Could baseball return to Montreal in 2020?

The Tampa Bay Rays are playing in front of far too many empty seats at Tropicana Field and their new stadium proposal has been rejected.

The Tampa Bay Rays are playing in front of far too many empty seats at Tropicana Field and their new stadium proposal has been rejected.

By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network


Are you ready for Major League Baseball to return to Montreal in 2020? It could happen.

That old expression "The end is nigh'' might finally suit the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays struck out this week in their latest attempt to have a new stadium constructed in Ybor City, meaning Montreal is standing by, at the waiting, to see what will transpire next.

By Dec. 31, the Rays are likely to give up hope of any ballpark plans and they may announce, in conjunction with Major League Baseball, that the 2019 season will be their last in Tampa at creaky old Tropicana Field, thus paving the way for a sale of the franchise to Montreal interests in time for the 2020 season.

Prospective Montreal owner Stephen Bronfman went on the CBC show Daybreak today to say good news was in the air. It sure is.

"We hope to secure a site for a new stadium in the next two months,'' Bronfman told the CBC.

Bronfman and his ownership group are getting the ball moving in the right direction with Olympic Stadium being used as a temporary facility for several seasons.

On Thursday afternoon in an interview with TSN 690 talk-show host Mitch Melnick, Bronfman said, "things are starting to fall into place. We're doing our best to make sure baseball comes back.''

Earlier in the day, Bronfman and his group released a market study that concluded a return of MLB to Montreal would be viable and would generate a high level of interest among fans and the business community in the city.

"Montreal has the market characteristics to support an MLB team effectively over the long term,'' the group said in a statement.

In a Canadian Press story by Frederic Daigle, Bronfman's group said the study places Montreal as the strongest among cities considered potential expansion sites with the largest population, TV market and corporate base and the second-largest median household income.

"We don't really know what is happening in Tampa but it clearly leads us to believe that things could move faster than we thought,'' Bronfman told Daigle. "That's good. But we are also ready for an expansion project.''

Isn't it about time MLB did something about the Rays? Commissioner Rob Manfred has been way too patient with this saga. He has let this situation drag on far too long but finally it appears Montreal may be on the verge of getting a team.

"This tells me that this is the end of the line for the Rays unless a miracle pops up. I don't see them starting all over again,'' Montreal sports reporter Jeremy Filosa told me in an interview. "It took the Rays three years to put this plan together and it failed. In terms of Montreal, you are going to start seeing some real information come out.''

Filosa, who works for 98.5 FM Radio, has been following Montreal's baseball portfolio for close to 20 years and is an investigative reporter, who wrote recently that the Olympic Installations Board was approached by MLB to get the Big O up to "regular-season games ready'' for next March in time for the Blue Jays exhibition games against the Milwaukee Brewers.

When Filosa approached the OIB for comment, the body declined to say anything. The no-comment saga was a surprise to Filosa because the OIB had usually been cooperative in giving him information. Filosa pointed out the OIB has been improving the Big O bit by bit each year since the Jays started playing Spring Training games in Montreal in 2013.

"Montreal is a real gold mine for baseball,'' Filosa said. "A few weeks ago, Portland (Oregon) unveiled their project the day after Oakland unveiled their project. Portland has a zero chance of welcoming the Rays. Portland doesn't have a stadium ready tomorrow morning but Montreal does.''

Filosa said the issue of something very subtle as where a certain train stop near the Peel Basin will be located is also an important part of the equation involving a new stadium that would be built in downtown Montreal.

Filosa's investigative work revealed that the City of Montreal not long ago set aside a lot of land for "quote-unquote a special project,'' meaning a parcel of land big enough to build a baseball park.

"With my contacts at the City of Montreal, I could get a certain confirmation that something would be built there,'' Filosa said.

While Rays managing general partner and principal owner Stuart Sternberg was bemoaning his franchise's "strike two'' failure for a new park at a news conference in Las Vegas at the Winter Meetings, Manfred fired off a letter, blasting Tampa officials for the lack of cooperation on a project. There was no mention of Montreal at Sternberg's presser but optimists like Filosa were enthused about Montreal's chances coming to fruition soon.

Filosa said he wouldn't be surprised if Sternberg, a Wall St. investor, and Bronfman have already chatted about a relocation of the Rays to Montreal. Both are Jewish gentlemen so it would propel the theory that they have talked infrequently, if not frequently, about a transfer of the team. Who knows, maybe they talked about Sternberg retaining a small percentage of ownership in the Montreal franchise.

"They really have a good relationship. They've met before,'' Filosa said about Sternberg and Bronfman. "Let's be clear here: there is no way Manfred wants to do this over again the next couple of years with the Rays' situation. He's saying,''

The Rays' franchise is highly regarded for seemingly fielding a competitive team despite a small payroll and owns a highly touted scouting and player-development system but plays in a terrible stadium where fan interest is almost non-existent.

"If you think crowds were small for Rays games the past five years, now that the death watch is officially on in Tampa for real, the crowds will now fit in a phone booth or a transit shelter,'' joked Montrealer Joel Kirstein, who has lived and worked in Dallas for a number of years.

If indeed the Rays were moved to Montreal, they would be competitive from the get-go, as compared to an expansion team starting from scratch. If the Rays were transferred to Montreal, it's very likely their esteemed manager Kevin Cash would be the Montreal manager because he is under contract until 2024.

A new team would play at Olympic Stadium for a few years but Filosa made this interesting point: the Big O will be shut down in 2023 to make way for a new roof to be installed.

"They would need to make sure the new stadium would be ready by 2023,'' Filosa said.

Filosa said he has been led to believe that the Rays could ultimately play 10 games of a 162-game schedule away from Tropicana Field in 2019 but he doesn't know whether any of those 10 games would be played in Montreal.

Whether Montreal gets a relocated team or an expansion team, the future indeed looks rosy. It's been 14 seasons and counting without a team. Far too long.

At least one Expos fan was tempering his enthusiasm in check about the Tampa-Montreal scenario.

"Really? MLB has never held a city hostage before in order to apply pressure elsewhere?'' asked E.J. Hansen of Montreal in a Twitter post. "When I see Rob Manfred attend the 50th anniversary of Expos in March and announce that MLB is returning, I’ll get excited.''

Danny Gallagher's recently released book about the 1981 Expos is called Blue Monday. It's available in stores across Canada and at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. It can also be purchased at 13 Barnes and Noble stores in the Greater Los Angeles Area.