To the casual baseball fan, this probably looked like another publicity stunt. The Toronto Blue Jays playing their final two exhibition games in Montreal; a gimmicky way to sell pre-season tickets as spring training came to an end.
But to the city of Montreal and Expos fans around the world, this was so much more than that. This was the return of professional baseball to a city where it once flourished. And what a weekend it was.
Fans poured into Olympic Stadium on Friday night and Saturday afternoon for their first chance to see an MLB game in Montreal in ten years. Chants of “Let’s go Expos” and “We want baseball” echoed through the cavernous stadium all weekend. Ticket sales for the weekend fell just short of the 100,000 mark, meaning the games were more watched than the MLB’s two-game opening weekend in Australia on March 22 and 23.
The first game of the series featured a touching tribute to the late Gary Carter, who was perhaps the most popular Montreal Expo of all time. His widow, daughter and some former teammates were on hand as the city finally got its chance to pay tribute to “The Kid”, who died of brain cancer at age 57 in 2010.
The pre-game atmosphere was a bit more festive on Saturday afternoon, as the 1994 “Best Team in Baseball” was celebrated. The likes of Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, and Larry Walker were all present to remember the team that was 74-40 when the season was cancelled by a players strike.
To Warren Cromartie, the former Montreal Expo and founder of the Montreal Baseball Project, the weekend was obviously a success. The city of Montreal and its baseball fans are certainly grateful to his efforts.
But let’s not forget to thank the Toronto Blue Jays for the role they played this past weekend. After all, they could have said no. In fact, it probably made more sense for them to politely decline the offer.
Since the Expos packed up and fled to Washington, the Blue Jays have reaped the rewards that come with being Canada’s only MLB team. Toronto has successfully monopolized the baseball market through their television deals and marketing campaigns. They are, essentially, Canada’s team. Why put that at risk by bringing the Expos back into the mix?
There was also the logistics involved in staging the two games in Montreal.
Toronto played its final Florida spring training game on March 27 in Clearwater - a mere 23 kilometers outside of Tampa Bay. The Blue Jays then flew more than 2,100 kilometers north to Montreal, played two games, and then flew directly back to Tampa Bay for their regular-season opener against the Rays on March 31. That’s a lot of unnecessary travel for two spring-training games.
"To be honest, I'd rather stay in Florida, but it's good for Canada," Brett Lawrie told the Canadian Press while in Montreal, via CBC. "We can suck it up. It's good energy."
The Blue Jays had fun in Montreal, but the team might be regretting their decision to go out of their way to help promote baseball in Montreal. The team was lifeless in its 9-2 opening day drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays. Toronto also lost All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes to a hamstring injury after just the first inning.
Regardless, it was a nice move by the organization, one that won’t soon be forgotten in Montreal.
Professional baseball making its return to Montreal still seems like a long shot. A feasibility report by Ernst & Young reports it would cost $1 billion to build a new stadium and bring the Expos back, and no major investors have thrown their names into the mix yet.
There’s also the question of where the team would come from. Major League Baseball has said they don’t want to expand, meaning a potential Montreal team would have to be an existing franchise.
The Tampa Bay Rays are the most likely candidate, having had the league’s lowest attendance in 2013 (18,000 average) and stadium problems of their own. Relocating the Rays would also mean the Expos would get to play in the AL East and develop an in-division rivalry with the Blue Jays.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. An MLB franchise returning to Montreal is still a long ways off. For now, however, the city has at least alerted the commissioner’s office that the passion for baseball in Montreal is as strong as it has ever been.
It was an electric weekend at Olympic Stadium, and the city of Montreal owes the Toronto Blue Jays organization a big thank you for it. They inconvenienced themselves to help a city that has long been considered its biggest rival.
In the stat column, these games will be recorded as just a couple of exhibition wins for Toronto. Yet there is a chance, albeit small, that this was the start of something big. The Toronto Blue Jays deserve all the credit in the world for being involved.