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A New Hope for Baseball in Montreal?

I’m taking a detour from Habs playoff action to talk baseball.

I know, sacrilege, right?

If you’ve followed this blog for the better part of its existence, you’ve probably seen me write a few times about the grand game of baseball. When I launched this site, it was with the intent of blogging not only about the Habs and Hockey, but of baseball and any other sports-related stories that struck me. Of course, the Habs have basically monopolized the content here but that doesn’t mean I’m not following what else is going on out there, and don’t have some opinions that I won’t sound off on.

With that said, a few weeks ago, I was listening to the radio and tuned in to Montreal’s sports station just in time to hear the tail end of a conversation between Bob McCown and some other guy who appeared to be a baseball insider (update: thanks to David Blye who let me know that the interview was with Richard Griffin, Toronto Star baseball columnist, and former PR Director with the Montreal Expos). Part of their conversation focused on the struggling Las Vegas 51’s, who happen to be the AAA affilate of the Toronto Blue Jays. I’m not an expert on the viability of American cities as sports markets, but what I do hear about Las Vegas is nearly unanimous – it’s a lousy sports town. The economic downturn really hurt the city, many residents are from places other than Las Vegas (and thus don’t have an attachment to any home teams), and there’s too many other things to spend money on other than sports.

Montreal is the largest market in North America devoid of professional baseball of any level, and considering Montreal’s long (and unheralded) baseball heritage, that’s a damn shame. Naturally, people have begun creating possibilities and coming up with some plausible scenarios for bringing baseball back to Montreal. The latest scenario has the aforementioned 51’s moving from Sin City to Montreal. On the surface this is a great idea, isn’t it? Montreal gets a high caliber of ball, and Toronto’s top minor league affiliate sits only an hour away by plane. When you add the New Hampshire Fisher Cats to the mix (Toronto’s AA affiliate), the Blue Jays would have a heck of a footprint in a relatively small area. It would make moving players around much easier and would provide the Blue Jays with a huge population to which they could promote nearly the entire upper echelon of the organization.

I’m no Blue Jays fan, and I told myself that I never would be. Not after they voted to have the Expos euthanized in an attempt to claim a bigger share of the Canadian market. Once the Expos left, Montreal’s local sports radio station wanted to fulfill the wishes of some fans and broadcast Red Sox and Yankees games. The Blue Jays stepped in and blocked that move, claiming that Montreal was now their market, and they were proven right, as that same sports station did begin to carry a number of Blue Jays games. I thought that was an underhanded, dirty move by the Jays, but not one unexpected of a sports franchise in 2011.

With a baseball vacuum in Montreal, fans have been attaching their allegiances to teams all over the league, though the Red Sox seem to have a very strong following, as do the Yankees. That could conceivably change if the Jays were able to relocate their AAA team to la belle province. Lending additional weight to this scenario is the fact that Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos is a native Montrealer. He grew up as an Expos fan, and though he earns his living in Toronto now, he must certainly feel some pain from the baseball void in his hometown. It would make an awful lot of sense for him to want to fill that void, while at the same time streamlining logistics, promotions and interest in his own Major League team. That would be the right way to establish a footprint in a market, not by helping to kill the team that was already there, then claiming the territory as your own.

Of course, there is the ever-present issue of not having a proper stadium to play baseball in. While the Olympic Stadium could always be readied for baseball in the short-term, it is in no way a place to set up a team permanently. When there’s 40,000 people there, it’s a party. But how often does that happen, and how often would it happen with a Minor League team? Montreal would need proper plans for a 10,000-15,000 seat stadium before any of this becomes even a halfway serious conversation. More often than not, the “Big O” is more like a mausoleum than ball park, and it’s a pain in the neck to get to for those who aren’t near a subway line. Without the large crowd, it’s simply not an atmosphere for baseball. Minor league ball should be enjoyed outdoors, in more intimate ballparks. Period.

The bigger question is – would you support a AAA team run by the Blue Jays? Would you abandon a team that you follow by proxy if you suddenly had a team that you could root for in person? It’s a tricky question for Montreal baseball fans who have either sworn off supporting Bug Selig, or can’t stand anything Toronto on a good day, nevermind being in a master-servant relationship. If Montreal baseball fans hold hope of ever having a Major League team back in town (and that day is a long, long day away in the best case scenario), then hosting and supporting a AAA team would be a tremendous place to start. If the Blue Jays want to increase their footprint and market share in Canada, then this would be a move very much worth exploring. It could be a win-win relationship for everyone and would put Montreal back on the baseball radar.

What are your thoughts? Is it a hair-brained idea, or something worth maybe getting excited about? We all know the torrid love affair between Montrealers and the Canadiens. People like to say that hockey is religion in Montreal, but they’re wrong. The Canadiens are religion. All other forms of hockey struggle for attendance and coverage. But let’s not overlook the fact that the CFL is doing extremely well in Montreal (as evidenced by Molson Stadium’s recent 5,000 seat upgrade), and that MLS is slated to begin play at Saputo Stadium in 2012. This leaves baseball as the one sport that is sorely missing in the Montreal landscape.

In the mean time, if you’re a baseball-starved Montrealer, you do have some options, though they require packing up the car and heading out on the road. Here are some places where you can see some good, affordable ball just a few hours outside of Montreal, and not including the Major League teams in Boston, New York and Toronto:

  • http://www.matthiaskoster.com Matthias

    My bad Kyle

    IL = International League

    There are only two AAA leagues, the PCL (51’s currently in) and IL, which is where a Montreal team would play.

  • http://www.cowhideandrubber.com Kyle Roussel

    Hi Matthias,

    Pardon my ignorance, by IL, you are talking about one of the minor or independant leagues?

    I don’t expect that there would be baseball in Montreal in any capacity for at least another 3-4 years, so 2012 would be out of the question.

    Thanks so much for your feedback. I’ll be sure to connect with you via twitter!

  • http://www.matthiaskoster.com Matthias

    One big step towards this move is convincing the IL to add a team. They’d have to do so in quick order for the 2012 season.

    I attended a 51’s game last season (vs Tacoma). The ballpark is average for an older AAA park. The fan base didn’t differ too much from the crowds I’ve seen in other AAA parks like Charlotte or Syracuse.

  • http://www.cowhideandrubber.com Kyle Roussel

    Thanks Yvan. I have NO idea why I called them the Citadels. I’ve made the edit in the list. Thanks again!

  • Yvan Lali

    It’s the Quebec Capitales, not Citadels.

  • http://theactivestick.wordpress.com/ theactivestick

    Assuming I’d still live here, I’d buy season tickets in a heartbeat.

  • http://www.cowhideandrubber.com Kyle Roussel

    Hey Steve!

    It’s amazing how in total agreement I am with you. I wasn’t smart enough to ever make the trip to see the Lynx in Ottawa, and now that they’re gone, I regret it. I would almost prefer a minor league or independent league team in Montreal, over a Major League team (though give me a genie lamp to rub and I may wish differently!). I would LOVE to see a proper minor league stadium built in Montreal – that is to say – outdoors, affordable, cozy and accessible. I think MLB is a bit out of Montreal’s depth right now, especially with a complete lack of space for a proper 50,000 person stadium. I also think there’s a massive amount of mistrust among Montreal baseball fans and Major League Baseball. I don’t trust Selig as far as I can throw him.

    But I think the thought of any real ball in Montreal is years away…which is heartbreaking, and which is why I provided the list of “nearby” minor league teams to watch. Gotta scratch the itch somehow!

  • Steve Burns

    I’m all for a AAA team in Montreal. Even when the expos were still here I enjoyed seeing high calibre baseball in Ottawa and Vancouver minor league stadiums…
    Besides, MLB is not the ONLY way to enjoy a ball game on a summer night or afternoon – right now I would rather watch a good AAA team outdoors in a cozy ‘bandbox’ stadium, than a struggling small market MLB team in a covered cement bowl.

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