In a short time, 30 major league teams in 27 major league cities will start their quest for the World Series. For one city, this will be the 11th season since they’ve had that chance.
When the 2004 season ended, the Montreal Expos ended with them.
With a baseball history that goes back to 1897, Montreal is currently the largest city in the U.S. and Canada without a major league franchise. And there’s a growing chorus of those who want baseball back in Montreal.
The original Expos failed. There’s little debate about that. Their failure to find stable ownership and a new stadium set a course that they couldn’t deviate from the way the Minnesota Twins were able to. It was a failure that Major League Baseball let happen and maybe even encouraged.
In 2002, contraction was the word of the day. Commissioner Bud Selig had declared struggling franchises the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins would be eliminated, one team from each league.
The Expos had struggled to recover from the end of the 1994 season, which came to a close because of the players strike. The team was in first place at the time of the strike and had high hopes of going to the post season after finishing second in 1992 and 1993.
Expos’ fans had just watched the only other Canadian team in the league win back to back World Series and hoped they could keep the trophy north of the border for the third year in a row with one of the best teams the city had every seen.
With players such as Larry Walker, Moises Alou and Marquis Grissom, as well as a young Pedro Martinez, the Expos were on pace for 105 wins and were six games up on the Braves when the strike happened.
The city went from riding on a high, enjoying solid attendance despite a lackluster stadium, to the lowest they could go. The strike might have killed that season, but the Expos were also collateral damage. The team’s drive for a new stadium hit a wall and never recovered. Ownership ordered the team to let their star players walk (as Walker did, without even being offered arbitration) or they were traded away (John Wetteland, Ken Hill and Grissom.) The team would shed stars for years afterwards. It got so bad that GM Kevin Malone quit his job after the 1995 season, saying, “I’m in the building business, not in the dismantling business.”
The beginning of the end was after the 1999 season when Jeffrey Loria was allowed to buy the team. He didn’t secure English language broadcasting rights for the 2000 season. He then modified an agreement for a new downtown Montreal baseball stadium that required more public money. The government balked at the request and the deal fell through.
Attendance plummeted and in early 2002, the Expos were purchased by the league. Loria, the owner who was the usher of the team’s destruction, was approved as the new owner of the Florida Marlins before he even had the agreement in place to purchase the team with his windfall from the league.
In a move unprecedented in sports, Loria was allowed by the league (which owned the team) to gut the Expos of their entire management and coaching staff and take them to Florida. The team didn’t even retain its scouting reports.
The owners of the Twins won a legal battle against contraction and the MLB Players Association also negotiated rules into their CBA preventing contraction, which would result in fewer jobs. Folding the team was officially off the table.
But the Expos were still on a one-way street out of Montreal and the league was driving the truck off the cliff.
The franchise wouldn’t even purchase new turf for their stadium, leasing it for a year. They played games in Puerto Rico and the story that was unspoken amongst many was that the Expos days were numbered.
Then came the 2003 season and the final nail in the coffin. Montreal, Houston, Florida, Philadelphia and St. Louis were all in battle for the National League Wild Card. The Expos were showing signs of recovering and success despite all odds.
With Vladimir Guerrero grabbing headlines and the postseason looking like a possibility, the Expos were making a drive for the playoffs and it was time for September call-ups. Only the call-ups never came.
In a clear conflict from being owned by the league’s other owners, the Expos weren’t approved for the extra $50,000 to their $35 million payroll that the call-ups would require. The team was the only one in all of baseball to not bring up September players.
Deflated, they finished 12-15 and fell out the wild card race. The Florida Marlins, the team they had just battled for the wild card (also the one with all their former staff and files), went on to win the World Series. Major League baseball had effectively killed the team and all it cost was fifty grand.
In 2004, the search was on for a new city for the Expos. Negotiations began with a number of potential destinations, including some heavy flirtation with New Jersey and some talk of places like Las Vegas, but the team ultimately became the Washington Nationals.
“I think Montreal helped itself as a candidate for Major League Baseball with the Toronto games that they had up there last year, It’s hard to miss how many people showed up for those exhibition games. It was a strong showing. Montreal’s a great city. I think with the right set of circumstances and the right facility, it’s possible.”
Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Major League Baseball in the New York Times
The Future in Montreal
With the Toronto Blue Jays once again slated to play two pre-season exhibition games to a packed Olympic Stadium, the focus is back on Montreal.
Journalists, fan groups, media and even a collective called the Montreal Baseball Project (led by former Expo Warren Cromartie) are all pushing for a return to the world-class city.
So what are the chances? What’s holding things back? What are the next steps? Who is helping?
Finding owners may be the second biggest hurdle (to stadium construction) but it is one that many anticipate wouldn’t be the issue it once was. Reports have surfaced for years of a number of parties who on their own, or with others, would gladly purchase a team for Montreal.
The media landscape in Canada is not what it was when the Expos left.
Rogers Communications, one of the “big two” media companies in the country, own the Toronto Blue Jays and their stadium. As a result, all Blue Jays games are on Rogers Sportsnet television and radio exclusively.
The other giant is Bell Media, owners of rival national sports network TSN (a network that began with Blue Jays coverage as its anchor). Baseball has become a sport of rights holders and the potential of having a franchise to host on their network of television and radio exclusively would likely be a deal too good to pass up for Bell.
Bell is also largely based in Montreal and previously owned part of the Montreal Canadiens of the NHL. They currently are part owner of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the highest-valued franchises in North America.
A Montreal sports franchise also has something no other team has: French language rights. With Quebec being a bilingual province, french TV and radio rights are a premium product for a new Montreal baseball team.
A “Feasibility Study Examining the Return of Major League Baseball to Montreal” pointed to a downtown Montreal stadium being the key to the return of MLB to the city. With an estimated cost estimated near $470 million for a single purpose open-air ballpark, the cost challenge is there. The study pointed at the previously contraction-destined Minnesota Twins Target Field as being a model to follow, both in terms of public spending and construction size.
Minnesota is a slightly smaller market size and population but the weather is similar and the market once faced similar struggles with an outdated stadium and then a new build converting them into a league success.
Politically, the current federal government has shied away from funding private sports facilities, but provincially in Quebec, for the opportunity to “make right” on the Expos, both the provincial and municipal governments would find a way to make it work, much like they do with the annual Formula 1 race.
Denis Corderre is the mayor of Montreal. Put a microphone in front of him and he’ll talk about bringing baseball back to Montreal. On an interview with Canadian TV he said that the exhibition games with the Blue Jays aren’t nostalgia but proof of Montreal’s baseball DNA.
“I feel it’s Field of Dreams all over again, if you build it, they will come” – Denis Corderre
Major League Baseball Support
Speaking days ago to the Canadian Press, new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred made one thing abundantly clear: a fully fleshed out and committed plan for a stadium that could support baseball for a long time would be the essential step to Montreal claiming a baseball franchise.
“I don’t expect people to go into the ground and build a facility without some sort of commitment that they are going to get a team. But I do think that you need a plan, and a commitment to how that plan is going to be executed.
“The exhibition games last year, and how well they were attended and at least the early reports on the games this year demonstrate a real interest in Major League Baseball and the Montreal market. We find that to be very interesting and exciting.”
What he hasn’t done is close the door on the idea or say there was no chance. When talking about other troubled franchises, he has said, “We have always been realistic, at the end of the day, relocation to another market could be the only solution.”
There’s no shortage of voices that get louder every season that Montreal doesn’t have an MLB team.
The Montreal Baseball Project is a group whose sole purpose is to bring baseball back to the city. With heavy hitters involved in organizing gala’s and commissioning the feasibility study, the MBP points to all the evidence in the Ernst and Young’s study as proof that Montreal can support baseball. Fans and media have picked up their cause and ran with it.
ExposNation is a fan group that has been literally the most vocal people in the drive for a new team. Showing up for games at the Rogers Centre in Toronto decked out in Expos gear, showing up for parades and the Olympic Stadium exhibition games with screaming voices and chants, they’re doing everything they can to show that the people of Montreal are on board. They even sell Expos gear and have a sign up for people to show commitment to purchase seasons tickets should the team ever return.
Montreal is the 15th-biggest market in North America, making it easily the largest without an MLB team. The metropolitan area is nearly 4 million people. The other teams in the city are the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, MLS’s Montreal Impact and the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens. All the teams would compete for space but all are financially successful, competing at 100% capacity. Other smaller cities in the US support 3 or more major sports franchises and are successful. Montreal has no team from the NFL or NBA like some other markets and there’s no likelihood of that ever happening. The argument could be made of how major a competitor for fan dollars Major League Soccer or the Canadian Football League would truly be, but both teams do have some crossover with the MLB season.
MLB’s revenue sharing would help offset any worries about ownership struggles that may have existed before. MLB teams are in high demand because the financial structure and stability of MLB.
When this 2015 set of games is done, close to 200,000 people will have attended 4 preseason games, the second set of which will take place on a hard-to-sell Easter weekend. Keep in mind, these are spring training games for all intents and purposes.
Where does the team come from?
That’s the big question for which there are two possible answers: expansion or relocation.
For expansion to happen, two teams would have to enter the league to keep balanced divisions and games played. MLB would demand an expansion fee that one would have to assume with the current value of teams to be north (maybe way north) of $500 million. But there’s been little talk of expansion outside of Montreal and some who think Brooklyn could support a team. Manfred specifically said, “At a minimum, [expansion is] a ways down the road. I just don’t see any immediate push for it.”
Which brings us to relocation, which has two obvious choices, one of them being extremely favorable.
First, but less likely, would be the Oakland A’s. The team has struggled for fan attention and in their attempts to get a new ballpark built. But moving the A’s would require massive league realignment, a tricky proposition and one that would require a lot of politics in getting the votes at the Board level to get it done.
The second option would be the Tampa Bay Rays. The rumors have been there, including a report in the New York Daily News about Rays owner Stuart Sternberg meeting with people about moving the Rays to Montreal.
Tampa has the worst stadium in the league and has been in a battle to replace it. Both choice of location and approval have not come close to happening with officials unsure of how to get the new stadium built for a team that, despite recent success, has the worst attendance in the league.
There was evidence of the whole thing coming undone with the Rays this offseason when they lost both their GM and Manager.
Even baseball’s biggest agent, Scott Boras, was quoted saying, “I’ve always thought Montreal was a tremendous major league city and I think it’s a town that if you put a ballpark there and particularly with the communications broadcasting rights and such that are there, that it would be a tremendous success and a very valued point for baseball.”
He, of course, pushes the idea because the more successful teams there are, the more money there is for his clients, but his point is hard to argue.
Rays owner Sternberg has told the media if a new stadium isn’t in place, he doesn’t even see himself still being the owner of the team.
His team, of course, is in the American League East. A division that geographically works best for the new Expos of any division in baseball.
Yankee and Red Sox fans could easily make their pilgrimage to Montreal. Of course so would Blue Jays fans to a natural Canadian rival, much in the same way Maple Leafs’ and Canadiens’ fans clash in the NHL.
A move of the Rays would have the least amount of disruption, with no one’s territory being invaded, no realignment and it would have the strong support of Toronto, who would see greater value in games versus Montreal instead of Tampa Bay.
Overall, the appetite and desire for a team is there. There’s a natural choice for a team to relocate if they become available. The city and province would welcome them with open arms and there are a number of obvious ownership suitors. It may not happen this year or next, but baseball came back to Washington D.C., Seattle, Milwaukee and Kansas City and the time appears to have come for baseball to return to Montreal.