Montreal waits for MLB to decide on relocation or expansion team

 The Tampa Bay Rays are playing in front of far too many empty seats in Tropicana Field. This has inspired talk that the club could relocate to Montreal.

The Tampa Bay Rays are playing in front of far too many empty seats in Tropicana Field. This has inspired talk that the club could relocate to Montreal.

By Danny Gallagher

Canadian Baseball Network

Tampa-Oakland, Tampa-Oakland.

That's what Montreal Expos fans have been hearing too much of lately, especially when commissioner Rob Manfred keeps saying the stadium issues in those two cities must be resolved before he even thinks of expansion, which would include Montreal.

At the same time, the chorus Tampa-Montreal, Tampa-Montreal has been voiced over and over again, much to the delight of Montreal fans but much to the chagrin of the folks in Tampa. Those Montreal fans also love to hear the word 'expansion' but until the scenarios involving the Tampa Rays and Oakland A's are settled, then the chances of baseball returning to Montreal will remain on the backburner.

When I made recent email contract with the Rays about what is taking place as far as possible new stadium sites for the Tampa franchise, I got this reply from Rafaela Amador-Fink, the Rays senior director of public affairs: "Thank you for reaching out to us for the story. However, we do not have any comment at this time.''

I wasn't surprised at Amador-Fink's decision to take the Fifth Amendment. Amador-Fink, Rays majority owner Stuart Sternberg and most people in Tampa are clearly fed up with this talk of the Rays moving to Montreal. But their reply was better than what I got from the A's. They didn't respond at all.

To give the Rays and A's credit, they do have some sites in mind for a new park but whether it will translate into actual construction is unknown. Tampa has earmarked a site in Ybor City in the heart of Tampa's historic cigar industry and nightlife, while Oakland has settled on land near Laney College for a prospective site to replace the 50-year-old Oakland Coliseum..

We don't know how Sternberg or Oakland's president David Kaval feel about this following scenario but it's doubtful they would want a relocation of their teams. They would probably prefer to have their teams stay put and approve an expansion process for Montreal and other cities because they would be given a chunk of the expansion fee. Let's say the expansion fee is $600-million and there is expansion by two teams. Then each of the existing 30 teams would get $20-million from each of the two, new teams.

Another situation that is of troubling concern to Manfred and many team owners is what is happening in Miami with the Marlins. With many crowds coming in at less than 10,000 this season, wouldn't Derek Jeter, Bruce Sherman and his ownership group not like to be somewhere else, like Montreal? 

It wouldn't be a surprise that if the Marlins could get out of their long lease at Marlins Park, they would love to move to Montreal or wherever else. The situation in Miami seems hopeless. Same goes for Tampa and Oakland. All three franchises are boasting pitiful attendance. The Rays and A's have terrible ballparks.

While all of this is going on, prospective Montreal owners Stephen Bronfman and Mitch Garber have been reaching out to Montrealers for advice. They enlisted the support of city folks to come forth and participate in baseball focus groups. Some 1,400 people applied and 100 were selected to take part along with 15 chief executive officers who were interviewed one on one over the course of two days recently.

"Your input is an important piece in this puzzle with the ultimate goal being the return of Major League Baseball in an exciting, successful and sustainable way,'' Bronfman said in a prepared statement. "Many thanks for your interest and passion.'' 

What is clearly important to Bronfman and his group is how a new stadium should be built. That is why fans are being consulted, said William Jegher, an advisor to Bronfman. You probably couldn't find a person more enthusiastic about Montreal's possible return to Montreal than Jegher. He has certainly embraced the idea of fan input on a new stadium.

"We want to listen to what people have to say about a new park,'' Jegher told me. "We want to know how people feel about how the ballpark would look like. There are different options. We want to do our homework.''

Jegher brought up the idea of a "passport'' concept, whereby fans would rotate seats during the course of a game. Will there be a standing-room section? Will there be a retractable roof? An open-air stadium? All kinds of ideas could be implemented.

"We want to present to people something that is outside the box,'' Jegher said of a new park

Jegher said he and Bronfman's group don't want to reveal what their wishes are for a relocated team or an expansion team because that is out of their control but he said how the stadium will look is something they can decide on. Jegher said there is nothing "imminent'' as far as a possible team coming to Montreal but added, "We have to be ready, if it's a relocation or an expansion team.''

The mere notion Bronfman and his group are receptive to ideas from focus groups about a new park is interesting fodder because Manfred has said it's imperative that a new stadium be built for any prospective team coming to town. It's hard, though, not to imagine Olympic Stadium will be used in the first several years before a new park is built, especially if a team like Tampa or Oakland was relocated, let's say, this off-season in time for the 2019 season. 

Like Jegher, another key voice in Montreal's pitch for another team is Elias Makos, a quintessential man about town. Among other gigs he has enjoyed over the years, he's a host on City-TV's Breakfast Television show in Montreal and he's the administrator of the @montreal_expos Twitter account boasting 31,000 followers and he was a member of the Expos media-relations department in their final three seasons.

"I think a franchise coming to Montreal could happen at any time,'' Makos said in an interview. "It could happen this off-season. We have to be ready for a movement (relocation). Major League Baseball is trying hard to solve the problems in Tampa and Oakland.

"Expansion is a much longer process. We can't rush an organization like Major League Baseball. The biggest problem is to find another market to go along with Montreal in expansion. Is it Portland? Who is going to be the dance partner with Montreal? It's up to Major League Baseball.''

Makos was in Montreal when fans rebelled against going to Olympic Stadium to see the Expos play in their dying days. Crowds of less than 10,000 and even less than 5,000 were not uncommon in 2004 and several years prior to that. But he doesn't foresee this trend happening with a new team in town.

"Montreal was fed up with not being respected and people could not bring themselves to support the team,'' Makos said in an interview. "I think there is a difference between apathy and lack of interest.''

Makos also looks at the demographic make-up of the fans, who will attend games for the new Montreal team. And he sees a young crowd, many of them millenials.

"The thing that is striking is how young and diverse our market is,'' Makos said. "It's a young demographic group. You really need that kind of young demo. It's something that MLB needs. We've always had a young fan base.''

Then in the next breath, Makos said positively, "Montreal is booming right now. The unemployment rate is low.''

Danny Gallagher's upcoming book is called Blue Monday: The Expos, the Dodgers and the Home Run That Changed Everything. You can pre-order online.

 

 

Danny Gallagher

Danny was born in Ted Lindsay's hometown of Renfrew, Ont. but his roots are in nearby Douglas. He played 27 consecutive seasons of top-level amateur baseball in the senior ranks in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec and thrived on organizing events himself, the major one being the highly successful 1983 Canadian senior men's tournament in Sudbury. He began covering the Montreal Expos in 1988 when he joined the Montreal Daily News. Later, he was the Expos beat writer for the Ottawa Sun and Associated Press. He has written four baseball books, including Remembering the Montreal Expos, which he co-authored with Bill Young of Hudson, Que. Gallagher and Young are currently working on a book about the ill-fated 1994 Expos squad. Gallagher can be reached here: dannogallagher@rogers.com