×

IMHO: Move the Rays to Montreal, s’il vous plait

  • Tampa Bay Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg listens to a question at a press conference at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday, June 25, 2019. Sternberg spoke about exploring the prospect of playing some future home games in Montreal. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

  • FILE - In this April 3, 2015, file photo, a fan holds up a sign during a pregame ceremony as the Toronto Blue Jays face the Cincinnati Reds in an exhibition baseball game in Montreal. The Tampa Bay Rays have received permission from Major League Baseball's executive council to explore a plan that could see the team split its home games between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP, File)



Valley News Sports Editor
Saturday, July 06, 2019

Major League Baseball doesn’t always come up with bright ideas. When it does, however, it’s a doozy.

Late last month, commissioner Rob Manfred gave the Tampa Bay Rays’ principal owner, Stu Sternberg, “broad permission” to look into a shared home-site arrangement with Montreal.

Despite having one of baseball’s smartest front offices and teams that regularly challenge the far-richer Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in the American League East, the Rays have struggled to draw fans to their tuna can of a ballpark, Tropicana Field, throughout their 20-year existence.

Sternberg has openly — and rightly — wondered if there’s a long-term future for the team in Florida.

Any such change in the Rays’ status would face a load of legalities that would also require years to resolve. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about such things here in newspaper world, which makes it easy to ask the following question:

Why not simply move the team to Montreal now and make a whole lot of people happy?

Oh, p’shaw, you scoff. The bilingual Quebec megalopolis deservedly lost the Expos 15 years ago for attendance reasons that make the Rays look more popular than … whatever is popular with the masses these days. (American Idol? Internet cat videos? Disco? I’m afraid I don’t get out much.)

You, dear cynic, would be correct — up to a point. Major League Baseball didn’t die in Montreal because of the city. MLB killed it. I’ll get back to that claim in a moment.

In my mind, the case for delivering the Rays from Florida to someplace better is quite strong. According to the website Baseball Reference, Tampa Bay got the new-franchise butts-in-seats bump in year 1, drawing an average of 30,942 in 1998. Since then, the Rays have topped the 20,000 mark just three times, the stretch of 2008-10 prefaced by the franchise’s sole run to the World Series in ’08. They’ve never topped the 2 million mark for a season — let alone the annual MLB average of between 2.3 and 2.5 million — since.

Florida draws its residents and tourists for the same reason: sunshine. When the flakes are flying outside your window, your snowbird neighbors are migrating south for days or months at a time. From February to April, that flight coincides with baseball spring training. It’s a habit-forming trek that’s been going on for decades.

After six weeks of watching Grapefruit League play outdoors, who wants to transfer to a dingy, dim domed stadium for 81 regular-season dates? If you’re visiting the Gulf Coast at that time of the year, it’s to walk on a beach, work on your tan, thwack a little white ball around a golf course or chase Mickey Mouse around Disney World — in the glorious rays of the sun.

It makes the “can” in “Tropicana” really stand out, doesn’t it?

Say what you will about the Expos’ demise, but Montreal fans supported the team when it won, even in cavernous Olympic Stadium. MLB deserves blame for its demise.

The game’s idiotic labor woes burned Montreal in 1994. The Expos had the best record in the game (74-40) when the players’ strike hit, ultimately leading to the cancellation of the season and the ensuing World Series. Montreal’s interest in baseball — at least at the MLB level — began a slow and steady decline after that.

The next blow came when MLB allowed Jeffrey Loria to purchase a piece of the franchise in 1999. As he gradually increased his share, he alienated Montreal with demands for a new stadium, more city-borne construction costs and exorbitant fees for broadcast rights. The final straw came when baseball enabled Loria to take over the Florida Marlins in 2002, leaving the rest of the league’s owners to assume control of the Expos.

MLB neglect — highlighted by a two-year shared home-game arrangement with Puerto Rico — ultimately led to Montreal’s sale to the Lerner family and move to Washington three years later.

What’s changed since then? The city misses professional baseball, as exhibited by the huge crowds that have flocked to the Big O for Toronto Blue Jays preseason games the past few years. Stephen Bronfman — whose father, Charles, was the Expos’ original owner — is active in shared-city discussions with Sternberg, giving Expos Part Deux a possible local connection.

What needs to change? Montreal requires a new baseball-only stadium, and it needs local owners to build it. The Tampa area has no interesting bankrolling a new park for the Rays, and floating a similar idea in Quebec would also likely fail.

Ironically, the Rays could do what the Expos did in D.C. — move to a new city but play in an existing stadium for a few years until a new one is constructed. The two-city scenario was a joke in the Expos’ final days, and it won’t work now with the Rays. It’ll only serve to alienate a new fan base while giving an old one false hope.

Imagine the possibilities of an American League East franchise in Montreal. Red Sox and Yankees addicts could drive, instead of fly, to see their teams on the road. Toronto would again have — but in the same league and division — a Canadian rival that could generate the kind of provincial energy Canadiens-vs.-Nordiques had in the 1980s NHL. You could learn to needle the umpires in French. Poutine with a Unibroue back? Count me in.

Major League Baseball in Florida beyond spring training has failed. Come April, Floridians and Floridian wannabes have other things they’d rather do than watch baseball. The attendance figures prove it. (You thought Tampa was bad? Review Miami. Oy.) Moving the Rays to Montreal won’t happen soon; the city of St. Petersburg, which owns the Trop, has veto rights on any new-stadium move by the Rays through 2027. But happen it must.

Revivre les Expos!

Greg Fennell, who loves his Washington Nationals but really needs to visit Canada more often, can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.