Morosi: Fans prove baseball passion is alive and well in Montreal
La Ligue majeure de baseball returned Friday to a place the sport tried to forget. A paroxysm of emotion pinballed among 46,121 souls beneath Olympic Stadium’s Kevlar roof: nostalgia, pride, heartbreak, hope, joy — all of it raw. And it was loud. Very, very loud.
Before the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets began their hotly anticipated two-game set, observers here wondered whether Montreal fans could cheer a Toronto team. The answer was a resounding yes.
While most of the jerseys, flags and chants were poignant tributes to the Expos — who moved to Washington, D.C., 10 years ago — a certifiable roar went up when Ricardo Nanita, a 32-year-old with more than 1,000 games in the minor leagues and zero in the majors, delivered the walk-off hit in a 5-4 Toronto win.
More than any player or team, though, Montrealers were rooting for the event itself. The end result was a spring training game that occasionally felt like the postseason.
Only 3.29 percent of regular-season games across the majors last year drew a crowd as large as Friday’s, according to research through STATS LLC. Few, if any, elicited more passion. “A lot . . . more energy than your usual major-league crowd,” Toronto star Jose Bautista affirmed afterward.
But the night before, Olympic Stadium was mostly empty when Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre arrived for one last dress rehearsal. He threw out Friday’s ceremonial first pitch wearing an Expos hat and jacket, the tricolor logo in its peculiar splendor.
Coderre wanted to practice on Thursday before so many eyes (including those of Major League Baseball officials in attendance) trained their gaze on his suddenly resurgent baseball city.
“Let me tell you a little story,” Coderre said in an interview with FOX Sports 1 shortly before Friday’s game. “Last night . . . I walked from center field and it just hit me in the face — all those great memories I was living. I saw all those images, of the people who were standing when we had that All-Star Game [in 1982], with Gary Carter and all the others . . .
“We are an Olympic city. We believe in sports. We’re at the crossroads, and we have to show what we are made of.”
Coderre was right: If this story ends with a major-league franchise back in Montreal — a long shot, albeit an increasingly plausible one — Friday may be looked upon as the night when wistfulness gave way to action.
As recently as last year, MLB commissioner Bud Selig answered dismissively when asked about the possibility of the sport returning to Montreal. But the mood has changed. Two high-ranking officials from Selig’s office — executive vice president John McHale Jr. and senior vice president Joe Garagiola Jr. — were in Montreal Friday. Both chatted with Coderre on the field roughly an hour before the game began.
If I wanted to exaggerate the story, I could say, “MLB officials are talking with the Mayor of Montreal.” That’s technically true. I witnessed the conversations. But I’m not going to read too much into what I saw.
Still, here’s what I believe: Because of a recent feasibility study — assuming a new downtown ballpark — and a growing (if understated) response from Montreal’s business community, MLB is giving Montreal’s effort the respect it deserves. The presence of McHale and Garagiola demonstrated that.
“I think this is going to be a very significant story after this weekend,” McHale told me, when I asked about the size of the crowd. “The continued enthusiasm for Major League Baseball here is remarkable. I think all of us in the commissioner’s office need to take notice of it.”
McHale said the feasibility study was “a good, competent product, but it’s only one piece of a much broader effort that has to be assembled . . . and it’s got to eventually be compelling to an owner.”
When asked about Selig’s response to the attendance — with Saturday’s crowd expected to exceed Friday’s — McHale replied, “He asked me to be here to represent him because he knew this was going to be a big event . . . I suspect he had some sense of what was going on, but he may even be surprised (by the size of the crowds).”
Selig has said consistently that MLB has no plans to expand. The potential relocation of the Tampa Bay Rays, then, appears to be the most realistic scenario. With each passing year, Selig has grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress on a new stadium for the entertaining, well-run Rays.
The next couple years probably represent the Rays’ last, best chance to secure land and money for a new stadium in the Tampa Bay region. The new mayor of St. Petersburg has struck a more cooperative tone with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg than his predecessor, who resisted Sternberg’s request to explore other municipalities in the area.
The Rays also have a team built to win the World Series this year or next, with ace David Price headed for free agency after the 2015 season — if he isn’t traded before then.
One way or the other, the Rays’ future is reaching a critical juncture. They had the worst average attendance in the majors last year despite reaching the postseason for the fourth time in six seasons; if that trend doesn’t change quickly, the payroll is likely to come down from its current level. The Rays probably need a shovel in the ground within the next two years, or Sternberg’s admirable patience will expire.
Meanwhile, Montreal is proving itself to be a viable alternative. Friday’s crowd was roughly 13,000 fans larger than the Rays drew for either of their home playoff games last year.
McHale was circumspect when I asked about the Rays’ lack of progress on a new stadium, saying, “That’s not really something I can comment on, but you can draw whatever juxtaposition you think is right based on the facts known to you.”
So, there is room for Montreal to dream. The practicality hinges on two questions: Could Olympic Stadium, antiquated even two decades ago, be serviceable for a season or two while a new stadium is constructed? More importantly, would local ownership have the benefit of public funding in a country — and, specifically, a province — that has been reluctant to make such commitments in the past?
Coderre doesn’t deny that the city and provincial governments would need to contribute to a new stadium.
“We’re not there yet, but I understand the public money has to come,” he told me.
The commissioner’s office — and potential owners in Montreal — likely would nod approvingly at that answer. Next month’s provincial election could determine Quebec’s willingness to invest in baseball; the separatist Parti Québécois, currently in power, would be unlikely to facilitate the return of an MLB franchise.
Near the end of our conversation, I reminded Coderre that certain sports figures are fond of making guarantees and asked if the Expos will return by the time he’s through as mayor (he was elected for the first time in November).
“Well, I’m bad at predictions,” Coderre replied. “People who know me (would say), if I take a file, I’m working really hard on it. But there’s ways to do it. You don’t want to go overboard. You don’t want to be overenthusiastic. You have to be sober.
“I’m from a prime minster (who said), ‘It’s good to be elected, but you have to last.’ So it’s undersell, over-delivery.”
The strategy is sound — and it has grabbed the attention of Major League Baseball, in a way few thought possible one year ago.