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Could Baseball Ever Return to the City of Saints?

It became official on September 29, 2004 - Major League Baseball's run in Montreal was coming to an end after 36 seasons. On that day, the announcement was made that the Montreal Expos were moving to Washington, D.C., beginning with the 2005 season. This came as no surprise to anyone who follows baseball, as this inevitable move had been in the making for at least 10 years.

Let's take a look back at the history of baseball's fall from grace in Montreal. The decline began after the 1994 season. That was the season in which Montreal had the best record in baseball and was headed for only their second postseason appearance in the club's history. Then, in early August, disaster struck. It came in the form of a season-ending players' strike. The hopes of fans in Montreal for the Expos' first World Series title were dashed. The Expos deserved better. Their accomplishments during the 1994 season had gone for naught.

Following that 1994 debacle, The Expos' ownership group began to trade away and sell off the franchise's star players. As result, the Expos began to drop in the standings and never regained their 1994 level of glory. In response, disappointed fans in Montreal began to stay away from Olympic Stadium in droves. Attendance at Expos games dropped precipitously. By 1998, things had really started on go south (no pun intended). That season, the vultures had begun to circle the Expos. Correlating with the drop in attendance since the 1994 strike, the team was bleeding red ink, according to its owners.

Its ownership group, led by Canadian businessman Claude Brochu, wanted out of Olympic Stadium and had given Montreal and the province of Quebec one last chance to agree to build the Expos a new, publicly financed downtown stadium. Brochu said the team would have to be sold and possibly moved if he couldn’t get the new stadium. It was even rumored that that one of the potential owners from Washington, D.C. or Northern Virginia has entered into informal negotiations with Brochu. As the 1998 season was winding down, all of the Expos’ requests for stadium financing deals were rejected. It looked like the jig was up for the Expos in Montreal and that they would be leaving for either D.C. or Northern Virginia in time for 1999 season.

However, enter New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria to save the day in Montreal. Loria made an offer to become the majority owner of the Expos, keep them in Montreal, and be proactive in acquiring the necessary land, seeking sponsors, and getting a stadium deal done. MLB owners, eager to keep the team in Montreal, urged Brochu and company to sell the majority of their interest in the Expos to Loria, instead of selling out to interests in D.C. or Northern Virginia. Loria's bid succeeded and he became the majority owner of the Expos, prior to the 1999 season.

For a couple of years, all seemed well in Montreal. Loria eventually bought out the interests of the other owners. However, once he did this, things quickly turned sour again. When he agreed to buy the team, he had taken out an option to buy some choice (and rare) unoccupied land in downtown Montreal for the site of the new stadium. In late 2000, however, that option expired without Loria ever having exercised it. By 2001, that land had been snatched up by someone else for some other type of development. The Expos were left with no place to build a stadium and soon it appeared that Loria never really intended to build one. The man who had been seen as the Expos’ savior just two years earlier had now become demonized in Montreal. The perception in Montreal was that Loria had just wanted to buy the team in order to eventually resell it at a hefty profit and that this art dealer with no connections to Montreal cared nothing about the city or the Expos' fans.

During the 2001 season, MLB owners began to seriously discuss the idea of contracting, i.e., buying out and disbanding, two teams. Montreal and Minnesota, which had also failed to get public financing for a new stadium, were the obvious choices. When Commissioner Bud Selig and the owners attempted to contract these two teams at the end of 2001 season, the city of Minneapolis sued MLB to force them to honor the one remaining year on the Twins’ contract with the Metrodome. The suit eventually went to arbitration but could not be settled prior to the 2002 season, so the Twins had to stay around at least one more season.

Unable to contract just one team, MLB was forced to keep the Expos intact for another season as well. Before the 2002 season started, MLB played a little game of musical owners: Florida Marlins’ owner John Henry become the majority owner of the Boston Red Sox, which had been up for sale; Loria, who had been wanting out of Montreal (for obvious reasons), bought the Marlins; and the remaining 29 owners bought the Expos, thinking that they would only have to keep them for one season before contracting them.

During the 2002 labor negotiations late in that season, the owners negotiated away their rights to contract any team until the 2007 season. No longer having the power to contract them, MLB owners would certainly have to sell and relocate the Expos. At that time, D.C. and Northern Virginia were the only two serious contenders for the team. However, the Relocation Committee had just been formed and had gotten such a late start on this process in 2002 that MLB decided to retain ownership in the team for one more season and keep them in Montreal along with having them play part of their schedule in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Surely 2003 was going to be the Expos’ last year in Montreal, most baseball fans thought. By then, Portland, Oregon had entered the scene as another major contender for the Expos. During the 2003 season, the Relocation Committee met at various times with the three major contenders. They kept setting deadlines and kept missing them. They were supposedly going to decide on the Expos’ fate by the All-star game and then by the end of the regular season and then shortly after the World Series, but the clock ran out with no decision being made other than to keep the team in Montreal one more year along with having them play even more games in Puerto Rico.

2004 rolled around and several more possible suitors for the Expos had emerged, including Las Vegas; Monterrey, Mexico; Norfolk, Virginia; and even San Juan. The Relocation Committee was once again setting deadlines and missing them. Mercifully, the decision to relocate the team to D.C. finally came and the Montreal fans were put out of their misery. The long nightmare of a rollercoaster ride was finally over. No more fire sales. No more games in front of fans disguised as empty seats. No more "home" games in Puerto Rico. No more "final" years of baseball in Montreal.

However, the ending was obviously bittersweet. Montreal had welcomed Major League Baseball with open arms in 1969. From the friendly confines of Jarry Park to the spaciousness of Olympic Stadium, fans in Montreal had cheered on greats like Rusty Staub, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Andres Galarraga, Dennis Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, Larry Walker, and Vladimir Guerrero. Even before MLB came to town, the City of Saints had a rich history of baseball as minor league city. The great Jackie Robinson played his AAA ball in Montreal with the Royals.

Baseball's departure from Montreal, in many ways, was like a nasty divorce. The bitterness on both sides will probably last for years. MLB is bitter at Montreal fans for not supporting the team. In addition, it is bitter at Montreal government officials for failing to finance a new stadium for the team. Montreal fans are bitter at MLB because of their perception that it undermined baseball in Montreal. Montreal government officials are bitter at MLB for being so greedy.

In light of all of this, it would seem impossible that baseball could possibly ever return to Montreal. However, I think it could happen, given the right set of circumstances. Before anything could happen toward that end, however, enough time must go by for the bitterness to subside. They say time heals all wounds. That includes the wound of bitterness as well if people will only let it.

Once the bitterness is gone (or greatly diminished), three things need to happen. First, a potential ownership group with ties to the Montreal area must come forward. They must also prove that they are committed to baseball in Montreal. Second, a new downtown stadium must be built (not just promised). It must be financed by private interests, the city of Montreal, the province of Quebec, or any combination of the three. Third, fans must commit themselves to a potential new franchise by purchasing an adequate number of season tickets for several years in advance. This advance purchase campaign could be modeled after what NBA fans in Charlotte, N.C. did in order to secure the expansion Bobcats franchise.

If and when all of these requirements have been met, the way would be cleared for baseball's return to Montreal. As unlikely as it might seem now, the crack of the bat might once again be heard in Montreal and its love affair with baseball could be restored.

About the Author

Terry Mitchell is a software engineer, freelance writer, and trivia buff from Hopewell, VA. He also serves as a political columnist for American Daily and operates his own website - http://www.commenterry.com - on which he posts commentaries on various subjects such as politics, technology, religion, health and well-being, personal finance, and sports. His commentaries offer a unique point of view that is not often found in mainstream media.

Terry Mitchell