Major League Baseball is bound for expansion one of these days. Commissioner Rob Manfred has kicked around the idea of a 32-team league for a while now, and he brought up the notion again during last week’s all-star festivities.
One of the potential locations he named during an interview with Fox Sports 1 was Montreal, ironic considering Manfred’s predecessor, Bud Selig, spent years trying to move that franchise practically anywhere else. The Expos played 22 games in Puerto Rico in 2003 and 2004, and after baseball’s 29 other franchises pitched in to purchase the team, the island — along with Northern Virginia, the District and Portland, Ore. — made offers to MLB.
Of course, the District won, and 13 years later the Nationals are squarely at home in Washington, having showed off their 10-year-old ballpark and star players over the all-star break. The Nationals selectively honor parts of the franchise’s history, but Montrealers generally have moved on to root for other teams.
But the city hasn’t moved on from baseball and would eagerly welcome Manfred and an expansion team despite MLB’s checkered past north of the border.
“It was a blank slate, clean page, whatever the expression is,” says Matthew Ross, president of the ExposNation Committee, a nonprofit that promotes Montreal as a site for a future expansion team, and a radio host on one of the city’s sports talk channels. “We heard that Rob Manfred was very worldly when he looked at baseball. He cared about doing things outside the United States.”
Montreal is a three-sport city with the NHL’s Canadiens, MLS’s Impact and the Canadian Football League’s Alouettes. It’s also one of the world’s preeminent boxing destinations. But baseball is woven into its history.
Jackie Robinson played for the minor league Royals, a team with consistently high attendance numbers, before breaking the major league color barrier in 1947. Montreal hosted the first All-Star Game held outside the United States in 1982.
Since the Expos moved in 2005, the Toronto Blue Jays regularly play a pair of weekend preseason games in Montreal that between them draw close to 100,000 fans. This year, those games were on weeknights — and still drew a combined 50,000 fans.
“Major League Baseball had to buy the franchise and run it into the ground to move it to Washington,” said Richard Griffin, the Toronto Star’s baseball columnist.
Until the end — when the Expos were playing in worn-out Olympic Stadium, when MLB leaders were openly shopping the team to other cities, when the team agreed to move a quarter of its home games to Puerto Rico — Montrealers insist the city supported the team.
When the ballclub was good, contending for the pennant as a labor strike loomed from 1992 through 1994, an average of 21,000 fans showed up for each home game.
When it was bad, the bottom fell out at the box office. In the final seven years in Montreal, fewer than 12,000 fans went to each home game, on average. The final season, the Expos only averaged 9,000 fans. That convinced MLB that the city wasn’t good for baseball any longer. And that engendered a fair amount of bitterness among Montrealers.
“When they were playing games in Puerto Rico, it was almost like they were telling fans, ‘Goodbye. We’re done. You’re not good enough,’ ” said Griffin, who previously worked in the Expos’ front office.
“When things are good here, they’re really good,” Ross said. “It just seemed like there was always something that would happen for the Expos not to take off or do well.”
That is what tamps expectations among residents despite Manfred’s repeated mentions of Montreal: The MLB has dissed Montreal before.
The Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics both need new stadiums, and Expos boosters fear that MLB officials will threaten municipalities with franchise relocation to Montreal if governments don’t pony up money for new ballparks.
Montrealers know that’s largely an empty threat, Griffin said, because Canadian politicians are loath to use public money on private athletic facilities, unlike their U.S. counterparts. Besides, the Rays just released renderings of their proposed new stadium and the Oakland city council voted to negotiate with the A’s on two proposed stadium sites. Both teams are likely to get new ballparks without enduring the threat of relocation.
“It’s an intelligent fan base,” Ross said. “They know nothing can happen until Tampa Bay and Oakland are sorted. There’s a hurry-up-and-wait mentality.”
That leaves Montreal only one option to get a team — expansion — but there is competition: Manfred also listed Nashville and Charlotte as targets, along with Portland, Las Vegas, Vancouver and even Mexico.
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