By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
Rob Manfred said Tuesday that he continues to be optimistic about Montreal as a venue for baseball but said expansion or relocation of another team isn’t on the horizon.
The Major League Baseball commissioner told the Canadian Baseball Network in a phone interview that he’s encouraged by what he sees as great support of exhibition games to be played at Olympic Stadium April 1-2.
“I remain positive about Montreal as a market,’’ Manfred said. “I’m told that they are doing an absolutely fantastic job in ticket sales for the spring-training games for the Blue Jays and Red Sox. That is a great indicator of the market in Montreal.
“We don’t have any teams to relocate and expansion is a longer-term project. We’re always monitoring potential markets and we are constantly updating information. Montreal is on the list.’’
One reported ownership group involves Stephen Bronfman, son of Charles Bronfman, who was majority owner of the Expos from 1968 until the early 1990s when he sold to a consortium of shareholders. Others linked to Bronfman’s group are Dollarama department-store owner Larry Rossy and lawyer Mitch Garber. Bronfman didn’t return a call Tuesday, requesting his comments.
“I have talked to Stephen Bronfman periodically about baseball in Montreal,’’ Manfred revealed in the interview.
It’s known that former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie has had dialogue on occasion with John McHale Jr. of the commissioner’s office. Cromartie has been the front man beating the drum for baseball’s return to Montreal for almost five years.
“This year is a collective bargaining year and that will be our focus,’’ Manfred said. “Expansion isn’t a full-time thing for us this year.’’
Manfred also shot down an idea by Montreal French-language newspaper La Presse, which suggested a few days ago that the struggling Tampa franchise and Montreal share home games. Manfred preferred actually not to comment on the La Presse report and had public-relations guru Pat Courtney issue a statement.
“Major League Baseball appreciates the commitment that Stu Sternberg has demonstrated to Tampa Bay Rays fans throughout his ownership of the franchise, as well as his long-standing efforts to bring a first-class ballpark to the region,’’ the statement read. “The Rays are conducting a comprehensive study of a new ballpark with local officials, and we look forward to examining the results of those efforts in the near future. It remains our clear preference to stay in markets where are clubs are located.
“Regarding Montreal, the city has a long baseball tradition and has shown tremendous support as a host for exhibition games the last two seasons and upcoming games in the weeks ahead. We are excited to be playing games in Montreal again this spring,’’ the statement concluded.
In the interview, Manfred said he was aware that the “Canadian dollar has gone down’’ and said that the metropolitan population of possible U.S. expansion sites such as Charlotte, N.C., San Antonio, Tex. and Portland, Ore. would be taken into consideration.
The Greater Portland Area is considered the largest U.S. market without a major-league team but its population base of roughly 2.3-million people might not be enough to sustain a team. Portland also has an NBA team and there might not be a sufficient number of fans to support a second major sports team.
“Absolutely, the size of the market is important,’’ said Manfred, who added that Mexico is “an expansion alternative down the road, not an immediate one.’’
As far as a new stadium in Montreal, something that Manfred thinks Montreal must look at more than anything, the commissioner said he didn’t see a lot of sense in renovating Olympic Stadium as an alternative.
“I can’t comment on Olympic Stadium. Having not been there to see the condition it is in, I’m told that renovations to bring older stadiums up to standards are more expensive,’’ Manfred said.
“My suggestion would be to renovate Olympic Stadium,’’ said former Expos minority shareholder Mark Routtenberg. “That probably wouldn’t be a very popular move with baseball people and mayor Denis Coderre but it makes sense. It would be cheaper than building a $700-million stadium downtown.
“You could fix up Olympic Stadium, get better sight lines and put in a new roof and it would be a lot cheaper than building downtown. You could probably fix up Olympic Stadium for about $350-million but I don’t think the mayor or anyone in baseball would agree with that idea.’’
Routtenberg also said it would be cheaper if a current franchise like Tampa was relocated to Montreal.
“You could let the owner of the incoming team have a 51 per cent interest and then you could bring in local investors,’’ Routtenberg said Tuesday. “Bringing in another team would make the financial equation a lot easier. It would probably cost one-billion dollars to support an expansion franchise, although it would likely be supported by various levels of government.’’
Here was my farewell comment to Manfred: a new team for Montreal in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Expos’ first season in 1969. Not really commenting per se on my suggestion, Manfred had a good laugh and said he had to go.
Thanks for your time, Rob.