Could baseball be on its way back to Montreal sooner than expected?
The Tampa Bay Rays have received permission from Major League Baseball to explore the possibility of playing early-season games in Tampa, but the remainder of the year in Montreal.
The news was first reported by Jeff Passan of ESPN.
The plan is in its early stages, but the team sees it as a way to salvage baseball in the Tampa area when attempts to get a new stadium built have yet to find any kind of success.
Passan discussed the development with SportsCentre's Glenn Schiiler Thursday afternoon.
“You know, the Rays for a decade now have been trying to get a new stadium down in the Tampa St. Pete area. They play in Tropicana Field. It’s old, it’s kind of dingy, it’s not exactly the most atmospheric baseball stadium out there and they just have not gotten anywhere. And so I think this is partially a leverage play but I also think they really deeply do believe that something like this could actually work which would keep baseball in the Tampa Bay area and would also bring baseball back to Montreal," Passan said.
Rays owner Stu Sternberg weighed in on Passan's report on Twitter, seemingly confirming the plan.
"My priority remains the same," Sternberg said in a statement, "I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come. I believe the concept is of serious consideration."
But things may end up being quashed before they even get off the ground.
St. Petersburg, Fla., mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement that he told the team he would not grant permission for talks with Montreal considering the Rays have a use agreement with St. Pete until 2027.
"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 in a statement. "Ultimately, such a decision is up to me. And I have no intention of bringing this latest idea to our city council to consider. In fact, I believe this is getting a bit silly."
He added: "Major League Baseball may have given the approval for exploration of this concept, but for us in St. Pete, sharing this team with Montreal is not an option on the table."
The plan would call for new stadiums in both Tampa and Montreal. If the Rays were to play only early-season games in Florida, then it would remove the need for a dome and cut down on potential stadium costs. Tropicana Field was built in 1990. In Montreal, Stephen Bronfman - son of former Expos owner Charles - has an agreement in place with a local developer to potentially build a new park in Point-Saint-Charles.
The Rays' lease on the Trop runs through 2027 and any such plan with Montreal would be contingent on local stadium plans.
Despite currently occupying a playoff spot, the Rays have the league's second-worst attendance averaging 14,546.
When asked if the proposal helps or hurts Montreal's chances of one day getting a team back full-time, Passan had this to say.
“I think it could do nothing but help, honestly. Let’s say hypothetically that this fails – just throwing it out there because it’s certainly a distinct possibility. There are a lot of needles to thread to make this work. If this fails, it is not going to fail on account of Montreal’s effort. Stephen Bronfman is in on this and the fact that they have a deal in place to at least put a stadium in a particular neighbourhood in Montreal right now is further along than the Rays have gotten in a decade trying to find things down in Florida.
"And the fact that Major League Baseball’s owners and the executive council at the owners’ meetings this week essentially rubberstamped Montreal as a possible destination for he Rays to go shows me that if they can’t get something done in Florida, you wonder if they just relocate the entire franchise and all 81 home games and all 162 games for the whole season off to Montreal," he said.
Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo offered his opinion on the matter later on Thursday.
Montoyo, who played for the Expos in 1993 and spent four seasons on the Rays coaching staff, said that it would be "awesome" to have baseball back in Montreal, but he questioned the logistics of the operation.
Montreal has been without baseball since 2004 when the team moved to DC and became the Washington Nationals ahead of the 2005 season. The Toronto Blue Jays have played an annual spring training series at Olympic Stadium since 2014.