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Montreal Rays? Tampa Bay Expos? MLB Clears Way For Split-Season Discussion

Tampa Bay Rays

(Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

The Tampa Bay Rays have one of the best teams in baseball. They’ve benefitted from an organization that’s built a team with limited resources that’s proven capable of competing in the Alpha male American League East.

What the Rays do not have is a great stadium or a sustainable fan base. Their ballpark is a tin can so barren and cavernous whistles reverberate off its walls and dome.

And its clear no one wants to go there. Heading into the weekend, the Rays were 29th in the Major Leagues in attendance, averaging only 14,545 a game. Only the horrific Miami Marlins (9.378) draw fewer fans.

For years, Rays management has been trying to entice the community to build it a real ballpark, something the organization can be proud of. Something with class, architectural nuance. Something to feel good about.

But it hasn’t happened. And so there have been rumors ownership has been looking into relocating to Montreal, which hosted the Expos from 1969-2004 before moving to Washington to become the Nationals.

Well, it looks like MLB is at least willing to go halfway. It has given the team permission to explore a plan that would allow it to split its home games between both sites.

Believe it or not, the Rays view this scenario as the only way it can keep its team in Tampa Bay. So we guess you can call this relationship dysfunctional. Ownership wants consent to cheat to keep the marriage together.

The way it would work is, the Rays would play early season home games in Florida while Montreal is still buried in snow and thinking more about the Canadiens. Then the schedule would shift to Canada. But the games would not be played at Tropicana Field and Olympic Stadium. Both cities would have new ballparks.

Rob Manfred, the commissioner of baseball, called this mental exercise a “long-term project” and he has likely never been more right about anything during his tenure.

Imagine the logistical problems. First, you have to get two ballparks built, but the reasoning seems to be the one in Tampa wouldn’t need a dome (in rains a lot in Florida) so the cost would be less.

What about the players and their families? They would need homes in two cities? Unless they wanted to relocate their front office, the same would go for them.

Still, here’s the thing about Montreal. That city didn’t set any records in support of the Expos, either. From 1998-2004, they never averaged more than 13,000. They drew an average of 9,356 in their final season. But the drum has been slowly beating for MLB to give it one more try.


(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Stephen Bronfman, whose father, Charles, was the Expos’ original owner, and a partner have been discussing buying a minority stake in the Rays. They have already reached an agreement with a developer to build a ballpark in the city.

“My priority remains the same, I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come,”  Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said in a statement. “I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration.”

It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before. The Expos played 22 home games in Puerto Rico in 2003. The NBA has also dabbled; the Kansas City Kings split games between Missouri and Nebraska in the 1970s.

The Rays lease at Tropicana Field runs through 2027 and as you can likely conclude, this plan isn’t going anywhere unless the Rays are given permission to build their own ballpark.

“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,” St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman said. “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.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash seems willing to listen, although there’s no chance he’d still be the manager in 2028.

“You hear the passion from the fans there, that when the Expos played there, you recognize that they’re in the mix now, there’s been a lot of talks. I think baseball wants to go where baseball’s wanted,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I think the intention of it is ultimately to do the best that we can do to keep baseball in the Tampa Bay area.

“Look, MLB, the Rays, they’re trying to grow the brand of baseball. I think we recognize that with what we’re doing, what they’re doing in London, what they’ve done in Mexico, all over the world, this is probably another avenue.”