By Danny Gallagher
Whether it was at a book signing, a media interview or just running into fans in the last year or so, the question that most often came up was:
Do you think baseball will return to Montreal?
And my response was: yes, but it will take a few years.
When the same question was pitched in 2005-2011 in the years following another book, my answer was different: Not for many years or sometimes, I would say, “Not in my lifetime.’’
But times have changed. My thought is that baseball will return to Montreal through the expansion route or through relocation of the Tampa Rays, a scenario that has popped up recently.
With the recent news that heavyweights such as Charles Bronfman’s son Stephen Bronfman and Dollarama majority owner Larry Rossy have formed a group with Bell Media to try and return baseball to Montreal, it has become obvious that Montreal is a prime-time favorite to get its team back in the next few years.
Don’t be surprised if Rob Manfred is in favour of expansion when he officially takes over as commissioner Jan. 25 in the New Year. When I emailed Manfred recently to see if he would talk about expansion, he asked his executive assistant Pat Courtney to tell me that it was premature of Manfred to start chatting on that subject when he wasn’t yet officially the commissioner.
If you are a betting person, you have to think Montreal is a clear favorite as the leadoff hitter if and when expansion comes to the table for Major League Baseball.
“We’re No. 1. We’re the ones making the most noise,’’ said former Expo Warren Cromartie, the catalyst since 2011 in spearheading a drive to get a team back. “We just have to wait our turn. Things are going to take their course. It might be good for a new commissioner’s legacy if there was expansion or if he did something to help us to get our game back.
“There has to be a sale for a relocation to take place. I don’t think expansion is coming anytime soon on the horizon.’’
When asked if he would prefer a National League team or an American League team, Cromartie replied this way: “I prefer a team.’’
Will relocation come before expansion? Cromartie replied, “That’s a good question you asked.’’
Expansion by one team unlikely
Could MLB decide just to expand by one team to Montreal, thus creating an unbalanced league if the powers-that-be decided there was no worthy U.S. candidate?
“In the NBA, the NHL and the NFL, you can have an unbalanced schedule because of the off days but it would be very difficult in baseball,’’ said Don Fehr, the former head of the MLBPA and the current head of the NHLPA, alluding to the fact that baseball teams play almost every day, except for the odd Monday or Thursday off days.
“In baseball, you would have teams off sometimes for two days so expanding by one would be difficult,’’ Fehr said.
If you are a betting person like the sports bookies and casino gamblers in Las Vegas, do you not think that MLB would like a franchise in that city? So does the NHL, the NBA and the NFL. Combining tourists and local residents, Vegas might be an ideal spot.
“Vegas wants all of the sports. It’s just the gambling that’s going on, the gambling problem. The NBA is trying to get around it right now,’’ former Expo great Marquis Grissom said in an interview.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has suggested that pro sports gambling be legalized somehow.
“Las Vegas is interesting,’ Fehr told this reporter recently upon his return from a conference in South Africa. “Vegas is one of those difficult cities to analyze by normal standards. It’s based on tourism. With the casinos, money flows through there. It’s a city growing very quickly. The principal business of Vegas is gambling, that’s not going to change. Gambling is going on, it has been for a long, long time.’’
Last expansion in 1998
Baseball has not expanded since 1998 when two warm-weather venues were awarded franchises, Tampa for the American League, Phoenix for the National League. The announcement was made in 1995 and gave Florida and Arizona officials three years to get their acts in order. The expansion fee in those days was $130-million.
“That was so long ago. I can’t remember much but I do recall that Tampa Bay and Phoenix were heads above everybody else,’’ saiid Los Angeles Dodgers Dodgers president Stan Kasten in an interview.
Kasten was a member of MLB’s expansion committee back then when he was the Braves’ president.
Montreal has been without baseball since the conclusion of the 2004 season when the Expos were transferred to Washington, D.C. Ironically, it was back in 1995 that Northern Virginia, an area that borders on Washington, was one of nine finalists identified by baseball.
South of the border?
When I asked former Expo pitching great Dennis Martinez a few weeks ago about what city he thought would be a candidate in the U.S. for a franchise, he quickly deflected his answer by saying, “Monterrey’’, the Mexican city that is considered the most “Americanized’’ of all Mexican venues, more so than towns near the U.S./Mexico border.
Monterrey is considered the second wealthiest city in Mexico and is rich in history and culture. But Monterrey, like many communities in Mexico, is not that rich in inhabitants, who have a lot of purchasing/income power. So the question remains: what stainability would there be over the long haul?
Does MLB want to expand to a third country outside Canada and the U.S. – to Mexico where violence is an epidemic in some parts of the country? It’s a delicate topic of discussion. Mexico City has an monstrous population of 20-million like New York City Proper but it’s not an affluent metropolis by any means. Its crime rate doesn’t help its chances either. People disappear too easily in that city without any trace.
Even Monterrey has experienced problems in recent years pertaining to drug wars. The MLBPA would probably have its reservations and be very leery about expansion into a country where people’s lives are not always safe. When dozens of young student teachers were abducted in September and disappeared, it raised eyebrows around the world.
“I don’t know of anyone in baseball who would want to think about expanding to Mexico,’’ said one highly placed sports executive. “It has problems of violence, pollution issues and so on.’’
Monterrey made the final nine expansion list in 1995 and even Guadalajara, population 4.3-million, was given a special mention.
Talking of Spanish venues, should we mention Havana now that the U.S. is warming up to Cuba after decades of friction?
Could the Cubans afford to pay big-ticket prices? Would a franchise there last very long? Debatable.
Then there’s San Antonio, Tex., which boasts an NBA franchise and has been chatting recently with officials of the NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders, who are threatening to leave if they can’t get a better lease arrangement. San Antonio will also host two MLB exhibition games next March.
“San Antonio wants a major-league team and so do we,’’ Cromartie said. “But San Antonio hasn’t had a MLB team. We had a team before.’’
Charlotte, N.C. poses intrigue. It has an NBA franchise and would Charlotte Hornets iconic owner Michael Jordan want to jump into baseball ownership?
Vancouver likely won’t be interested
Does Vancouver really show serious interest? They have the NHL’s Canucks and the city played host to a highly successful 2010 Winter Olympics but the NBA’s Grizzlies left town for Memphis years ago.
The Vancouver Canadians’ minor-league executives have pretty much put a kibosh to any thought of a MLB franchise down the road because of what happened a few years ago at the 53,000-seat B.C. Place.
“When B.C. Place did its reconfiguration of both the seating and playing surfaces in 2010, they raised the flooring on certain parts of the stadium floor that would allow the turf for football and soccer to fit snug into the cement framing,’’ explained Rob Fai, the PR guru of the Canadians. “It makes the playing surface true throughout.
“To lay down a different turf configuration that goes against the moulding of the layout would cause a 6-7 inch rise between the base floor and the raised concrete area, not something a right fielder or first baseman would want to concern himself with.
“As well, the stadium scoreboard that hangs from the centre of the ceiling, even when raised to its maximum height is easily reachable with a routine fly ball. It’s just not a fit from everything I have seen. It doesn’t make any sense. When they did that with B.C. Place, it takes baseball out of the baseball equation. You never say never but that’s how I see it.’’
Which means that building a new ball park would be the only option and that would cost about $800-million. And for now, the Canadians’ ownership group headed by Jake Kerr and A & W restauranteur Jeff Mooney are quite content with its minor-league operations, which was boosted with the recent acquisition of a team in Lancaster, Calif.
Buffalo has two major sports teams already. The wealthy Rich family, which operates a frozen-food conglomerate, could easily afford such an undertaking. Bob Rich Jr. is reported to be worth $3-billion and his family has owned the Triple-A team in Buffalo for decades. The family also owns two other minor-league franchises: the Jamestown Jammers of the New York-Penn league and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals of the Texas league.
The question remains: could Buffalo support another major sports team on top of the NFL’s Bills and NHL’s Sabres?
“I think there is zero chance Buffalo would show interest in a major-league baseball franchise,’’ said long-time, former Buffalo sportscaster Ed Kilgore. “There are two reasons: the market size and the fact that Buffalo has all it can handle by supporting two teams.’’
In other words, Buffalo fans have only so many sports dollars to spend. Sustainability in the long run would be of great concern.
Could the city keep a third major sports team in the long term?
“Buffalo’s sole commitment is to these two teams, the Bills and the Sabres,’’ Kilgore said. “I ran into Bob Rich not long ago and he told me he had a handshake agreement to buy the Expos in the early 1990s.’’
Remember when Expos majority shareholder Charles Bronfman put the team up for sale after the 1989 squad folded?
“In the early 1990s, Buffalo got as close as it could ever get in getting a major-league franchise,’’ Kilgore said. “The Montreal people had a change of heart and changed their minds about selling the franchise to Bob Rich. It would have cost $80-100-million to get the Montreal team. They would have added 20,000 seats to what was then Pilot Field, which had 25,000 seats.’’
When Rich was told I wanted to talk to him, he was not available for an interview but he asked his senior executive assistant Kathy Hart to send me a book he had written. In that book called The Right Angle: Tales From a Sporting Life, he addresses a lot of questions.
In his book in a section called The Eighth Inning, Rich talked about how he made a $90-million cash offer to Bronfman by registered letter.
“We had heard of Charles’ unsuccessful attempts to sell the Expos to Canadian buyers who would keep the team in Montreal,’’ Rich wrote in his book. A few weeks later, Bronfman called Rich and said, “Bob, I want to thank you for your offer. But I love this team and I love this town and I won’t be known as the person who sold them to another city.’’
Rich replied, “Charles, if it’s a matter of dollars, that was just our opening offer.’’
Bronfman piped into the phone quietly,” Bob, I appreciate that. I have a lot of respect for you and your family. Your offer was more than fair and generous. I just cannot tell you this team.’’
Just two years later in what he called The Ninth Inning in his book, Rich talked about applying for a MLB franchise and in the course of meeting up with the expansion committee, Pittsburgh Pirates owner Doug Danforth was forthright when he whispered to Rich: “It would be great if you had another million people living here.’’
There, that’s it, Buffalo might just might be too miniscule for a MLB franchise.
Indianapolis, like Buffalo, is another two-sport city with the NFL’s Colts and the NBA’s Pacers but it holds a firecracker franchise in the iconic Indy 500. Making Indy a three-sport city might be too much for its fans to handle.
“You couldn’t have made a more perfect comparison,’’ Kilgore said, referring to Indianapolis and Buffalo.
Prior to the 1998 additions, there had only been a gap of seven years since there was expansion. Remember? The Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies joined the NL for the 1991 season.
It was during those two expansion phases that Nashville baseball icon Larry Schittmou tried valiantly to get a franchise. Schmittou has been the go-to guy for possible expansion in Nashville, although he’s out of the game and concentrating on a string of bowling alleys. He didn’t return phone calls asking for his opinions.
“After I returned from working with the Texas Rangers, we made a bid for Major League Baseball,’’ Schmittou told a reporter a few years ago. “We knew we wouldn’t get one on the first wave, when they gave the first two to Colorado and Miami. But we didn’t get in on the second wave either.’’
Third wave? Unlikely.
Disney Land? Disney World?
Orlando, Fla. made the final four in the last expansion phase so could that city step forward in a new wave?
Then there are the California cities of Sacramento, San Jose and Riverside but isn’t that state over-saturated with the Angels, Dodgers, A’s and Giants?
A sleeper in this maze of candidates might be Portland, Ore., a city of vast affluence on the U.S. west coast. It boasts the NBA’s Timberwolves. It is believed to be the largest city in the U.S. without a MLB franchise. You even have to mention the long-time success of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, a junior institution for decades.
“We have not promoted the notion of Major League Baseball in Portland,’’ city of Portland spokesman Dana Haynes said, speaking on behalf of the mayor’s office. “Frankly, there has been a lot of talk about whether Portland can take on the capacity for another professional team as we do for basketball.
“We have not promoted baseball. The jury is out. It’s one of those things. We don’t mind hearing the conversation if it came out. It might be great. We’re not promoting it. We’re observing from afar. We’ll see what happens but it does seem like Portland would not be a logical expansion place.’’
Take into consideration what writer Matthew Kory surmised a few years ago about Portland: “String time out to infinity and at some point in the future Portland will get a major-league team. There are too many people and too much money here not to put a team here, be it 20 years, 50 years, or 100 years. It’ll happen.’’
So it all boils down to sustainability, that word again, for a new franchise to survive. Not just in the first year or two or three when fans are lovey-dovey.
“When you look at Major League Baseball and you limit expansion to the continental U.S. and Canada, you want a city that is obviously a size large enough to generate fan support and revenue over the long haul,’’ Fehr said. “Obviously, the wealthier and more diverse the economy there is, the better. With expansion, my guess is that something has to be in place, that there is some sort of plan before you reach the stage of expansion.’’
So we’ll see what Manfred has in mind. Manfred, current commissioner Bud Selig and the powers-that-be in New York were pleasantly surprised when 97,000 fans poured into Olympic Stadium last March to see two exhibition games. Heck, even the brimming-with-fans escalators and elevators functioned at the Big O.
“That turnout was a pretty good demonstration, a good feeling for baseball in Montreal. It gives Montreal a chance,’’ Fehr said.
Danny Gallagher and Bill Young are co-authors of the book Ecstasy to Agony: the 1994 Montreal Expos.