Tampa Bay gets green light from MLB to explore playing split season in Montreal

The Montreal Expos existed from 1969-2004 before they moved to Washington and became the Nationals. In their last two seasons before moving, the Expos played 22 games per year in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Starved for fans despite success on the field, the Tampa Bay Rays have been given the go-ahead by Major League Baseball to look into playing a split season in Montreal.

However, the mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., home of the Rays, says the team can’t explore playing home games elsewhere before 2028 unless there is an agreement with the city.

No timetable for the possible plan was announced. An idea under consideration is for the Rays to play early in the season in Tampa Bay and later in Montreal.

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St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman isn’t on board with the plan, however.

“The Rays cannot explore playing any Major League Baseball games in Montreal or anywhere else for that matter prior to 2028, without reaching a formal memorandum of understanding with the City of St. Petersburg,” he said in a statement. “Ultimately, such a decision is up to me. And I have no intention of bringing this latest idea to our city council to consider. In fact, I believe this is getting a bit silly.”

He added: “Major League Baseball may have given the approval for exploration of this concept, but for us in St. Pete, sharing this team with Montreal is not an option on the table.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred made the announcement Thursday at the end of the owners’ meetings, saying the executive council had granted the Rays “broad permission to explore what’s available.”

The Rays said they will discuss the matter further with reporters next Tuesday.

“My priority remains the same, I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come,” Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg said in a statement.

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Manfred said it’s too soon to detail the particulars — as in, where the team would play post-season games, or in what stadiums.

But the revelation is sure to spark interest across Canada, where the Expos flourished for years with a truly international flair.

The Montreal Expos existed from 1969-2004 before they moved to Washington and became the Nationals. In their last two seasons before moving, the Expos played 22 games per year in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

READ MORE: Quebec, Montreal governments welcome proposal for new baseball stadium

The Expos then, like the Rays now, operated with a small payroll, often losing stars to big-market clubs. And low attendance plagued both franchises.

Tampa Bay is averaging 14,546 fans per home game, ahead of only the Miami Marlins. The Rays have played at Tropicana Field since their inception in 1998 and drew their lowest home crowd of 5,786 against Toronto last month.

The Rays had looked into building a new stadium for years but in December abandoned a plan to build across the bay in Tampa’s Ybor City area. They are committed to play in the Tampa Bay area through 2027.

MLB has played exhibition games in Montreal in recent years involving the Toronto Blue Jays, and have drawn well for those.

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MLB has loosely talked over the years about expansion into Montreal, but Manfred repeatedly has said expansion will not be considered until the Rays and Oakland Athletics get new ballparks.

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The Expos were MLB’s first international franchise and a popular destination for fans and visiting teams when they began, offering a lively, festive atmosphere at tiny Jarry Park with their jaunty organ music, curious logo and red, white and blue colours.

Over the years, the Expos became a force with the likes of future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Tim Raines, but attendance lagged at Olympic Stadium, where the Expos averaged just over 10,000 in 2002, their last season of a full home schedule in Canada.

The east-end stadium was lacking in traditional ballpark atmosphere and away from central transport hubs.

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However, MLB was impressed in 2014 when a total of 96,350 fans packed the venue over a two-game pre-season set between the Blue Jays and New York Mets.

Last month, Stephen Bronfman-owned Claridge Investments and real estate development firm Devimco reached an agreement to develop a plot of land for sale known as the Peel Basin, where a group committed to bringing big-league baseball back to the city would like to build a new stadium.

“We have been hard at work for several years examining how we can bring baseball back to Montreal in a sustainable manner,” Bronfman said in a statement. “This concept is definitely one that is of interest to my partners and me and we are looking forward to studying this further.”

Bronfman said they’d have more to say after the Rays’ news conference next week.

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