posted by Kyle
Here We Go Again.
It seems like every few months some story rolls around that fans the flames of hope for the baseball lovers of Montreal. This time however, the story hasn’t appear out of the ether, but rather has come from one of Montreal’s most credible and authoritative voices on the game: Rodger Brulotte. In an interview with The Team 990′s Mitch Melnick earlier this week, Brulotte revealed that after spurning their advances several times, he had a conversation with a group of persistent Montreal-based businessmen who have a serious interest in bringing baseball back to Montreal. No names were given in order to preserve dignity if the project falls apart, but Brulotte is more than reputable and wouldn’t tease everyone if there wasn’t substance to the story.
The reaction to the story has been mixed. Many have gotten too excited, too quickly. Some blow it off as farcical and others walk the line of cautious optimism. What’s different this time is that the story seems to have evidence to support the thought that Major League Baseball can once again thrive in Montreal. It’s a well known fact that Montreal remains the largest North American city without any professional baseball in its boundaries. That in itself is a shame, but it means little…after all, while the conditions may be right to get a team here, that says absolutely nothing about sustainability from a fan/attendance standpoint and the ability to field a competitive team. Are Montreal’s baseball fans a sleeping giant, or are they so jaded by what has gone on in the past that they are either lost forever, or would be very slow to come around? Montreal is a town with no shortage of things to spend time and money on, and its casual sports fans take the word casual to a whole new level. Here today, gone tomorrow. Are there enough hardcore fans left to serve as an anchor while the casuals come back? We can’t possibly have the answer to that. The dreamers would say yes; the cynics would say no.
The volume was turned up a notch earlier this month as the Conference Board of Canada released a report stating that “Montreal has the necessary market conditions in place today to be the home of a Major League Baseball franchise“, but that league conditions wouldn’t yet favour a team in Montreal (i.e. no salary cap, and ridiculous climbing salaries). With the Canadian dollar soaring in 2011 (even hitting a modern all-time high), this is not a surprise. Montreal has certainly grown over the past several years and the business climate is a lot more stable now than it was 8-10 years ago when the Expos were as bankable as a radioactive hooker. Whether you believe it was the fans’ waning interest that ultimately killed the team, or the sad-sack dollar that prevented the team from being competitive that deflated the fans that sealed the team’s fate, or if you believe that MLB’s lack of support was the root of all evil, it’s irrelevant now. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and no shortage of people willing to dole it out. What we do know is that baseball did work in Montreal (in the late 70′s the Expos were as popular as the Habs, if not moreso even while the bleu-blanc-rouge were in the midst of a dynasty). For various reasons, baseball was taken away. Baseball in Montreal had become a punchline around the league as fewer than 3000 fannies filled the seats. Once you acquire that dunce cap it’s a stigma that is tough to shake.
While there are certainly differences in how Winnipeg lost then regained the Jets, and how Montreal lost the Expos (regaining them being the goal), there are lessons to be learned from the Manitoban capital.
Here in Montreal we view ourselves as a major league city. Aside from the NHL, however, Montreal has the CFL, which is a notch or two below the NFL. We also have the Impact, who currently play in the NASL (and who will soon graduate to MLS). In terms of global quality the NASL and MLS are way down the ladder (As an example, Manchester United, one of England’s best clubs trounced the best that North American soccer could muster up). So let’s drop the notion that it’s “the best or bust”; Montrealers do support “lesser leagues”. Would Montreal support baseball that wasn’t MLB? It has before, why can’t it do so again?
Most, if not all fans conveniently forget that the Montreal Royals were the top baseball team in town from 1897 until 1960. You read that correctly: 1897. They pre-date the birth of the Habs by 12 years, and lasted nearly twice as long as the Expos did. Granted, it was not the more demanding Major Leagues, but the point still stands: Montreal cut its baseball teeth in the minors until it was ready for the majors. Can it not do so again? In my humble opinion it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that if Montreal doesn’t get a Major League team then it shouldn’t get baseball at all.
Enter the Winnipeg situation. When Gary Bettman sacked the Jets and moved them to Phoenix, it was viewed as something that never should have been done in the first place. Many suspected that hockey in the deep U.S. South would never work, and for the most part, it hasn’t. When the economy began to pick up in Canada in the mid 2000′s, it was apparent that a team in Winnipeg was once again a possibility. But the seeds for the NHL’s return to the ‘Peg were sown nearly immediately after their departure in 1996. A businessman named Mark Chipman believed in Winnipeg’s viability as a hockey market and moved quickly to scoop up a defunct Minnesota Moose team of the IHL just to keep the pro hockey seat warm in Winnipeg. Without knowing Chipman, he must have known that you have to feed an appetite or it dies. Pablum isn’t caviar, but it will fill the void long enough until another source can be found. For hockey fans, it was surely a blow to the collective ego. From the NHL to the IHL in a few short months. From Teemu Selanne and Shane Doan to Randy Gilhen and Scott Thomas. Ouch.
When the IHL imploded, the Moose joined the AHL for the 2001-2002 season, representing a significant step up in the professional hockey food chain. With this move, the city was able to build the MTS Center, 15,000 seat arena which would one day hopefully be the home of another NHL team. Patience pays off. Starting again from the ground up pays off, even when you’ve gotten used to sitting on top of the mountain.
Lo and behold, the plan has worked, and then some. It took many years, but Winnipeg went through the long, arduous and frustrating process of having to prove itself to the NHL once again. With a new arena, a rabid fan base, a solid Canadian dollar and with more and more teams facing troubles in the NHL, a return to Winnipeg became an inevitability.
Can Montreal apply this template to regaining a foothold in professional baseball? We’re already behind the curve with no presence at all (whereas Winnipeg picked up the Moose immediately), and no stadium to play in (the Big O is not an option for any league – its no longer suitable and its a no-fly zone for many baseball fans). It’s now been nearly 7 full years without a professional baseball game being played. Here’s a useless stat: the Expos last home game is fresher in the annals of time than the last Maple Leafs playoff win (that’s 2645 days in the rearview now, Leafs nation). Montreal has been without organized, professional baseball for far too long considering the long and rich history the city has with the sport. Without a consensus on where to build a stadium, and without the evidence of unwavering fan support before a team is installed, the likelihood is that Montreal will be a baseball vacuum for years to come. But if Rodger Brulotte is right, and there is a group with money to spend and a vision in mind, then perhaps there is reason to be hopeful.
The point of this blog post is not to bang the Minor League drum, nor is it to promote the snobbish thought that Montreal is beneath the Minors. The point is that this is one route back to the majors, even if this post doesn’t address the issue of new stadiums. Surely a Minor League stadium would fall far short of the demands of a Major League stadium, and there’s no way that Montreal has place for two stadiums. I’ll leave it to people a lot smarter than me to figure out a way to build a stadium that can accommodate both as the situation changes. Surely there’s a way to build a 20,000 seat stadium for the Minors that can be expanded to 35,000 if Major League Baseball were to be brought back. Lastly, the issue of a level playing field has not been addressed, and it’s a major difference in how the Winnipeg and Montreal situations differ. Players in baseball are paid ungodly sums of money, and all it would take was for a sagging dollar and a slumping economy to once again throw baseball in Montreal under the bus (hint to Canadian sports fans: keep your gas tanks full, get your oil changed often and buy anything made with or from petroleum!). Until baseball institutes a salary cap system that ensures that small market teams can compete rather than flushing out their best talent year after year for “future considerations” we are unfortunately looking at a pipe dream as far as the Major Leagues go. Bud Selig and the powers that be at MLB will need to be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Montreal can not only be a viable market for baseball, but one that can survive the ups and downs of the economy as well. That’s not an easy task and it’s not something that can be proven until a city has to ride that roller coaster.
Flatly, though, I do embrace the idea of Minor League baseball in Montreal. It’s a less expensive option for families, it’s less demanding in terms of seating and operating costs, and it’s more conducive to a true baseball experience. I’m all for it. I wrote a post earlier this year about another note that I heard on the radio. This piece was about the Las Vegas 51′s being in peril and that a move to Montreal may make sense. It fills the baseball void, and gives the Blue Jays easy access to their top affiliate. It’s key to be affiliated to a Major League team, and in my mind it would be a lay-up in terms of proving that Montreal truly is a baseball hotbed lying in wait like a dormant volcano. Many Montrealers bristle at the idea of being Toronto’s AAA colony, (and that bristling is not without its political and societal leanings) but what’s the alternative right now? Also, Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos is a native Montrealer, and presumably somebody who’s heart was also broken when the game he loves was ripped away. How much would he like to be a part of this process? How much sense would it make for the Jays to have their AAA team in Montreal and their AA team just a few more hours away in New Hampshire? It makes tons of sense for them. It would give them a giant footprint in the Canadian market as well as strengthen their presence in the American Northeast. If Montreal could facilitate that, it would only help as a stepping stone back to the Majors.
There’s a lot to think about and digest here, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments section.
Article first published as Major League Baseball in Montreal? Look to Winnipeg on Technorati.