Lost in Translation: Montreal Expos

The city of Montreal brought MLB to Canada and was rewarded with losing its franchise.
The city of Montreal brought MLB to Canada and was rewarded with losing its franchise.

By Lance Rinker

How a City Saw its Franchise Dissolved

Montreal Expos
Franchise Record: 2,755-2,943-4 (1969 to 2004)
Playoff Record: 5-5
World Series Titles: 0
National League Pennants: 1 (1994)
Playoffs: 1 (1981)
Franchise Players: Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, Tim Raines, Steve Rogers, Rusty Staub, Jose Vidro

It’s been 10 years since the Expos last played in Montreal and 20 years since that 1994 Montreal Expos team was lighting the baseball world on fire, playing as if a World Series Championship was a near certainty, before the strike spelled the beginning of the end for the franchise. For a major league franchise that had spent nearly half of its existence playing .500 or better baseball, always competing, and almost always leading the National League in attendance this was an absolute shame.

With a metropolitan area population of nearly four million people, Montreal currently is the largest North American city without a baseball franchise. Montreal also is the 13th largest media market in North America according to the TV Basics Report covering 2013-14, higher than the majority of all cities currently home to a Major League Baseball franchise.

The history of baseball in Montreal dates back to the Montreal Royals’ first season in 1897. In the 1940s and 50s, Delorimier Stadium was home to the likes of Don Drysdale, Roberto Clemente, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, and the unforgettable Jackie Robinson while the Royals served as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm club until their demise in 1960.

It wasn’t until 1969 that the Expos became Major League Baseball’s first non-U.S. franchise and went on to entertain the city for 36 seasons, many of which thrilled a passionate fan base with Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, plus Cooperstown-bound stars like Tim Raines, Pedro Martinez, and Vladimir Guerrero.

In 1999, the Expos’ local ownership group was short on cash and that’s when current Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria purchased a 24 percent stake for $12 million.

In his first speech as owner of the Expos Loria demanded a new stadium be built for his team, one that was purposed as a baseball-only facility. City officials made it clear that a new stadium would not be built or financed when  millions were still owed on the existing Olympic Stadium.

However, the city did begin to warm to the idea of a new stadium and even had LaBatt Park designed. It was ready to be built using a combination of public and private financing and was expected to be ready for the 2002 season. Loria balked at the proposal and demanded that the city pay a higher percentage of the building costs. The city grew tired of trying to work with Loria and canceled the project altogether.

The following season Loria demanded an increase in broadcast rights fees that was so great there was no English-speaking radio or television stations financially capable or willing to broadcast Expos games. The team was essentially blacked out in their own local market by the owner.

Over the next couple of years Loria bought out the majority of the general partners by way of pouring $18 million into the Expos, boosting payroll and triggering cash calls that the other owners failed to answer. By 2002, he owned 94 percent of the club.

That same year the other general partners accused Loria of conspiring with the league to move the franchise. In a racketeering suit filed in Miami, they claimed he set out to terminate the viability of baseball in Montreal by  sabotaging media rights deals and efforts to build a new stadium. Loria denied the allegations, and the other owners did not pursue the claims after an arbitration panel later found that Loria acted within his contractual rights.

Later that year, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig performed a double switch. The league’s other 29 owners took over the Expos, paying Loria and his partners $120 million, and eventually moved them to Washington, D.C. Florida Marlins owner John Henry then sold his team to Loria for $158.5 million, with a $38.5 million interest-free loan from the league. Henry then led a group that bought the Boston Red Sox for $660 million.

Earlier this spring Montreal got its first taste of baseball in more than a decade when the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the New York Mets on March 29. Nearly 100,000 fans packed Olympic Stadium for Major League Baseball for the entire world to see. It lit up the city, and baseball became the topic of conversation in Montreal once again.

There were representatives from Major League Baseball at the game, and their words spoke volumes about how the world took notice. “I’m going to tell Commissioner Bud Selig that things were better than even I expected and that I was very, very, favorably impressed. There is a fire that burns brightly here for Major League Baseball and that’s a message that I’ll be proud to carry to the commissioner,” said MLB executive John McHale Jr.

It’s possible that baseball could find its way back to Montreal as a recently-published feasibility report proved Montreal could support a major league franchise economically. It would be unlikely to occur by way of expansion though, and instead would rely on an existing franchise to relocate.

In an exclusive interview given to Jon Paul Morosi for FoxSports.com, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said that he knows Major League Baseball could work again in Montreal. How does he know?

“My gut. I was at Olympic Stadium the day after they got Bartolo Colon. I’ve been convinced — this is before I bought the (Rays) — that it would be an incredible place for baseball. That doesn’t mean my baseball team, but a baseball team.”

The Tampa Bay Rays lease in St. Petersburg for their current stadium doesn’t expire until 2027, which gives credence to the thought that a new baseball-only stadium could be built in Montreal with the goal of luring the Rays there for the 2028 season.