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Could Baseball Succeed in Montreal the Second Time Around?

By Mike Silva ~ August 15th, 2011. Filed under: Baseball History, Mike Silva.

Newsday’s Ken Davidoff listed the five worst baseball markets in a recent column: Tampa Bay, Arizona, Oakland, Miami, and Washington. It made me think of the Montreal Expos and whether MLB really did their best to save baseball in the Province of Quebec. I am not sure any of those cities mentioned by Davidoff are worse than Montreal in terms of fan support.

Did Major League Baseball pull the plug on Montreal too soon? That is a complicated question that probably is more suited for a baseball thesis paper then a 500 world blog piece. I did, however, find it interesting to read the independent Can-Am League is looking to possibly bring a franchise to Montreal in the near future.

Former Expos President and Owner Claude Brochu wrote a column in the Montreal Gazette stating that “time has passed the Expos by.” Brochu points out that much has changed in baseball since the Expos left for Washington in 2004. Labor piece and revenue sharing are two concepts that would have helped the Expos before their descent into obscurity in the late nineties. A new ballpark wouldn’t have hurt either. We always think of Toronto as the bustling economic hot-bed of Canada, but the Gazette pointed out earlier this summer that “Montreal was accelerating so robustly late last year that it ranked No. 1 of the 25 large cities in Tal’s index. It has decelerated a bit, thanks to a slowdown in manufacturing, but the outlook is far more positive than what we hear with some American Mid-Western cities.

Many blame Brochu for the demise of the Expos. He wanted to save the team from bankruptcy by building a downtown stadium sponsored by the Labatt Brewing Company. He broke up the team in the infamous fire-sale during the spring of 1995. The plan failed and Brochu sold the team to Jeffrey Loria, who subsequently used it to gain ownership in the Florida Marlins. Major League Baseball would buy the team in 2001 for $120 million dollars, only to flip it three years later to the Washington Baseball ownership group for $450 million. Everybody profited but the people of Montreal.

There is a benchmark of success for baseball in Montreal. During the decade of the eighties, Olympic Stadium drew over 17 million fans. That average of 1.7 per year was better than 14 current teams during that time. Cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and even the Chicago White Sox were far more endangered than the Expos. What happened? The 1994 strike and subsequent fire sale by Brochu killed baseball in Montreal. It didn’t help the team never seemed to sustain any period of success. They lost to the Dodgers in 1981, were behind the Mets run in mid-to- late eighties, and never fully recovered after that short-circuited ’94 season. You could argue that Omar Minaya did as much harm to Montreal by trading a boatload of prospects in 2002 (Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips) for a half-season of Bartolo Colon. Minaya was more interested in making a name for himself then saving baseball in Montreal. In a lot of ways it helped him become the General Manager of the Mets. Those kids could have been a nice foundation for one last good, young Expos team.

A few things need to happen in order for baseball to succeed in Montreal. First, they need a new downtown stadium. They can’t play in Olympic Stadium while the politicians and new owners fight over the details. The ownership group must also be committed to making baseball in the city work for the long term. I believe if those two factors fall into place you should be able to establish enough interest to build a season ticket base. Remember, baseball in Montreal didn’t start in 1969, but was a long-time minor league city as they were affiliated with the Dodgers from 1939 to 1960. A statue of Jackie Robinson stands outside Olympic Stadium.

Would MLB ever consider moving Oakland or Tampa Bay back to Montreal? Those cities are just as bad in terms of support. The A’s will probably never win their battle to move to San Jose. The Rays appear to be doomed in Tampa, as a new stadium doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

The bitterness between the city and MLB probably makes this a moot point. As Brochu points out in his column, former Expos minority partners filed charges against MLB and its commissioner under the RICO Act during their dispute with Jeffrey Loria. That situation doesn’t help in gaining favor with Bud Selig. Throughout its history baseball is known for its long memory.

If there is need to relocate a team, I suspect Charlotte, Northern Virginia, Las Vegas, or Portland would have a far better chance than Montreal. The fact of the matter is that baseball does have a benchmark of success in the city. The failures are due to a combination of bad luck, timing, and poor ownership. Major League Baseball was just as culpable in the ownership part as they let Jeffrey Loria into the club and allowed him to use his ownership in the Expos as a way to obtain the Florida Marlins. The Expos were nothing more than a pawn to help stabilize the Marlins and give John Henry (former Marlins owner) control of the Red Sox.

Starting small in the Canadian-American Association is not a bad first step. Let the city prove itself as a viable market for baseball. They have the history, population, and sample for success. Baseball wants to grow globally so it might be in their best interest to have a second team north of the border. Now they need the right people to convince MLB they deserve another chance. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s something that will happen for quite some time, if ever.

Mike Silva is a freelance writer and radio host since March of 2007. This website is his own personal "digest" of New York Baseball He's also hosts NYBD Radio on Blog Talk Radio and 1240 AM WGBB. Check out his sports media commentary at www.sportsmediawatchdog.com. Check out his official website, www.mikesilvamedia.com
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8 Responses to Could Baseball Succeed in Montreal the Second Time Around?

  1. Mark W

    I don’t think MLB would put a team in Northern Virginia - that’s a big chunk of the Washington Nationals fanbase.

  2. Chuck Johnson

    There is precedent for MLB giving cities a second chance; Seattle, Washington, Milwaukee, Kansas City, even New York with the Mets.

    Does Montreal deserve a second chance?

    From a baseball standpoint, why not?

    But the reasons baseball eventually failed in Montreal had little to do with baseball, which puts the city in the same viewfinder with MLB as Los Angeles is to the NFL.

    And Independent ball really doesn’t work anywhere, (and hardly qualifies as “pro” baseball), so using a failing operation as a marketing “test” in a city that with a history of failing with the same product makes no sense.

  3. Dallas

    I have seen many Mets/Expos games in Montreal. I have had discussions with many of the fans there. Sounds like part of the problem is that it wasnt exactly easy to catch Expos games. They didnt broadcast the radio games in English and they had no TV broadcast (or it wasnt in English I cant remember). Thats not exactly the best way to build a fan base or keep the existing one when you cant even see the games on TV.

  4. jakey88

    Interesting article, Mike well-noted. Many of your observations are well-noted. The Canadian dollar is now above par, and general Canadian economy more robust than it was before. There is a nostalgia in Montreal now with Expo caps and jerseys surprisingly everywhere.

    A move of TB to Montreal would work wonders, in the AL East, with a natural rivalry with Toronto established with Yankee fans and Red Sox nation swarming into La Belle Province for each series.

    You are correct-it will take a new MLB commissioner and new Montreal ownership team to exorcise the bitterness of the past.

  5. Will in Central NJ

    In my conversations with an old college classmate who is a Montreal native, I was told that during the lean economic times in Canada (roughly 1995-2010), many, many Quebecois resented the millionaire foriegn ballplayers from the USA, Dominican Republic, and even Japan, who earned many times the salary of the typical middle class French Canadian. Add to that the fact that the majority of these players had no interest in learning French, and that the ownership would constantly ship out stars when they would approach their free agency walk years. Thus, the resulting Expos’ fans dismay would turn to anger, sadness, and then apathy.

    I personally would enjoy the return of MLB to Montreal, since it is a gorgeous city to visit, and it’s always a blast to follow one’s team on the road. But I agree, Mike, that it’s a pipe dream. It would be like MLB admitting a mistake on a grand scale, and you know that ain’t happening in Bud Selig’s tenure.

    Sidebar to Chuck Johnson: your statement, “Independent ball really doesn’t work anywhere, (and hardly qualifies as “pro” baseball)” is simply incorrect. It is failing in some markets across the nation, but thrives in others. That is exactly like the affiliated minor leagues. Where are the Cape Fear Crocs? The NJ Cardinals? New Haven Ravens? Ottawa Lynx? They were affiliated teams, and they folded/moved because the markets couldn’t/didn’t support them. No different than what one sees in the independent leagues.

    Those working in the affiliated leagues despise the independents because they are a clear and present threat to their bank accounts. Here in central NJ, the dislike aimed toward the Somerset Patriots (Atlantic Lge) by the Trenton Thunder (AA-Eastern) is palpable. That’s because the former is a threat to the latter. “Doesn’t work anywhere” is a blanket statement that is simply inaccurate.

  6. Oriole85

    No way does baseball relocate to Northern Virginia, there will not be more teams in the Baltimore-DC area than in NY, LA, or Chicago. Baseball has a hard enough time getting good draws in either DC or Baltimore. And yes, the Nationals would oppose and Angelos would definitely if they put it in the AL. But those other cities might have a better chance.

  7. Russ Cress

    Why not put a team in NJ?

    For all the talk about wanting to curb the Yankees revenues for the sake of competitive balance, this is a simple solution.

    The population base is there. The only question is if the Yankees would block it via territorial rights which they probably would which is why it hasn’t come up

  8. Dean

    As a Montrealer, I’ve seen things happening. There were so many combined problems made the Expos to move out. The article resumes pretty well the reasons why.

    One other factor is the MLB format where the Expos were in the National League was just bad. The only club that we considered as rivals were the New York Mets. Other clubs like Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins are geographically far to consider as rivals. The Blue Jays was a rival but MLB was limited to hold an interleague play.

    If the MLB were to break the interleague barriers, just imagine Expos vs Yankees, Expos vs Red Sox, Expos vs Blue Jays… We would see an increase of true rivalry.

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