Baseball just paying a visit in Montreal exhibition games -- right?
MAR 14, 2014 3:18a ET
Barring a late-March snowstorm -- more on that later -- Major League Baseball will return to Montreal, if only temporarily, in the coming weeks.
The Toronto Blue Jays, now the lone Canadian team in the majors, will host the New York Mets at Olympic Stadium for exhibition games on Mar. 28 and 29. Over the same weekend, major-league teams will play friendlies against their farm clubs in places like Birmingham (Ala.), Memphis (Tenn.) and Norfolk (Va). They are dress rehearsals, the last opportunities to track curveballs before it all starts for real.
But in Montreal, these are the games that matter.
In 1994, the Montreal Expos were the best team in baseball when the players' strike wiped out the World Series. In 2004, the team left for Washington, DC. And so 20 years after the parade that wasn't, and 10 after the hollow feeling of that final game, MLB is passing through town for a couple days.
Awkward? A little. Emotional? Absolutely. But however embittered the locals are about the loss of their beloved Expos, the disillusionment won't keep them home. Evenko, the entertainment company producing the games, said this week that nearly 75,000 tickets have been sold for the two days.
One thing we should make clear: At least in baseball's corridors of power, the games aren't viewed as a trial run before the imminent return of an MLB franchise to Montreal. Yes, at least one official from the commissioner's office is expected to attend the games. Yes, for a variety of reasons, Montreal would be a better baseball market today than it was 10 years ago. (A recent feasibility study suggested as much.) But with no active efforts toward expansion or relocation by MLB, along with the recently diminished Canadian dollar, the possibility remains remote.
So what, exactly, is the significance of these games? As one would expect from one of the world's most eclectic (and opinionated) cities, it depends on whom you ask -- and probably in which language.
Among the possibilities:
A) The civic celebration the '94 Expos never had, with Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, Cliff Floyd, John Wetteland and manager Felipe Alou among those expected to attend a March 29 pregame ceremony and gala.
B) An opportunity for Montreal fans to show they would support a major-league franchise on a full-time basis. We can debate whether two exhibition games constitute a meaningful sample size, but, under the circumstances, attendance of 35,000-plus is certifiably huge. Montrealers would take pride in delivering more crowds in excess of 30,000 during a single weekend than Jeffrey Loria, the reviled former Expos owner, saw over the entire 2013 regular season with his Miami Marlins (one, for the home opener).
C) Strictly business. The Blue Jays want to expand their fan base in Quebec, Evenko calculated (correctly) that there is pent-up demand in Montreal to see MLB games, and this is an opportunity for both parties to make money with Expos nostalgia reaching a 10-year high.
D) It's been far too long since revelers in Expos hats packed Rue Sainte-Catherine at 3 a.m.
E) All of the above.
"It's going to be historic, to bring back baseball after 10 years," Simon Arsenault, Evenko's manager of events and business development, told me this week. "The response of the fans has been amazing -- above our expectations."
Of course, Olympic Stadium had to be coaxed out of semi-retirement to make the games possible. Not only did the Expos leave a decade ago, but the Montreal Alouettes (CFL) and Montreal Impact (MLS) rarely play at The Big O anymore. Most recently, Stade Olympique hosted a four-day RV show.
Arsenault explained that, when the Expos left to become the Washington Nationals, a considerable amount of baseball equipment departed with them. Thus, organizers have had to rebuild dugouts, bullpens, and (lest such trifling details be forgotten) a portion of the outfield fence. Because the Impact are scheduled to play at Olympic Stadium next Saturday, the artificial surface for soccer will remain in place but be reshaped for baseball.
Clay and dirt had to be purchased from an MLB-approved supplier. The provincial government of Quebec, which owns Olympic Stadium, bought the batting cage the Blue Jays used at Rogers Centre in Toronto last year.
It won't have Fenway's charm, or the amenities and vistas of San Francisco's AT&T Park. But an MLB official, player, or fan might glance up at the antique roof and conclude that the overall accommodations are roughly equivalent to the Oakland Coliseum, universally judged to be the worst stadium in the major leagues.
Surprisingly, that counts for something. The A's, like the Tampa Bay Rays, are looking for a long-term home. And while MLB officials say there's been no discussion of franchise relocation at recent owners meetings -- and neither franchise has intimated publicly that it is ready to leave its respective Bay -- any return-to-Montreal scenario involves the Team to Be Named Later playing at Olympic Stadium for a season or two while a permanent home is built elsewhere.
People with varying degrees of clout in baseball may walk out of Olympic Stadium later this month and say, "You know what? They could play here again -- for a very short period of time."
But that's not what motivated Evenko to host these games.
"We wanted to bring another sporting event to town," Arsenault explained. "Montreal is an important sports market. We see it with all the events we have here -- UFC, boxing, the NBA, when the Raptors come here (in the preseason) every year. We approached the Blue Jays about the opportunity to play preseason games here, they accepted, and the market reacted very well.
"We think there's a good chance one or both of the games will be sold out. It's going to bring a lot of people from Ontario, the Northeast (US), and the rest of the province. It will be very good exposure for the city. MLB, I'm sure, is going to look at it. They'll be impressed by the popularity of the games. Our goal is to build a tradition of the Blue Jays coming here (for preseason games) every year."
One caveat: Remember the infamous Olympic Stadium roof? Ever since the weight of accumulated snow punctured it in 1999, the provincial government has mandated a safety protocol. As David Heurtel, then president and CEO of the Olympic Park, told CTV Montreal last year: "(Twenty-four) hours prior to an event, if we have a weather report indicate that there will be snow, or any type of accumulation on the roof, we shut down the stadium."
That wouldn't normally be a problem in late March, but Montreal was hit with snow again this week. Surely, Mother Nature won't interfere with the long-anticipated celebration for this star-crossed baseball town ...
"It won't snow," he assured me. "It's going to be sunny and hot. We're going to be in the spring by then. It's going to be beautiful."