Ferguson: Could baseball work again in Montreal?

Scott Ferguson
1/25/2013 11:05:49 AM
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The Expos played their final game in Montreal on September 29, 2004. They drew 31,395 for that game, a resounding loss to the Florida Marlins. In fact the Expos, a lame duck team if there ever was one in 2004, dropped their last five home games.

The Expos wound up in Washington while their owner Jeffrey Loria landed in Florida. In their final season at the Olympic Stadium, Montreal only drew 748,550 fans for an average of 9,356 per game. Remember, some of their games over those final two seasons were played in Puerto Rico.

Why do I bring that up now? Well for the second time in less than six months Commissioner Bud Selig has come out with a pronouncement on how disappointed he is in the fan support the Tampa Bay Rays are getting. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg was quoted by John Heyman of CBS as saying "Major League Baseball no longer considers Tampa Bay as a baseball locale".

Selig points out the Rays have the second-best winning percentage in the American League over the past five years and made it to one World Series, yet continue to struggle to draw fans. The Rays drew 1,559,681 fans last season, dead last in the Majors.

Part of this is a power play. The Rays are trying to pressure the taxpayers and the state government to kick in for a state of the art stadium for the Rays, much like the one the Marlins moved into last season in Miami.
The crux of the matter is, Tampa Bay is an extremely well-run organization that's been winning consistently over the last few years with a payroll that rarely exceeds $60 million. They've also been able to hang on to key players like Evan Longoria and David Price. Yet in their entire 15-year history, they have broken two million in attendance only once, and that was in their first season, in 1998.

I've never bought into Florida being a baseball state, at least not at the Major League level. Football rules. Florida is a great place to go for Spring Training. A baseball road trip to watch Grapefruit circuit games can be incredible in March when most of our country is locked in winter's deep freeze. But I'm starting to think that MLB's Florida experiment is a lost cause.

This brings me back to Montreal. Is it time to revive the Expos? A winning Tampa team could move to Montreal and slide right into the American League East as a tremendous rival for the Blue Jays.

Would it work this time in Montreal? With a new baseball-first stadium and committed ownership, the new Expos might have a chance. Having the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles coming to town nine times each per season wouldn't hurt either.

I know there is a group that includes former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie that is trying hard to get the Majors to return to Montreal.

Here is the concern. In their 36-year history, Montreal had a peak attendance of just over 2.3 million in 1983. They had a five-year glory run where they were one of the top teams in baseball where they drew over two million in four of those five seasons. It would have been all five if not for the strike-shortened 1981 campaign. The point being there were numerous other years where the attendance figures were every bit as bad as the Rays, if not worse at times.

Part of the problem was playing in relatively small Jarry Park, and then moving to an oversized, out of the way, less intimate Big "O". The fans in Montreal were more boisterous and emotional than most I've seen in the Majors. They just seemed to grow weary of the ownership circus and not having a proper baseball facility.

If the Commissioner is making a veiled threat to move the Rays, then here's hoping Montreal becomes the target city.

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