Montreal baseball fans better hope MLB dreamers know something nobody else does

After years of dead-end dreams, there is finally a ray of hope that baseball could one day return to Montreal. But there's a lot that needs to happen before it does.

Plan proposed for shared team with Tampa Bay contradicts everything that's happened in both cities

Montreal Expos baseball caps on display at a souvenir shop in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Expo fans, don't dust off those Tim Wallach jerseys just yet. And Youppi might want to cool his heels as well.

Yes, after years of dead-end dreams, there is finally a ray of hope that baseball could one day return to Montreal. But there's a lot that needs to happen before it does.

Major League Baseball has given the Tampa Bay Rays the green light to explore the viability of splitting the team's 81 home games with the city of Montreal.

The prospect of a second professional baseball team playing in Canada again obviously has many people excited. 

"It's not for me to be getting into timing or split numbers of games or whatever. There are so many questions and there's a lot of fun we can have with it," said businessman Stephen Bronfman this week in Montreal.

Bronfman, son of Charles — the billionaire original owner of the Expos, is behind a group that has been pushing to bring a team back to Montreal and has been targeting the moribund Rays for years.

"I'm really hoping that people embrace this notion of bringing baseball back to Montreal," he said.

Stephen Bronfman, right, and Pierre Boivin speak to the media on Wednesday about the prospect of Major League baseball returning to Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Expos enthusiasts may not want to delve too deeply into the idea.

Consider this: the cities of Montreal and Tampa Bay have struggled to support professional baseball in the past. Despite rosy memories, the Expos were near the bottom of the league in attendance for the final 20 years of their existence. Interest was tepid at best.

And neither team could get their respective cities to help build stadiums they felt their teams so desperately needed to support a full 81-game schedule. Now both markets are being asked to build two new stadiums to host half the number of games.

Seems like a stretch. The Rays are bending over backward to sell this idea to its shrinking fan base and disinterested business community. Remember, this move is being made after the team has repeatedly failed in its efforts to build a new stadium locally.

Team owner Stuart Sternberg called the approach innovative and said it is the only way the franchise can continue in Tampa.

"To be clear this is not a staged exit. That thought has never entered my mind," Sternberg told reporters on Wednesday. "This is not us taking a glance towards relocation to Montreal. This is not a page out of a playbook to gain leverage. This is about helping the team thrive here in Tampa and Montreal having one as well."

Sternberg said Montreal makes sense because the status quo in Tampa is broken.

"We cannot pretend that with a tweak here and there, we would have the stable franchise we all want," Sternberg said. "We greatly lag behind the rest of the league. We are at or near the bottom of every economic category in major league baseball."

It's hard to see how this move won't alienate what remains of the Rays fan base, but Sternberg did his best to sell what he acknowledges is a "longshot" idea.

Team officials portrayed the move as one in synch with an innovative franchise. The Rays were the first to employ the defensive shift, the opener pitcher and now this: splitting a season with another city.

He told reporters that this plan addressed the fact that baseball has too many home games.

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg, left, seen above in March, said at a news conference on Tuesday he would be 'hard-pressed' for the team to stay exclusively in Tampa or St. Petersburg, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)

"Eighty one home games is a lot of games. Does a community need to host that many games to have an affinity, for that connection?" Sternberg wondered. "No other pro or amateur sport comes close to providing 81 home games in a season."

Sternberg envisions "baseball thriving in both places where it could not host 81 home games."

The stadium proposal (or lack thereof) that accompanies this plan is probably the most concerning. There is no funding in place in either city, but this plan "envisions two new stadiums."

"We are expecting it to be a brand new ballpark in both places - in Montreal and here in Tampa Bay," Sternberg said.

But the Rays have been unable to get any traction on a new stadium in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area despite trying for more than a decade. 

And in Montreal, things are also unclear about the size, location, scope and price tag of a potential new stadium.

Sternberg would like to see this all in place by 2024. He envisions the team opening the season in Tampa, playing before 30,000 fans in an "intimate" stadium before switching to Montreal mid-season for a second opening day.

It all sounds great. But the Rays are locked into their lease at Tropicana Field through the end of the 2027 season. And the city is showing little signs of flexibility. Any early exit would carry a hefty price tag.

"I believe progress moves at the speed of trust. If Mr. Sternberg and his team are serious about this idea or any other, it will require trust," said Tampa Bay mayor Rick Kriseman. "If Mr. Sternberg wishes to discuss a plan to privately and fully fund a new stadium in the city of St. Petersburg, I am willing to listen. The city will not participate in funding a stadium for a part-time team."

And if this plan doesn't work, then what? It's clear Sternberg doesn't see a future for baseball in Tampa, hosting 81 games. Would he sell the team? Would it move? And if so, to where?

Montreal still remains in the same place it was when the Expos packed up and left town.

Despite all of this, Sternberg is optimistic.

"There are huge issues to overcome. We know that and we can overcome them," he said.

Expos fans better hope he knows something nobody else does.