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Montreal’s impossible dream of bringing baseball back is realistic, report says

Montreal Expos Brad Wilkerson signs autographs prior to the team's final home game against the Florida Marlins at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, September 29, 2004.

Reuters

If it seems a thoroughly implausible, slightly lonesome crusade, that's because it is.

This tale doesn't need windmills and portly, donkey-borne sidekicks to be a properly constituted quixotic adventure.

Warren Cromartie of Florida, and occasionally Montreal, but never of La Mancha, doesn't care.

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"This is my destiny," he says of his efforts to bring Major League Baseball back to the city it abandoned nine years ago.

An outfielder and first baseman with the Montreal Expos in the 1970s and '80s, Cromartie's love affair with Quebec is well-documented.

But it wasn't until he came to Montreal in 2012, for a gala reunion of the 1981 Expos squad – which lost the National League Championship Series in the infamous "Blue Monday" game – that he understood his vocation.

"A few other guys on the team said, 'Cro, you've got to do it now.' As I went on, I felt more and more, being in touch with the city … getting close to the fans, that I'm in it," he said. "This is what I'm supposed to be doing."

On Thursday, Cromartie and some fellow believers marshalled some new evidence that baseball is more than viable in Canada's second-largest urban centre.

The argument goes like this: The economic and fiscal context has changed radically since the Expos departed for Washington with a whimper in 2004, and people still love the game.

There are several ifs and not a few buts.

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A $400,000 feasibility study confirms what baseball fans in Montreal already knew: a rebooted Expos franchise will only work in a downtown stadium, which the government will have to help pay for. The project also needs a patron, or as Cromartie put it: "A clean-up hitter … a champion."

"The ideal owner," he added with typical candour, "is a guy who's got some pockets."

The first step will be to find that owner – or group of owners – Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal president Michel Leblanc said approaches have already been made to everyone who had anything to do with baseball in Montreal, and another round of visits will happen in January.

Cromartie and his partners want a short-list of stadium sites by late 2014, and hope to be in a position to start haggling with relocation candidates in early 2015.

The Montreal project wants an American League team – the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics are said to be possibilities – and won't begin construction of a stadium until one is acquired.

The total cost is north of $1-billion – $525-million for a team, $500-million for the ballpark. At least $335-million in government help would be needed to build an open-air, baseball-only urban ballpark with 36,000 seats and 60 luxury boxes.

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To buttress the contention a new MLB team will put bums in seats, a poll released with the study shows nearly 70 per cent of respondents would welcome baseball back, and suggests a team could draw 27,000 to 31,000 per game – a mark the Expos reached in only four of their 35 seasons.

"If the population is there and the private investment is there, then we'll see how we deal with government," Leblanc said.

The study argues that MLB's national television deal and revenue-sharing scheme would ensure a middle-of-the-pack, $75-million payroll could be paid for before a single ticket was sold and the government would be repaid in eight years.

A spokesman for provincial Minister of International Affairs Jean-François Lisée declined to comment, saying the minister had not yet seen the feasibility study.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, an avowed Expos fan, made optimistic noises about the study, but told reporters "it's a little premature to talk about public funds."

Given Montreal's decaying infrastructure and the political storm touched off by the $400-million spent on an NHL-ready arena in Quebec City, it seems unlikely local governments will sign on any time soon.

Cromartie hears the naysayers – "we have a lot to prove" – but knights errant are more preoccupied with the romantic view, and with fulfilling their destiny.

Even if armed only with a baseball cap and a dugout's worth of determination and charm.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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