Montreal, without a baseball team for a decade, may hear “Jouer a la balle!” again soon.
The New York Daily News reports that Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg looks at Montreal as a possible landing spot for his team. Sources say that Sternberg has been consulting his Wall Street friends about such a move, triggered by the paucity of fans attending Rays games. Before buying the Rays in 2004, Sternberg had worked on Wall Street.
The Rays have played for half-empty stadiums despite winning 90 games or more in five of the last seven seasons. They placed dead last in MLB attendance in each of the last three years. When they were in existence, the Montreal Expos drew significantly more fans; as one major-league official told the New York Daily News, “Say what you will about Montreal, but the Expos drew well over two million fans four times there in their heyday, while the Rays did that only once, their first year.” The Expos played their inaugural season in 1969 and left after the 2004 season largely because they could not build a new stadium.
Like ugly Olympic Stadium, Tropicana Field, one of two remaining parks sporting artificial turf, hurts attendance. Sternberg has made efforts to encourage the building of a new park in Tampa and leave St. Petersburg, which taxes Rays fans based in Tampa with a considerable commute. But Tampa itself experiences economically-depressed conditions. The empty seats means a lower payroll for players, but Rays manager Joe Maddon, who announced his departure Friday, cited the lack of fans rather than the low payroll for his decision. Maddon’s announcement came 10 days after GM Andrew Friedman left the team and headed for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Maddon has been rumored to be going to the Chicago Cubs.
The Rays had their worst season since 2007 this year, going 77-85 and winding up fourth in the American League East. They played to an average house of less than 20,000 spectators for the fourth year in a row despite 20 visits by the crowd-carrying Red Sox and Yankees.
The Expos won one division championship, in the strike-shortened 1981 season, before losing to the Dodgers in the playoffs. They appeared on their way to winning their division in 1994 when the strike cancelled the season. The Expos enjoyed gates of a million or more just once in their last six seasons in Montreal. That stretch, encouraged by constant rumors of a departure, followed a 21-year period in which the team eclipsed the million mark twenty times.