The Ex-Rays: Tampa Bay gets OK from MLB to explore Montreal
NEW YORK (AP) — The Ex-Rays?
Starved for fans despite success on the field, the Tampa Bay Rays have been given the go-ahead by Major League Baseball to look into playing a split season in Montreal.
No timetable for the possible plan was announced. An idea under consideration is for the Rays to play early in the season in Tampa Bay and finish up in Montreal, the former home of the Expos.
Commissioner Rob Manfred made the announcement Thursday at the end of the owners' meetings, saying the executive council had granted the Rays "broad permission to explore what's available."
Manfred said it's too soon to detail the particulars — as in, where the team would play postseason games, or in what stadiums. He did not address whether this would be a step toward a full move.
"It's an interesting kind of idea," Rays outfielder/infielder Brandon Lowe said before playing at Oakland on Thursday night. "It's in the future. It's so far ahead of us that it's going to be big news right now, but I feel like a lot of us are just kind of, 'it happened, we saw it,' but that's really all it is."
Still, that was plenty enough to spark excitement in Canada, where the Expos played from 1969-2004 before moving to Washington and becoming the Nationals.
With their introductions in French and English, jaunty organ music, goofy mascot Youppi! and fun tricolor logo, Les Expos flourished for years with a truly international flair.
"I was fortunate enough to have played there when it was in its halcyon days," said Steve Rogers, a five-time All-Star pitcher for the Expos from 1973-85.
"It was a destination spot," he said. "I have no doubt that the city of Montreal would go over the top now to embrace a major league team. I do believe that."
Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, in a statement, said: "My priority remains the same, I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come."
"I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration," he added.
Forget it, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said. Tropicana Field is located in his city.
"I want to be crystal clear. The Rays cannot explore playing any Major League Baseball games in Montreal, or anywhere else for that matter, prior to 2028 without reaching a formal memorandum of understanding with the city of St. Petersburg," he said.
"And ultimately such a decision is up to me, and I have no intention of bringing this idea to our city council to consider. In fact, I believe this is getting a bit silly," he said.
The Expos then, like the Rays now, operated with a small payroll, often losing stars to big-market clubs, such as Pedro Martinez and David Price. And low attendance plagued both franchises.
Tampa Bay is averaging 14,546 fans per home game, ahead of only the Miami Marlins. The Rays have played at Tropicana Field since their inception in 1998 and drew their lowest home crowd of 5,786 against Toronto last month.
The Rays had looked into building a new stadium for years but in December abandoned a plan to build across the bay in Tampa's Ybor City area. They are committed to play in the Tampa Bay area through 2027.
"You hear the passion from the fans there, that when the Expos played there, you recognize that they're in the mix now, there's been a lot of talks. I think baseball wants to go where baseball's wanted," Rays manager Kevin Cash said, adding, "I think the intention of it is ultimately to do the best that we can do to keep baseball in the Tampa Bay area."
"Look, MLB, the Rays, they're trying to grow the brand of baseball. I think we recognize that with what we're doing, what they're doing in London, what they've done in Mexico, all over the world, this is probably another avenue," he said.
In their last two seasons before moving, the Expos played 22 games per year at San Juan, Puerto Rico.
"This concept is definitely one that is of interest to my partners and me and we are looking forward to studying this further," said private equity mogul Stephen Bronfman, whose father, Charles, was the original owner of the Expos.
MLB has staged exhibition games in Montreal in recent years involving the Toronto Blue Jays and has drawn well for those. MLB has loosely talked over the years about expansion into Montreal, but Manfred repeatedly has said expansion will not be considered until the Rays and Oakland Athletics get new ballparks.
The Expos were MLB's first international franchise and a popular place for fans and visiting teams when they began, offering a lively, festive atmosphere at cozy Jarry Park.
Over the years, the Expos became a force with the likes of future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Vladimir Guerrero, but attendance lagged at Olympic Stadium, where the Expos averaged just over 10,000 in 2002, their last season of a full home schedule in Canada.
"The way it went at the tail end, that was very, very dreary and dismal," said Rogers, who spent his entire career with the Expos.
As for this announcement and Montreal's future, "it's meant to be a potential solution," he said.
In other matters discussed by owners:
—Protective netting. Manfred said teams continue to pursue ways to ensure fan safety, with the Washington Nationals joining the Chicago White Sox this week in saying they will expand netting at their parks.
—Home runs. Manfred said it had been determined this current batch of baseballs have less drag on them, making them fly farther. He said the balls were being made the same way as in the past, and it was being studied why these ones are going so far.