Is a return to Montreal the answer to baseball's biggest dilemma?

ByHoward Bryant via ESPN logo
Friday, June 12, 2015

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TALK TO BASEBALL fans in Montreal, real ones, ones who remember the last good days before the sabotage and the theft, and they can tell you all about June 27, 1994, the night the second-place Expos were hosting the first-place Braves. Over 45,000 people packed Olympic Stadium for the series opener to witness ace Ken Hill, 10-3, against ace Greg Maddux, also 10-3. It was perhaps the loudest the house had ever been, louder even than during the 1981 playoffs against the Dodgers, especially when Cliff Floyd delivered the knockout blow, a home run off Maddux in the seventh. Hill bested the great Maddux. Montreal took two of three. These Expos had arrived.

Forty-four days later, Pedro Martinez beat the Pirates 4-0. In between, the Expos played like an elite team. Then, on the 46th day, with an MLB-best record of 74-40, the Expos players, along with the rest of baseball, went on strike. Ask many of those same fans about that day, Aug. 12, 1994, and they'll tell you the strike killed the game in Montreal.

Now the Nationals, the former Expos, are celebrating 10 years of baseball in Washington while Montreal marks a decade without it. But amazingly, MLB is sending signals that it believes the city is ready for a second act. Over the past two years, Montreal has hosted Blue Jays exhibition games to packed houses. And during a June 1 Cardinals-Brewers game, commissioner Rob Manfred said he wants more games played in Montreal. He's even met with the city's mayor, Denis Coderre, about bringing the game back north. All this suggests MLB is employing the time-honored strategy of the test balloon. (After Bill Bartholomay moved the Milwaukee Braves to Atlanta in 1966, Bud Selig arranged for the Chicago White Sox to play games in Milwaukee in hopes of eventually stealing them. That never happened, so Selig grabbed the expansion Seattle Pilots instead.)

It's not hard to figure out what's driving the Montreal conversation: Baseball has problems. The problem is with Oakland, a team not for sale and unwilling to relocate outside of the Bay Area but desperately in need of a new stadium. The problem is with Tampa Bay, a team also not for sale, but unlike Oakland, it's frustrated enough to move. Rays owner Stu Sternberg is in an impossible place. The ballpark is no good. The region, a mass of bridges, is rush-hour-challenged. Transplants root for other teams. The fans supported the team with solid TV ratings as it improved and won the AL pennant in 2008, but the Rays have finished last in attendance per game for three years straight. Despite the agreement that the Rays must stay in St. Petersburg until 2028, baseball historically has proved there is a way out of anything.

To that end, MLB has another problem: It is out of places to go. Portland would infringe on Seattle; Charlotte would infringe on DC, Baltimore and Atlanta. Las Vegas is too small of a TV market. The Mets and Yankees oppose a third team in New York. The Red Sox oppose a second team in New England. MLB's creative idea for San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico, to share a team died with the great recession.

Maybe it's just a leverage ploy, but Montreal, once the problem, might be a solution. The city's fans remember the sabotage beginning in 2002, believing the fix was in from the inside (directions to the stadium in French and English mysteriously went missing) and outside (the commissioner's office taking ownership of the team; the trial run of regular-season games in Puerto Rico; Selig's calling Washington a prime candidate for relocation), so they have no reason to trust baseball. Still, the city has people (1.6 million, over five times as many as Tampa), sophistication and history. Not just the Steve Rogers-Andre Dawson and Pedro Martinez-Vlad Guerrero history, but dating to 1946, when Jackie Robinson made his pro debut with the Dodgers' Montreal-based minor league team. And as painful as the Expos' exodus was, it's also worth remembering that when there was magic on the field, made by Tim Raines or Larry Walker, Expos fans always represented. The game's roots run deep, and if Washington can be remade as a baseball town -- the game failed there twice before taking off -- so too can Montreal.

Maybe Cliff Floyd taking Maddux deep 21 years ago won't be the last home run that mattered after all.