Time is ripe for MLB to make decisions about return to Montreal

More than 100,000 fans are expected at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium this weekend to witness a pair of exhibition games between the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox.

So, you ask, what’s happening with Montreal’s effort to bring back Major League Baseball to the city?

Well, we know Montreal has the requisite baseball passion. The city is about to turn out in extraordinary numbers to watch spring-training baseball for a third straight year. Warren Cromartie and the Montreal Baseball Project have a growing coalition of fans –€” many of them Millennials –€” engaged in the cause of restoring Montreal as an MLB city.

We know Montreal has political will, too. Mayor Denis Coderre has been a persistent and effective advocate for MLB’s return to his city. To the extent that some public funding for a stadium is realistic, Coderre is the perfect point man to pursue it.

That leaves one fairly substantial variable.

Tim Raines was one of the major stars of the Montreal Expos in the ’80s.

Money.

Specifically, who’s going to own this team?

The names of the potential power players have lingered since the fall of 2014, when La Presse, the French-language, Montreal daily newspaper, reported that businessmen Stephen Bronfman, Mitch Garber, Larry Rossy and Bell Canada would be part of the ownership group.

For a variety of reasons, the time has arrived for one — or more — of those parties to stand before television cameras and opened notepads to inform the public (and baseball industry) of where the project stands.

Where would the new ballpark be? How long can the group wait for MLB to expand or a franchise to go up for sale? Do they have the financing to purchase a team in the next two or three years, if, say, the Tampa Bay Rays are unimpressed by an ongoing survey of stadium sites in Florida?

And one more: How will the Montreal businessmen convince the other MLB owners — who vote on such matters — that the return of baseball to la belle province  is in the best interest of the sport and their individual pocketbooks?

To be sure, the prospective owners have remained in contact with MLB officials away from the public eye. Last fall, Bronfman and Coderre signed a letter — sent to the commissioner’s office and all 30 clubs — enumerating the group’s near-term plans and overall objectives.

Certainly, MLB would prefer that sensitive communications about securing a franchise remain confidential. But there’s an added layer of legitimacy to be gained through public vetting, even if the information put forward is (at least initially) short on particulars. The transparency will become more important as the probable request for public financing nears. (Of note, Quebec’s provincial government recently contributed a reported $200 million for a new hockey arena in Quebec City.)

If Montreal is to return to MLB — via expansion or relocation — the next two years are critical. 

If Montreal is to return to MLB — via expansion or relocation — the next two years are critical. By the end of that period, the Rays should know whether they’re staying or leaving Tampa Bay. And that is the single most important piece of information to baseball’s future in Montreal, one way or the other.

The reason: MLB and the MLB Players Association are in the preliminary stages of negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Both sides are open to expansion. While the new CBA is unlikely to mandate the increase to 32 teams, the deal could include language that provides the framework for how that can happen. And MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has spoken about the impracticality of expanding until after stadium issues are resolved in Oakland and Tampa Bay.

At some point — maybe after this weekend’s games — Montreal fans will look at one another and remark, "That was great. What now?" Perhaps the next step will be regular-season games at Olympic Stadium, leading to the return of a permanent franchise.

If that is indeed the answer, the time is right for Montreal fans — and other stakeholders in the sport — to hear it from those who aspire to have their names on the masthead of the new Montreal Expos.