Mets vs. Expos - Again?

Is baseball dead in Montreal?

That's the question I asked myself several times this past week, walking this beautiful city from top (Mount Royal) to the bottom (the Old Port).

I always enjoyed going to Mets-Expos games while growing up as a baseball fan of New York's National League team. The Expos had a certain exotic appeal, being from another country and from a primarily French-speaking part of the world. It was also a chance to sing "O Canada" before the game, a song I learned the words to strictly because the Expos played in the National League East.

Today I take special joy in watching the Mets beat the Nationals, as they did last night, and I've developed a particular enmity for the team that was stolen from Montreal and given to a city that has already proven twice over that it cannot support Major League Baseball. Washington DC does not support professional baseball and history will prove it so again.

Seven years later after having its team hijacked, the newspapers in Montreal cover baseball from afar. When the Mets traded Carlos Beltran and cash for Zack Wheeler this week, it made barely a ripple on the sports pages of the Globe and Mail. (To be fair, the Globe and Mail is based in Toronto and its baseball coverage is Blue Jays-centric. That said, there is no excuse for Canada's English-speaking version of USA Today not to have MLB box scores in its sports section!)

You've read plenty of analysis on the trade already, but let me join the chorus of hosannas for Sandy Alderson. The Mets GM got a very solid pitching prospect for a player in his walk year, one who will not even reap the benefit of compensatory draft picks when he files for free agency thanks to a clause in his contract. I don't know how Alderson convinced ownership to pay the majority of Beltran's remaining salary this year, but doing so directly lead to the quality of the return the Mets got for Beltran.

Back to Montreal baseball. There are still reminders that baseball once existed in the city. The tourist shops on Rue Sainte Catherine still feature plenty of Expos shirts, jerseys and ball caps. They must be big sellers, because it is not unusual to see those shirts, jerseys and ball caps being worn all over the city by tourists and natives alike.

My temporary home for the week was on Boulevard René-Lévesque, less than a mile ... I mean, a kilometer from where Labatt Park would have stood. The entire saga is detailed in Claude Brochu's 2002 book My Turn At Bat, but you already know the ending. Labatt Park was the working name of a new downtown ballpark that would've saved the Expos from the cavernous and crumbling Olympic Stadium.

However, like every deal of this nature, ballpark financing relied primarily on public money. The city of Montreal and the province of Quebec were initially willing to participate, but political in-fighting and Quebec's unique culture ultimately led to the entire plan being shelved. Labatt Park was never built and Montreal lost the Expos to Washington soon after.

The Montreal Gazette crafted the flimsiest of rumors into a story this week, claiming that an unidentified group is looking to bring baseball back to Montreal.

"Before doing anything, I told the group to get their business plan together," Rodger Brulotte, the former longtime French-language broadcaster for the Expos said. "It has to include plans for a stadium, for radio and television rights, for everything, as though they already have the franchise."

Oh, is that all? The white elephant of Olympic Stadium still stands in the western part of the city, serving as the closest thing to a gravestone for Montreal baseball. Without a new stadium, however, baseball is never coming back to Montreal. The Labatt Park side has since been developed, although the article claims that other sites are under consideration.

So is baseball really dead in Montreal? Olympic Stadium will be the temporary home of the Montreal Impact during its inaugural season in Major League Soccer in 2012, while ownership figures out how to upgrade Stade Saputo to MLS specifications without spending a dollar ... I mean, a loonie of private money.

It's going to take a hell of a lot more than $23 million to build a new baseball stadium, but the simple fact that there is now precedent for public money being spent on a sports team is a step forward for Montreal baseball. Quebec has proven to be willing to put forward public money to renovate a soccer-specific stadium, a sign that public money for private sports projects that do not involve a puck and a stick isn't entirely off the table in Montreal.

The Expos were known as a small-market team for much of its history, but you may have noticed that the American dollar isn't quite as dominant as it used to be. The vaunted exchange rate was often cited as a cause of death for the Expos, and that was certainly a fair assessment in the days when the dollar was worth 30 percent more than the loonie.

On Friday morning, when I left Montreal to return to New York City, I stopped at the money exchange to cash in what was left of my Canadian dollars and coins. The teller offered me 92 cents for every Canadian dollar I gave back, an indication that the financial times certainly have changed.

Suddenly, you realize that Montreal is the largest metropolitan area in the United States and Canada without a baseball team. It's a relatively affluent population, considering that Canada's economy is now stronger than that of the United States. If Selig can't blackmail Tampa/St. Petersburg or the Bay Area into building a stadium for the Rays or the A's, might those teams be relocation candidates?

Today, there is no baseball in Montreal only because the commissioner's office did nothing to help a struggling market during tough times. MLB allowed the Expos to die so that Bud Selig could wrangle yet another completely publicly-financed stadium out of a struggling municipality. It was a travesty, a sham and a disgrace.

But baseball is not dead in Montreal. From the Gazette article: "The Expos were regularly stripped of their talent and mismanaged," said MLB. com reporter Barry Bloom, a longtime baseball writer. "They would need a new stadium above all else, but the precedent is there.

"Seattle lost the Pilots and got the Mariners. Milwaukee lost the Braves and got the Brewers. Kansas City lost the Athletics and got the Royals. New York lost the Dodgers and Giants, and got the Mets. And we know what happened in Washington."

The precedent is there. The money is there. And so, the potential is there. I'm not holding my breath that I will see the Expos at Citi Field one day, but I am practicing my version of "O Canada" ... just in case.


Mack said...

Montreal was a special town for me as a Brooklyn Dodger fan... it will always be "my" AAA franchise.

Charles said...

Unfortunately, after 1994 when they had an amazing team that possibly lost a chance at a championship, they kind of were that team that seemed to unload every year at the deadline. If a new york team doesnt draw a crowd during a losing season, why would the Expos? They would still be in Montreal had they competed regularly, however when you trade away Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, and many others like them, instead of trying to lock these players in long term, your fan base is going to think it's a pointless waste of time. Twice, the Marlins won championships and then had a firesale the following season, and then they use not having their own stadium as the reason. Released documents that they didnt want the public to see, showed they were profiting mightily while not keeping their best players, all while crying poverty in order to get a public funded new stadium. Funny that their owner used to own the expos until MLB, took it over. He was able to do in Miami what Montreal was too smart to fall for. I kind of think that most anywhere, if you give the public a great product or at least hope of future success, would be able to sustain an MLB franchise. If you put the Phillies or the Yankee roster in Mississippi, chances are they'll come out and pay 5 bucks for a hotdog, 9 bucks for a beer, and even more for a seat.

Jack Flynn said...

Charles: I agree with your sentiments. The Expos were done in by the strike and two ownership groups that failed to invest in the product.

In 1990, the A's and the Royals were both in the Top 3 for overall payroll. In 1995, they were small-market teams. Montreal never spent like Oakland or KC, but like the A's and the Royals they were not the penny-pinching outfit they became after the strike.

The club was owned by Charles Bronfman until 1991 and the family business (Seagram's) helped pay the bills. The new ownership pulled the purse strings tight after the strike and eventually sold to Jeffrey Loria, who I am sure that there is already a special little corner in hell reserved for. Loria eventually finagled his way into control of the Marlins when Bud Selig decided that Washington DC deserved a third shot at supporting a baseball team more than Montreal deserved a competent ownership group.

Meanwhile, the Expos had never captured Montreal's fancy the way that the Canadiens still do, and after the strike there was a lot of bitterness toward MLB. Olympic Stadium remained a terrible place to play. Ownership made it clear that it was unwilling or unable to put a quality product on the field. The results were predictable: fans stayed away.

Montreal can still work as an MLB town, but only with an ownership group willing to do the dirty work to get a new stadium built. I suspect that Selig would be more than happy to threaten Oakland, Kansas City or Tampa with relocation the same way he once threatened Montreal.

Mack's Mets © 2012