Cromartie heads study on viability of MLB return to Montreal

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The Canadian Press
3/20/2013 5:37:21 PM
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MONTREAL -- Warren Cromartie is convinced that Major League Baseball can be reborn in Montreal.

The former Expos outfielder and head of the Montreal Baseball Project, a group whose aim is to bring the major leagues back to the city, says he'll know soon whether fans and the business community really want it.

His group and the Montreal Board of Trade launched a feasibility study on Wednesday to see if conditions are right and the interest is there.

"The group that I assembled will make it clear to everyone, including Major League Baseball, that we're serious about bringing it back," Cromartie said at a news conference.

A team from the accounting firm Ernst and Young will analyse the financial factors and stadium options and law firm BCP LLP will look at the legal and financing structures of the project.

The polling firm Leger Marketing will take the pulse of the business community and the public to see if there are enough people ready to buy tickets and corporate boxes to make the team work.

The $400,000 study, with costs split evenly between the Board of Trade and some private business people, is to be completed by the end of the year.

The Montreal Expos, who joined the National League as an expansion team in 1969, were a huge success in the 1980s. But the team was playing in a nearly empty stadium by the time it was sold and moved to Washington to become the Nationals after the 2004 season.

Cromartie, who launched the project last year, said conditions are better for baseball to succeed now. He said the revival of the Canadian dollar, more television revenue, the advent of social media and increased revenue sharing in baseball would all help.

And he feels the introduction of wild card playoff spots would boost interest by giving the team a better chance to reach the post-season.

"When I was playing here, how many times would we have made the playoffs?" said Cromartie, an Expo from 1974 to 1983. "So a lot has changed in a positive way."

Now he has to change the minds of many former fans who had given up on baseball by the time the team left town.

"My whole agenda is to try to change the attitude," he said. "I know a lot of people were angry eight years ago. You have to get past that because this is a new era, new times. There's no ill-will toward anyone."

Bringing back baseball would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, not only to buy a franchise but to build a stadium. Disenchantment with the domed Olympic Stadium was a reason often cited for the Expos' demise.

They would also have to convince the powers that be to return to a city where, for many reasons, public interest petered out. Major League Baseball bought out the club from then-owner Jeffrey Loria in 2002 and ran it at a loss before moving to Washington.

Cromartie pointed to the U.S. capital, which lost major-league franchises twice, as an example of baseball returning to a city where it had failed.

Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the Board of Trade, is confident the city has the wealth, population and interest to support a team.

"The signal we're getting is there's an appetite for a baseball team," said Leblanc. "We're going to test that over the coming months.

"We're going to know. We need a strong fan base, but we also need the corporate sector to be there. We want to have these business leaders and head offices buy tickets and attend games."

What they don't have yet is a deep-pocketed individual or company to step up as owner.

After founder Charles Bronfman sold the team in 1991, it was co-owned by a group that was unwilling to take risks or invest in star players. The inability to keep top players like Canadian slugger Larry Walker was another reason fans chose to stay away.

Leblanc said that if the study shows a team is a viable investment, he is confident an owner or owners will emerge.

"Our belief is that Montreal is strong, our economy is strong, and we might have a viable product that will be good for Montreal and good for our brand abroad," he said.

Cromartie, who played nine years in Japan after leaving the Expos, lives in Miami but has relatives in Quebec City and keeps up with news from Montreal.

He was a member of the only Expos team to reach the playoffs in 1981, when they lost the National League final series to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Warren Cromartie (Photo: Annakin Slayd)

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(Photo: Annakin Slayd)
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