there could undermine efforts to have a new team take hold in the market, but Bronfman would be banking on that serving as a springboard to a more permanent future.

"We have been hard at work for several years examining how we can bring baseball back to Montreal in a sustainable manner," Bronfman said in a statement. "This concept is definitely one that is of interest to my partners and me and we are looking forward to studying this further."

Now that the plans are public the next steps, to some degree, will be set by how Tampa Bay reacts to the move.

The Rays are set to offer further comment at a media session Tuesday, but the likelihood is that Sternberg will be given a few months from Major League Baseball to sort through his options, and probably be asked to present something for consideration by end of the year.

There probably isn’t enough time to set up a home-game split between the cities for 2020, but 2021 is certainly on the table, and from that point forward, who knows where things go.

What’s clear, though, is that Sternberg is driving this process, and by pulling Montreal out from the shadows and into the spotlight, he’s changed the rules of engagement as a way to force a resolution that has long eluded him.

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