Can Bronfman bring baseball back to Montreal?

Bruce DowbigginAmong its many traits – some charming, some not – Quebec seems to be the home of the faint-hope sports story.

Rumours of a revival of the Quebec Nordiques are periodic reminders of the futility of building an expensive arena to please National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman. The city built a puck palace in hopes of luring a struggling franchise.

Now, the likelihood that the fleur-de-lis will once again grace the Ligue nationale de hockey lies somewhere between Justin Trudeau’s third term and Francois Legault having nice things to say about the burka.

The other periodic revival tent pitched is the second coming of the Montreal Expos, who decamped to Washington in 2003 and have now won the World Series that so eluded them in their 40-plus years as a National League squad. There have been various schemes announced over the intervening years. The recent selection of Expos star Larry Walker to the Baseball Hall of Fame only sparked that romance anew.

And to add a little kerosene to the fire of baseball returning comes a story this weekend in le Journal de Montréal from veteran scribe Rejean Tremblay. It announces what might be the basis for hope that we’ll see voltigeurs and lanceurs treading the diamond in Montreal once again.

Tremblay reports that Stephen Bronfman, whose father Charles helped bring the Expos to Montreal in 1969, will buy a minority share in the unloved Tampa Bay Rays American League franchise this summer. (Tampa officials don’t deny the story but say that any purchase will only come after the sides reach a deal on sharing the team between two cities.)

Despite producing terrific baseball talent, the Rays have never been able to capture the fancy of baseball fans in their inelegant dome in St. Petersburg. For years there have been stories that they might move to somewhere that actually has fans. But Major League Baseball and the local politicians of St. Petersburg quashed all such noise.

Until now. According to Tremblay, once Bronfman is on board, the organization will create a two-city team that shares the Rays’ 81 home games. (St. Petersburg would, in the short term, get any post-season games.) Although he doesn’t see the plan as optimistically as does Bronfman, Rays majority owner Stuart Sternberg is talking about such a scheme.

The mayor of St. Petersburg is still adamant that the team can’t break its lease in the execrable TropicThunder Dome – or whatever it’s called –  until 2028. That includes playing anything less than the entire regular season in his building.

But new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is showing signs that baseball is fed up with carrying the lame franchise and he wants to see a proposal that works.

“The Rays are working very hard to move this plan forward,” Manfred told the Tampa Bay Times on Sunday. “I think that it is a really legitimate effort to try to preserve baseball in Florida for the benefit of the Rays fans. And I do think there is some momentum to it.”

Tremblay stresses that this will not be a preamble to the Rays moving lock, stock and two smoking bat barrels to Montreal. He says they really, really want to create a template for two-city baseball with fans shuttling between the cities. Montreal’s chronic hockey addiction means that early-season games are best played elsewhere whereas mid-summer is so much nicer in Montreal in a … wait for it … new stadium in the Peel basin area.

Yes, Bronfman says that if they can get all the interested parties together that a new outdoor park would replace the Olympic Stadium – the only baseball facility worse than the one in St. Petersburg. It would take a minimum of 30 months to build and develop a Montreal stadium to have it ready for June 2024, Tremblay reports. It would be the centrepiece of a real estate and entertainment development not unlike the one surrounding Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, reviving a faded industrial part of Montreal.

I keep saying the Rays, but Bronfman stresses that the new team will not be called the Rays or the Expos. It will be branded in a new way.

“We will find the name together and people will adopt it. You have to understand, it’s a new team which, we hope, might even help bring two cities and two markets closer together. Tampa is beautiful, St. Petersburg is beautiful. And it’s cheaper than on the (Florida) east coast,” says Bronfman.

Our name suggestion?

The X-Rays.

Bronfman tells Tremblay that the shared team is probably the only way Montreal could afford to regain an MLB presence.

“It’s better than an expansion team that would have cost at least $2 billion before even a first game. It would not have been realistic, even for me. In the United States, there are several business people who have $2 billion to $3 billion to buy a team. … But in Quebec, finding that money is a very big risk. I would have had to endure enormous stress. With this new concept, we are entering a family where everyone already gets along.”

Now, cynics might say that Montreal and Bronfman are being take for a walk again. After all, there seems to be little chance to extract the team before 2028 under the terms of its stadium lease. But Bronfman says everyone at MLB and the Rays is being honest with him.

“Stuart Sternberg is a straight-up guy who is nothing like Jeffrey Loria [former owner of the Expos],”says Bronfman of the man who gives shady, manipulative carpet baggers a bad name.

We shall see.

But one final thought on baseball in Montreal: It would be American League baseball in the same division with the Toronto Blue Jays. Imagine that. Six months of Canadiens/Leafs. Six months of Blue Jays/X-Rays.

Worth a stab, wouldn’t you say?

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

© Troy Media


baseball back to montreal

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