Baseball season opens in multiple cities today. But the final weekend of spring training opened the door to an intriguing possibility: Can Montreal become one of those cities once again?
The Blue Jays and Mets played a two-game exhibition series at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in their final tuneup before the regular season, and the result was unlike anything that has been seen inside the Big O’s hermetically sealed atmosphere since 1994: legitimate excitement for baseball.
The two-game set drew a total attendance over 96,000, which is what the Expos would consider a good nine-game homestand in their final years before departing for Washington. But it seems Montrealers have rekindled the love for a sport they haven’t seen live in 10 (holy crap, has it really been that long?) years.
Even watching on TV, it was hard not to get goosebumps watching the crowd react as if they were watching a game in October rather than March. And baseball has noticed.
MLB Vice President John McHale told Toronto’s Globe and Mail, “There is a fire that burns brightly here for Major League Baseball and that’s a message that I’ll be proud to carry to the commissioner.”
A push has been made, spearheaded by former Expos standout Warren Cromartie. The Montreal Board of Trade conducted a study on what it would take to bring baseball back, and determined that the Minnesota Twins are the model franchise for creating a viable new team for Montreal. The proposal suggested the fictitious franchise would be best served with an open-air ballpark with a 36,000 seating capacity with 1.2 miles of downtown Montreal, which is the largest city in North America without an MLB team.
I believe Montreal deserves a second shot at baseball. The city is vital to the game’s history as the first place that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line as a member of the Triple-A Montreal Royals. And no fanbase in history has been handed a rawer deal — with the possible exception of the Cleveland Browns — as Expos fans were when the 1994 strike ended their greatest chance at a World Series and a potential new stadium deal that could have saved the team in the first place.
But is it actually feasible to think “Nos Amours” could make a return to the big leagues? Realistically, there are only three potential options, and all of them would have to be deemed long shots at the moment. But here is how we would rank them in order of probability.
Rays move to Montreal (Odds- 100:1) — Bud Selig has made it clear he wants Tropicana Field replaced. The Rays have been one of the most successful and exciting teams in baseball since 2008, but still can’t draw for shit in their unsightly home. But baseball has also never had anything to coerce the cities of St. Petersburg or Tampa to cave and provide a bunch of tax breaks to give the Rays a new home. Where the hell else were they gonna go?
Well, now MLB has a where the hell else. Montreal fans now realize what they’ve lost. They hunger to have it back. Rays fans, on the other hand, look a lot like the ones who used to show up at Olympic Stadium — they’re mostly seats. Leverage is a powerful thing. The smart money says either St. Pete or Tampa will take the bait and build the Rays a new stadium within five years.
If that doesn’t happen, Montreal couldn’t ask for a better franchise. The Rays are well-run, and the AL East would be the ideal landing spot with natural rivalries built in against Toronto, Boston (see: any Bruins-Canadiens crowd) and New York (they hated the Mets, they can hate the Yankees).
A’s move to Montreal (Odds — 250:1) — It is no secret the Oakland A’s need a new stadium. Raw sewage is not supposed to back in to a Major League team’s dugout multiple times per season. (How is it Wrigley and Fenway have better plumbing than Oakland Coliseum?)
It is also no secret the A’s want to stay in Northern California, where they have an established fanbase. However, their attempts to move to San Jose have been blocked by MLB, which has ruled that city to be within the Giants territorial rights. A previously established plan to go to Fremont fell by the wayside, and the economic deterioration of Oakland makes it clear that a new stadium in that city would have to be entirely funded by private sources.
But moving a team across the continent would make things messy for MLB, even if the franchise is well-versed in the concept with its previous stops in Philadelphia and Kansas City. But if baseball wants to keep balanced divisions, the Montreal Athletics would likely cause either the Royals or Twins to move back to their AL West roots, and potentially the Blue Jays to move from the AL East to the Central.
MLB adds two expansion teams (Odds — 1,000:1) — The problem of year-round interleague play would be remedied with an even number of teams in each league. But there are more potential issues at hand than that would solve.
What city would serve as Montreal’s entry companion into the big leagues? Las Vegas and Portland seem to be the most viable choices, though every pro sport remain deathly afraid of Vegas because people can bet on sports there. The most conservative sport around seems like an unlikely candidate to make the first jump.
Then comes the question of how to structure two 16-team leagues. Do you have one six-team division along with two five-team division? Or do you break it down into four four-team divisions and expand the playoffs further with two wild cards? It is all very tricky — not to mention you would be adding two new markets in every level of the minor leagues. This would seem the unlikeliest path for baseball to return to Montreal.