Rays-to-Montréal rumors heat up after some guy says Sternberg said something about it once

Here we go again: After longtime Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon abruptly quit on Friday, New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden dropped this into the tail end of an item about Maddon’s future and his former team’s:

After last year’s disappointing 77-85 fourth-place finish, they both realized they’d done all they could do in Tampa, and despite consistent 90-win seasons with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, the Rays played to a half-empty (or worse) stadium night after night. That, more than anything, wore on Maddon and his players, the manager told confidants. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has been frustrated in his efforts to get out of Tropicana Field in St. Pete and move to a new stadium in Tampa, but there is growing belief that the economically depressed Tampa Bay area won’t support the Rays no matter where they play. And according to sources, Sternberg has had discussions with wealthy Wall Street associates about moving the Rays to Montreal, which has been without a major-league franchise since the Expos were transferred to Washington in 2005. As one major-league official put it to me Friday: “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.

We’ve heard this rumor before, though this is the first time I’ve seen claims that Sternberg has actually had discussions about Montréal as an option. And Montréal is by far the biggest North American market without a team, ever since the Expos left in 2005. Still, it has a big problem in that its only major-league-ready stadium is even less loved than the Rays’ Tropicana Field, and there are no immediate plans for a new one. And you have to consider the source — Bill Madden loves to predict things, many of which turn out not to be true — and that the phrasing could mean just about anything: “discussions with wealthy Wall Street associates” could just mean that while shooting pheasants over sherry at the club, Sternberg sighed forlornly, “Some days I think I’d be better off in Montréal. I hear they have really good bagels there.”

Anyway, everybody and their sister has now been reporting on this unsourced rumor, and Sternberg is sure to try to use it as leverage for a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area, even though it’s pretty weak leverage when your lease says you can’t move for another 13 years. And Bud Selig, in his final week as MLB commissioner, is eager to help, saying he’s never heard from Sternberg about a Montréal move threat, but adding:

“The team has to have a ballpark that makes them competitive,” Selig said before Game 4 of the World Series. “It doesn’t produce the kind of revenue they need.”

Does Selig consider Tampa Bay a viable major league market?

He paused — a long pause — then declined to answer. He said he prefers to leave that judgment to the owner in each market.

We’re going to miss you, Bud. Nobody does passive-aggressive threatmongering like you.

People in Montréal say: Baseball, sure, that’d be fine

The folks trying to get a new baseball team in Montréal released a poll of residents yesterday, and, shocker of shockers, people there wouldn’t turn up their nose at a baseball team if one were handed to them:

The poll of 1,589 people taken by Leger Marketing showed 69 per cent were in favour of baseball’s return to the city. Only 11 per cent were opposed, and those mostly due to what it may cost.

It doesn’t look like the poll actually asked people what they’d want to spend to build a new stadium to get a team — the full poll results haven’t actually been released — but that’s certainly the plan. The Montréal board of trade is looking at getting a downtown stadium built for a potential team, and formerExpo Warren Cromartie said, according to the Montréal Gazette, that “three potential sites downtown have been identified, but he preferred not to say where.” The Gazette added that Cromartie “said his talks with Major League Baseball officials have been ‘very positive,’ but that there were some still opposed to a return to Montreal.”

All of which doesn’t add up to much: We knew that Montréal had a lot of baseball fans, that it’s big, and that MLB would be stupid to turn up its nose at putting a team there if it offered a new stadium. As when the Expos were still extant, though, the trick is going to be getting the stadium built, or rather figuring out who would pay for it. I wonder what ever happened to the money from that “buy a brick” campaign the Expos ran for their attempt at a new ballpark? Probably sitting in one of Jeffrey Loria’s desk drawers…

Globe reporter says Rays could move to Montreal, because he’s in Canada and what else is there to talk about?

I didn’t report here on the news a few weeks back that former Montreal Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie was leading a campaign to bring major-league baseball back to Montreal, even though 1) Montreal is by far the largest vacant baseball market in the U.S. or Canada and 2) Warren Cromartie, people. Because it was pretty clear that nobody was going to take this seriously, even at the rumor level, not after MLB effectively salted the earth in Montreal by running a bare-bones team there for several years and then yanking it away to Washington, D.C.

But now it looks like I underestimated the North American sports media’s appetite for rumor, especially around opening day of a new sports season, when there’s nothing much else to talk about and tons of airtime to fill. So we have the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo saying on NESN before yesterday’s Red Sox-Blue Jays game:

There’s a lot of money behind this group, and they’re certainly undergoing exhaustive surveys and polls and research… Major League Baseball has been very good about going back to cities that have had teams taken away from them in the past… Montreal just figures that the economics of this is just a lot different from what it was eight or nine years ago when they lost the team, especially with the dollar being about of equal value now, revenue sharing, big TV deals…

Yeah, well, maybe. The Canadian dollar is indeed stronger, and TV deals are bigger now — though they’re bigger in other cities, too, so it’s not like that gives Montreal a big advantage over existing MLB sites. And it’s worth remembering that before MLB was “very good” about going back to Washington, D.C., it spent 33 years using that city as a threat to get other cities to build new stadiums, because Washington was just waiting out there, doncha know.

MLB has lacked that potent threat since the Nationals were created in 2005, but it sounds like Cafardo (or whoever he’s been talking to) is psyched to get Montreal on the map as Washington’s replacement as move threat boogeyman:

Obviously, you look at a team like Tampa Bay, would they move to Montreal? … If Montreal could build a new stadium with a retractable roof and guarantee some income there, would that be a viable possibility?

Then Cafardo immediately called the possibility of MLB returning to Montreal a “longshot” and said it “probably won’t happen anytime soon.” But not before his words got back to Tampa Bay. Before everyone freaks out too much: Just remember that not only doesn’t Montreal have a usable baseball stadium (or any plan for paying for one), but Cafardo has a certain weakness for defending lost causes.