Analysis

With Valérie Plante at the helm, what happens to Montreal's baseball dream?

"She said that she loves Nos amours. OK. Well, she needs to show it," said Denis Coderre, in a parting shot. "I like baseball," the new mayor declared on TLMEP. But as Kamila Hinkson tells us, whether that translates into a return of the Expos is far from certain.

'She said that she loves Nos amours. OK. Well, she needs to show it,' said Denis Coderre in a parting shot

'I like baseball,' the mayor-elect, Valérie Plante, said on Tout le monde en parle Sunday. 'I'm more of a soccer girl ... but I mean, I like baseball.' (Tout le monde en parle/Radio-Canada)

This shouldn't be the time of year when baseball makes headlines in Montreal. For starters, it's the off-season. Oh, and we have no Major League Baseball team.

And yet, baseball has been in the news a lot lately, thanks in large part to our mayor-elect, Valérie Plante.

She and her team are a big reason why baseball became an election issue. And her win is the reason the sport is still in the headlines now.

Last March, a source told The Canadian Press that the group trying to bring back baseball to this city had met MLB's conditions, including support from two levels of government.

A spokesperson for MLB commissioner Rob Manfred declined to answer questions for this story, but it's a safe bet one of those levels of government was municipal, given former mayor Denis Coderre's much-vaunted love of all-things-baseball for the last four years.

"Denis Coderre was the number one cheerleader for baseball, and we lost the number one cheerleader for baseball, there's no question," said Mitch Garber, one of two business figures who have publicly revealed their involvement in the project.

So now, with the cheerleader gone, what happens to the baseball dream?

Baseball's biggest cheerleader in Montreal was Denis Coderre, who threw a ceremonial pitch during a pre-game ceremony as the Toronto Blue Jays faced the Cincinnati Reds in MLB exhibition play in 2015. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Why call a referendum?

Plante made a savvy move in turning the sport's return to Montreal into an election issue right off the bat.
Quebec businessman Mitch Garber said if two-thirds of the one billion dollars it will cost to bring back an MLB club back to Montreal comes from the private sector, perhaps a referendum on the merits of that project wouldn't be necessary. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

She threw down the gauntlet early, calling a news conference where she stated that on her watch, no public money would be spent bringing baseball back here unless Montrealers voted for it in a referendum.

She accused Coderre of negotiating with the league behind taxpayers' backs, painting herself as a champion of transparency and accountability.

In an interview on CBC Montreal's Daybreak, Garber said he agrees with the sentiment that baseball can't return at any cost.

It's important that bringing baseball back has public support, he said. But he added any new stadium should be financed mostly by private investors, and if that happens, why call a referendum?

"Maybe the demands on the city are so minimal that there's no need to get the entire city to be coming out to vote for baseball," Gerber said.

"If most of the money is being put in by private individuals. and there's a real benefit to the city, I don't see the real need for it at that point."

One location that's been proposed for a professional baseball stadium is the Peel Bassin in downtown Montreal. (Étienne Coutu)

A 2013 feasibility study produced by the Montreal Baseball Project in collaboration with Ernst & Young and the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, concluded it would cost upwards of $1 billion to bring a team to Montreal, including about $500 million for a stadium.

It said about $355 million of that would have to come from government funding.

Under that scenario, the majority of the money for baseball wouldn't come from taxpayers. But $355 million isn't exactly peanuts, either.

And with the province's announcement this month that it will put $250 million into a new roof for the Olympic Stadium, taxpayers may not be very interested in shelling out more money on brand-new stadiums in the near future.

'In no way ... a derailment'

Neither Garber nor former Expo Warren Cromartie, founder of the Montreal Baseball Project, a group that has been trying to get a team back to Montreal since 2012, say they're worried about the loss of their number one cheerleader.

In a statement posted online, Cromartie said he's looking forward to meeting Plante and working with her.
Warren Cromartie, former Montreal Expos and president of Montreal Baseball Project, said he's looking forward to meeting and working with Montreal's new mayor. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

He acknowledged the loss of an "ally" like Coderre may leave some questioning whether a Montreal MLB team will ever see the light of day.

"This change represents one of many moving parts working together that we have to adjust for," Cromartie said. "That in no way represents a derailment of our ultimate objective."
Montreal billionaire Stephen Bronfman is a key supporter of the project to bring back MLB to the city. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

One of those "moving parts" may be the fact that Stephen Bronfman, the other billionaire businessman attached to the project, and his Montreal-based investment company, Claridge Inc., are key players linked to a $60-million US offshore trust in the Cayman Islands that may have cost Canadians millions in unpaid taxes.

In an interview with the Journal de Montréal, Cromartie said he still has full confidence in Bronfman and his group.

Referendum a 'crazy' idea: former DC mayor

Anthony A. Williams was mayor of the District of Columbia when baseball returned to Washington in 2004. The team that relocated was , of course, the Montreal Expos.

Williams says to get an MLB team, there has to be some kind of combination of interest from citizens, fans, business groups and the government, and while it's not necessary that the mayor lead that charge, it is better.
Anthony A Williams, seen here in 2006, was the mayor of the District of Columbia when the Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2004. (DB King/Wikimedia Commons)

And it's especially good if the government gives the league incentives — like, say, financing a new stadium.

Nationals Park cost D.C. taxpayers $670 million. Predictably, whether it was worth itdepends on who you ask.

"You can't do it as an aside. You're really all in, if you fail, you fail. If you win, you win. You have to be willing to take that risk," he said.

The key is to make the idea part of a main objective for the administration, he said. It didn't have his municipal government's unanimous support, he said. The main sticking point? The use of public money.

And for the record, he's not a fan of the referendum idea. His exact words?

"I think that's crazy."

For the love of Nos amours

In his first news conference since his election night defeat, Coderre said his baseball dream is still alive, even if his career in municipal politics isn't.

He threw down a gauntlet of his own, saying if the Expos are to return, the new mayor will have to be involved.

"She said that she loves Nos amours. OK. Well, she needs to show it."

He said he would help with the effort, if needed.

On Tout le monde en parle on Sunday, Plante said she does want baseball to return, and she will continue whatever negotiations the past administration began.

With much of that work behind closed doors so far, she said she doesn't know everything about the file, and she wants to make sure baseball is what Montrealers want their money spent on, but still.

"I like baseball," she reiterated. "I'm more of a soccer girl, I'm more Impact, but I mean, I like baseball."

A less than enthusiastic declaration, perhaps, but a declaration nonetheless. Whether that translates into the return of the Expos, however, is far from a sure thing.

About the Author

Kamila Hinkson

Journalist

Kamila Hinkson is a journalist at CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter at @kamilahinkson.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Radio-Canada

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