By: Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
MONTREAL – For the fourth straight year, record crowds flocked to Olympic Stadium in order to watch a pair of baseball games worth absolutely nothing in the major league standings.
What started as a pet project for long-time Blue Jays front office stalwart Howie Starkman, has now blossomed into a full-on tradition within the baseball starved market and, given the overall dollars generated by the weekend event, it doesn’t appear to be showing any signs of slowing down.
The general success of Montreal’s yearly exhibition schedule has sparked a debate on whether or not the city is capable of supporting a big league franchise once again.
Although city officials believe it’s possible, they remain realistic about the prospects of Major League Baseball’s return to La Belle Province.
Much to the chagrin of a bewildered fan base, those officials recently shot down the rumors that key investors were already fully committed and, with the backing of two levels of government already in place, appeared ready to start making a serious bid for either the relocation of an existing franchise or league expansion.
The investor mentioned in Wednesday’s report was Montreal native Mitch Garber, the CEO of both Caesars Acquisition Company and the World Series of Poker.
In an effort to help bring some clarity to the situation, Garber joined TSN Radio 960 on Wednesday night to discuss his involvement in the project.
“There is great desire to have Major League Baseball in Montreal. But (the process) not as advanced as this story makes it sound.” he explained.
Garber and Stephen Bronfman, son of former Expos owner Charles Bronfman, have been linked to the efforts of bringing a team back to Montreal since 2015 but the pair continues to struggle with one of the main issues that plagued the franchise during its initial inception; stadium location.
Although the existing site can be retrofitted annually in order to effectively support a pair of weekend contests, Olympic Stadium, complete with its dusty catacomb-like concourses, confusing seating diagram and nightmarish transportation concerns, is nothing short of antiquated by today’s standards. The likelihood of the venue being able to successfully support a team, even on an interim basis, is slim at best.
Similar to the way the Toronto consortium had to build a park that was suitable for big league ball before they were taken seriously in the mid-70’s, Montreal’s group will have to secure a location and display the viable framework needed to convince the league that they are truly ready for consideration once again.
Verified by Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre via Twitter on Wednesday night, no formal agreements have been made as of yet.
“Nothing’s settled,” he wrote. “Everything is fine but not in agreement.”
For now, fans will have to live with only a taste of major league relevance while those powers that be work towards securing a return further down the road.
The Blue Jays and veteran utility man Chris Coghlan came to terms on a minor league deal ahead of Toronto’s final spring tune-up on Saturday.
Coghlan, 31, has appeared in parts of eight seasons at the major league level and has previously combined to slash .260/.335/.402 over 2817 big league plate appearances.
Awarded 2009 National League Rookie of the Year honors after posting an OPS of .850 across 128 games with the Marlins in 2009, he’ll start the season with triple-A Buffalo and serve as a valuable outfield depth option along with Dalton Pompey, Darrell Ceciliani and former Pirates standout Jose Tabata.
Although he’s returned to the city on more than a few occasions since hanging ‘em up as a 42-year-old in 2002, it was a special weekend in Montreal for Tim Raines.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the former Expos 5th rounder would stand alongside Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez as 2017’s class of National Baseball Hall of fame inductees in July. To celebrate the occasion, event organizers held a touching ceremony for the speedy outfielder in front of well over 45,000 appreciative baseball fans at Olympic Stadium on Friday night.
Ushered in on a golf cart that circled the astroturfed expanses of Olympic Stadium prior to depositing him between first and second base, Raines took the field ahead of the series first pitch and was greeted with a sizable applause. From there, he spoke warmly of his time in Montreal while flanked by former teammates Steve Rogers, Jeff Reardon, Al Oliver, Bill Lee, David Palmer and Dennis Martinez, all of which were all on hand to take part in the festivities honoring their former leadoff man.
“For the past three or four years I’ve been coming here with the Blue Jays and they’ve acknowledged me each and every time I’ve come. “ Raines told reporters after Friday’s ceremony. “ But this time it’s different because now when they announce my name, they’ll announce me as Hall of Famer Tim Raines.”
“(It was great) just to hear the crowd, feel the warmth and have them and showing me how they are proud of me as well. Being one of theirs… I feel like I’m one of theirs.” he added. “The fans, they are the ones who inspired me to do what I did.”
Raines spent parts of 13 seasons in Montreal and holds all-time records in a number of Expos offensive categories including walks (793), singles (1,163), triples (82), stolen bases (635) and runs scored with 947 over 2,502 games as a member of “Nos Amours” between 1979 and 2001.
The seven-time all-star also led the National League in stolen bases on four separate occasions during his tenure in the Royal City, took home a batting title in 1986 and was named the MVP of the Mid-Summer Classic a year later.
With his upcoming induction, Raines is set to join former teammates Gary Carter and Andre Dawson as the only three Expos representatives enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Additionally, the native of Sanford, Florida will also become one of nine individuals to share both Cooperstown and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame honors.
SAME AS THE OLD BOSS
After piloting his club to back-to-back American League Championship Series appearances, the Blue Jays formally announced that manager John Gibbons would be under contract for the next three seasons on Saturday morning.
When asked about the extension, Gibbons said that he’s grateful for the financial security it provides for his family.
“I’ve been in the right place at the right time…numerous times.” Gibbons told reporters underneath the field level seats at Olympic Stadium on Saturday. “I’m not going to lie to you, we get paid very generously in this business. A lot of the time over paid.”
Money, however, has never been the reason he remains in baseball.
“That’s never been a driving force behind my baseball career anyways but it’s always nice to be rewarded. Our ultimate goal is to win a championship. It’s not easy to do but that’s the goal. ” he added.
With a managerial win-loss record of 644-614, Gibbons enters the 2017 season sporting the second most wins in franchise history behind Cito Gaston’s 913, respectively.
The two-year extension comes with a club option that, if exercised, could keep the San Antonio native in town through the 2020 campaign.
Continuing a recent tradition of presenting their prestigious Jack Graney award in front of a packed house at the Big O, the Canadian Baseball Hall of fame honored long-time baseball columnist Larry Milson on Saturday.
Born in Toronto, Milson sold programs at Maple Leaf Stadium prior to graduating from Ryerson University and going on to work at a variety of different newspaper outlets including the Hamilton Spectator, St. Catharines Standard and the Toronto Star.
In 1971, the already well-read scribe was hired by the Globe and Mail where he penned compelling content on a number of different sporting events including football, horse racing, soccer and hockey among other high-profile assignments.
Joining the Blue Jays beat in 1981, Milson spent the next 26 years covering Toronto’s major league outpost while also writing 1987’s behind the scenes look at the club titled Ball Park Figures, the Blue Jays and the Business of Baseball and co-writing former Jays trainer Ken Carson’s From Hockey to Baseball: I Kept Them In Stitches, in 2016.
“With a career like his, it was inevitable that he was going to end up with the Jack Graney award at some point,“ said Hall of Fame board member David Morneau in advance of Saturday’s award ceremony. “When you put in your time like he has, while producing the content that he’s put out, it’s easy to see that the man has had an amazing career.”
Bestowed amongst members of the media who, through their life’s work, have made significant contributions to baseball in Canada, the award is named after the St. Thomas, ON native that became the first major-leaguer to make a transition from the playing field to the broadcast booth in 1932.
In his addition to joining the booth, Graney was also the first MLB player to make a plate appearance with a number on his back and, in 1914, became the first batter to face Babe Ruth when he made his big league pitching debut with Boston.