Killed by Management, Revived by Fans?

The video above was recorded in April 2012, and features former Montreal Expos’ outfielder Warren Cromartie in a press conference, announcing the launch of the Montreal Baseball Project, something of a ‘fan-sourced’ effort to resurrect the defunct Montreal Expos baseball club.

Cromartie, also known to his adoring local fans as Cro, was a top-flight outfielder for the organization and was part of a triplet of excellent outfielders (including Andre Dawson) during the late 1970s that helped bring the club to the National League Championship in 1981. Those were very good years for Nos Amours.

Cro would later go on to become the most prominent American player in Japanese baseball history (not an easy feat – the Japanese are hardcore when it comes to baseball. He’s also jammed and befriended Canadian rock-band Rush, as he’s an accomplished drummer!). And not only that, he happens to be personally invested in bringing baseball back to Montreal, ideally as an MLB franchise. This is good news for local fans of the club, which was transferred to Washington D.C. (to be rechristened the Nationals) in 2004 after a multi-year slide into low attendance, dismal performance and a go-nowhere downtown ballpark project.

Bad press and bad management killed a highly competitive team that had entertained multiple generations of Montrealers; not ten years prior to their dissolution the team was positioned to make a pennant run, though the season and the city’s aspirations were cancelled by a strike. The 1994 Montreal Expos season was significant in that the Expos had the best team record in the entire league and had further sent five players to that year’s All-Star Game. It’s a bitter memory for die hard fans of the club, like the estimated 1,000 members of ‘Expos Nation’ who recently travelled to Toronto decked out in the Expos’ iconic colours and logo. Though ostensibly there to watch a Blue Jays game, they seemed more interested in making a case to MLB management – we want a team.

Now this is a nice idea, but how feasible is it?

And how do these social-media organized, fan-driven initiatives position a return of major league baseball to be as beneficial as possible not only to their own interest of having a local baseball franchise but to the city as well? Because ultimately the case has to be made to a wide spectrum of potentially interested parties at multiple levels (in sum, bringing the MLB to Montreal would require the city just to get all the pieces organized), and further still, we should be mindful of how we approach MLB higher-management.

That is, we cannot go hat-in-hand begging for a ball club.

Rather, I’d argue the best way to capitalize on current public sentiment towards the Expos is to be first to the finish line with a well-conceived business plan, because ultimately the Expos are a business and, if they work well, will subsequently begin generating revenue in this city in many indirect ways – namely through local small business stimulus, tourism stimulus and all the money generated from corporate entertainment and having another major venue in our city. Neither the city nor potential investors will pursue an idea that only extends as far as a Facebook page or a website, so those interested need to actually draft a physical document, making their case and providing the numbers for how they intend to make this work.

In sum, it’s a different conversation if there’s an actual plan in play.

And I’m not altogether averse to the idea that the city becomes the proprietor not only of the club, but possibly the ballpark too. With the right brains behind the project there’s no real reason why a rejuvenated ball club couldn’t be a money-making machine for the city – like a crown corporation at a municipal level. And ownership of the venue would be a plus for the same reason, it can generate revenue to pay itself off as a location for rock concerts, trade shows and just about anything else requiring a lot of surface space.

That said, I don’t know if a city has ever ‘owned’ their own team.

But I digress. Here are a few arguments I came up with in favour of returning Montreal to the Major League.

1. We already have a fan base to build off of, not to mention a name, a brilliant logo, team colours and a host of former players and members of the management interested in helping the cause.

2. We’re directly implicated in baseball’s history and have had pro baseball clubs since the Montreal Royals were founded in 1897. Ergo, we’re not really adding anything new, but rather, Montreal is getting back something it lost. This makes for a compelling marketing angle – one that no doubt already assisted the return of professional football to our city after a ten year absence with the resurrection of the Alouettes in 1996. That we’ve resurrected one professional sports team before should not go unnoticed, it’s not an easy thing to do. And fan support helped get the Als into the enviable position they’re in today, with the CFL’s longest running playoff appearance streak of all time. Suffice it to say, the Als work; our city already has a successful model for resurrecting a pro sports team.

3. We can save (a lot) on overhead costs and start-up capital by making use of existing facilities, and as it happens, we already have a multi-use sports stadium that’s been a bit of a ghost town since the Expos left. Another parallel with the Alouettes, who successfully rehabilitated Percival Molson Stadium in the mid-1990s (one of several large-scale renovation projects to occur during the decade). Molson Stadium had trees growing in it and was generally considered to be too small and inconveniently located. Today it works just fine. We should apply the same thinking to the proposed new Expos – at least initially, in my opinion, they should play at the Big O. I think the fact that we already have a stadium is a major selling point; the Big O’s purported structural instability is nothing but idiotic rumours we foolishly perpetuate as though to glorify our perceived demise as a city – the building’s fine (gulp, I think – we’d need multiple evaluations to be 110% certain), it just needs a better retractable roof design. Either way, a roof costs a lot less than a whole new stadium, and the Big O is perfectly located, as it stands between two Métro station, fed by numerous bus lines and major thoroughfares, and is well positioned within the larger transit scheme of the metropolitan region. The success of the Montreal Impact at the adjoining Saputo Stadium is another example of why the Big O’s location is not the reason the club went defunct (I think we’ve all heard this argument before).

4. The Montreal Expos have been making money for the MLB for nearly ten years after the team’s official abandonment. How? The Montreal Expos ballcap, featuring the iconic stylized ‘M’ logo, is still one of the best-selling pieces of officially licensed MLB merchandize. Now obviously baseball hats aren’t justification enough to win back a team, but it needs to be said anyways. It’s a good sign, at the very least.

5. Baseball in Montreal boils down to one key point: it’s fundamentally about giving Americans another reason to know we exist, to know who we are. I believe the Expos were victims of a society that happened to become very uncertain of its future, and as such lost some of its ambition and drive. We got caught up in the post-1995 Referendum economic and social malaise that plagued our city until just before the economic collapse of 2008. But I truly believe this ‘loss of nerves’ to be a temporary affliction, and resurrecting an MLB franchise would be a major coup for the local business community, if not the city as a whole. It’s not easy to bring something back from the dead, after all, and brining Montreal back into this community of North American cities and citizens would undeniably facilitate trade and economic development in our city. Whether we like it or not, Montreal is directly implicated in the economies of Canada and the United States. Playing the game gives us common ground, keeps us integrated, and demonstrates ours is an economy worth investing in.

***

And now, counterpoints.

One of the benefits of my new pad in Saint Henri is the long wooden backyard balcony that runs the length of several row houses. As such, the balcony is ‘shared’ in a sense by a dozen or so people, making it very conducive to striking up conversations with your neighbours. I recently discussed the potential of an Expos renaissance with my neighbour from two doors down, Austin Jalilvand. Here’s the Coles Notes version of some of the intriguing points he brought up.

He made the argument that we’re looking at a billion dollar project which must include a new, ideally downtown ball park. His argument against the Big O is that it was never designed to be used as a ball park, and that while it is located within a sprawling residential area it is not conveniently located close to the people who would most likely attend games.

Overhead perspective of aborted Labatt Park concept - not the work of the author
Overhead perspective of aborted Labatt Park concept – not the work of the author

A new MLB franchise, like all other pro sports teams, will make most of its bank through corporate boxes and other season-ticket holders, meaning a downtown ball park, located as close to the Central Business District as possible, is more ideal than a suburban location. Now while I wouldn’t call Pie-IX and Sherbrooke suburban, it is very residential and lacks the services required of a major entertainment venue – namely hotels, restaurants and bars. That said, given how little land downtown is available for development, any new ball park would likely still not be immediately adjacent to the aforementioned services, but at the very least would be within walking distance of all the CBD has to offer. Likely locations for a downtown ballpark, according to Austin, would be south of the densest part of the city (i.e Griffintown), though he conceded the best location (and the location chosen for the abortive Labatt Park) has since been developed into ETS and a condo complex. You need to go as far south as what was once Goose Village (currently known as the Montreal Technopole, along the edge of the water and the Bonaventure Expressway) before you find a similarly large empty plot of land, and by that point the stadium would be too far removed from the city to be convenient. Building a smaller stadium on a smaller plot of land would certainly help keep the new stadium looking full, but would necessitate renovations, expansions and possibly new construction later on.

Austin then mentioned an alternative location I had never considered before – Blue Bonnets.

The location of the former Hippodrome de Montréal has a variety of advantages. For one it’s a blank slate – nothing to preserve and enough space to get very creative in terms of design and size. It’s located on the Decarie Expressway, which links highways 40, 13 and 15 with the 720, 20 and 10. It’s also across the street from one of the (currently) least used stations in the entire Métro network, meaning the station could be modified with pedestrian tunnels built under the expressway to shuttle people to and from the ballpark without much inconvenience to the larger public transit scheme. Such a renovation would doubtless make Namur station more useful. It would likely later become a public transit hub of sorts; this is a location that serves public transit needs inasmuch as being exceptionally convenient from a motorist’s vantage point, and the grounds of the Hippodrome are sufficiently large enough to permit a massive, ideally subterranean, parking garage. The advantage here being that the parking garage of a sports stadium could also serve a ‘park-n-ride’ type initiative wherein suburban motorists can also use the garage to transfer onto the city’s public transit grid. From a traffic vantage point, Blue Bonnets is an enticing option.

Then there’s the fact that Blue Bonnets is in the middle of another large residential area, though this one (according to Austin) is where the bulk of our city’s Expos fans would reside. Geographically, Blue Bonnets is across the street from Cote-des-Neiges, the densest borough in the city, and adjacent to the affluent middle class communities of Cote St. Luc, Hampstead, Montreal West, the Town of Mount Royal, not to mention NDG and Saint-Laurent. I’d like to see a demographic breakdown of local baseball (and pro sports in general) fans to see if baseball is of greater interest to Anglophones, Allophones or Francophones, as that should be taken into consideration when choosing the location.

Another major advantage of the Blue Bonnets location is the diversity of zoning around the site (unlike the Big O, which is a self-contained entity amidst a massive collection of leisure, athletic and other entertainment facilities set in a large, mostly working class residential area), coupled with the malleability of the site as it currently exists. Unlike other potential downtown locations, or the Olympic Stadium, Blue Bonnets seems to offer the widest range of possibilities in terms of stadium design and how the new facility will interact with the existing built environment.

Austin also brought up some other points – hurdles if you will – that I hadn’t considered and I think we should be mindful of. Among others, that Montreal isn’t exactly the most enticing market for an MLB player given the high taxes, not to mention they’d be required to enrol their children in a french language school (though I have a feeling there’s some kind of exemption in this case).

That said, I don’t think these are insurmountable challenges – the bigger issue is pulling together the investors and other interested parties. And if we do go the course of building a new stadium (whether as a condition of getting a team or as something we do after a few trial years at the Big O), well, that’ll be the bulk of the cost right there. At least now, in the shadow of the Charbonneau Commission, perhaps total construction costs won’t include the usual bribes, kickbacks and other elements of ‘undocumented operational inflation’ that makes any big project unbelievably expensive. Building a new stadium now could be a victory in itself if we get it up ahead of schedule and under budget, and a nice morale-boost prior to the comeback of the team. Again, good multi-level marketing and PR.

In any event, a few things worth considering I think. My interest is pretty straightforward, if we do it right, we all benefit. It’s about ending investor malaise and facilitating new business; the game itself is very secondary when compared to the boost resurrecting the Expos might provide our business community and the city’s economic situation on the whole.

***

One last final point (I promise).

If we were to build a downtown ballpark and didn’t mind knocking down some old commercial buildings between the Bonaventure Expressway and Old Montreal, why not build here?

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 8.41.11 PM

The red square denotes the location of the Labatt Park project, which as you can see is now ETS and some condos. The blue square is a slightly smaller location bounded by Rue St-Maurice, Rue de Longueuil, William and Duke in the Quartier Internationale. Today it’s mostly a massive parking lot, though there are maybe a dozen century-old buildings of varying sizes, none of any particular patrimonial value (to my knowledge). It’s located between Griffintown, the Cité du Multimédia, Old Montreal and the Central Business District, and could be a central feature of the planned redevelopment of the Bonaventure Corridor as a new ‘southern entrance’ to the city. The main difficulty here would be building something that somehow manages to ‘fit’ this aesthetically diverse locale, and if possible somehow incorporating the existing buildings into the new stadium.

As far as downtown locations are concerned, I doubt we could do better. A stadium here could become a major pole of attraction, stimulating entertainment and hospitality services across a broad swath of the downtown, while further filling up ugly empty space.

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