In this very space March 18, I wrote about the exhibition games scheduled for March 29-30 that would mean more to the cities of Montreal and San Antonio, than they would to the teams playing in them, Mets and Blue Jays at Olympic Stadium, Rangers and Astros at the Alamodome. I wrote about how unlikely expansion appears to be in the short term for Major League Baseball and I wrote about how we all know which two teams potentially would be paying attention to these efforts, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland athletics who let’s be honest need a new stadium and who genuinely want to stay in the greater San Francisco Bay region. San Jose already offered to build a stadium, but efforts are being blocked by the Athletics’ neighbors in San Francisco, creating a Giant obstacle to stadium efforts and potentially leading to the removal of the Athletics from the region all together. The issues with the Tampa situation I detailed in brief in my March 18 editorial.
My closing comments were strait forward, it would be almost unthinkable that both franchises would relocate and given the less than high percentage odds of expansion, Montreal and San Antonio were not only trying to show folks in the Commissioner’s Office that they deserved baseball, they were also trying to outscore one another. IN terms of the box scores then from those games Friday and Saturday, what truly stood out was the very last column, attendance. I genuinely expected San Antonio to draw more than Montreal and this is not because I am from Texas and yes, I was a big Expos fan growing up. For one, San Antonio drew over 75,000 two a pair of games at the Alamodome last spring, Rangers victories over the San Diego Padres and as baseball capable facilities go, Olympic Stadium 113 months after its last baseball event was still leaps ahead of what the Alamodome could be as a ballpark. Furthermore, this spring saw both of the Lone Star State’s teams playing in San Antonio and unlike last year, both of these games were on dates where the local Spurs basketball franchise was not playing a home game simultaneously. Instead, neither game drew more than 28,000, 22,677 on Friday night and 27,255 on Saturday afternoon, a total of 49,932 fans for the two games. The Saturday game alone last spring in San Antonio drew more than 40,000.
Then there is Montreal, a city most Anglo writers here in the States gave up for dead as a baseball market, a city most thought never deserved another team, despite Montreal outdrawing both the Mets and Yankees at various times from 1979-1992. How did Le Québécois respond? ON Saturday alone, fans of the former Expos chanting “Let’s Go Expos”, showed up and then some, 50229 in attendance, which topped the two nights in San Antonio combined. Oh and the prior night for the Friday game, they only drew another 46,221. If this weekend taught us anything, Montreal is a baseball town and given the proper ownership and support for the team from MLB, Montreal will show up for a winner and for the game that is only outpaced in popularity by hockey. This is not to say that San Antonio is a bad market, it could very easily be a high level baseball city, but such a drop in attendance from year one to year two is concerning. Perhaps the 2014 numbers are a better gauge of baseball fandom in the Alamo city and if an average of between 24,000 and 25,000 per game came to see the Rangers and Astros, perhaps one could argue that such numbers for the new local team if it existed could push north of 30,000. But one could also argue that 2013 was an example of the baseball novelty which drew in more fans per game, over 37,000 than the baseball purity represented by the 2014 numbers. That is alarming for San Antonio, because a drop of 13K per game in attendance is similar to the drop in attendance after the expansion season of 1998 for the afore mentioned Tampa Bay Rays, who saw a drop from 30,900 to 19,200 per game from season 1 to season 2. The Rays in their best years of attendance from 2008-2010 would average right around 23,000, since then the club has not broken 20,000 per game, despite contending teams that made the playoffs in 2011 and 2013 and a team in 2012 that was contending well into September. Montreal remember drew as well in 1995 per game after having its team gutted and its baseball dreams crushed by the 1994 strike, as Tampa drew in its 2011 and 2013 playoff seasons. Montreal in 1994 drew more per game than any Tampa season accept 1998 and how bad was Tampa outdrawn by its expansion cousins that first season, 1993 Marlins +7,000, 1998 Diamondbacks +14,000, 1993 Rockies +25,000. Furthermore, while Tampa saw a drop from its first to second year in average attendance of more than 12,500, Arizona and Miami each dropped by around 5,000 and Colorado actually went up another 2,000. When the Rockies left 70,000 seat Mile High Stadium for 50,000 seats at Coors Field, they averaged over 40,000 for seven seasons 1995-2001 and only once has attendance averaged below 25,000 in 2005. The Diamondbacks worst season average has been in the 25,000 range, but they have never cleared 40,000 a game per season after their huge draw in 1998. San Antonio will not be Denver or Phoenix, but it needs to be better than Tampa and better than Miami to prove its worth as an expansion city. Montreal has numbers that can be as good or better than Miami and this such a relocation to Canada may just be what the Rays need.
What this weekend shows is that Montreal is ready for baseball and if San Antonio had any hopes of trying to convince the Rays or Athletics to relocate to the home of hot salsa, their dreams may be shattered by a cold dose of reality blowing down from baseball hungry Montreal. One can only imagine how the Montreal Expos would be doing right now if they had the current Tampa Rays ownership in place. Montreal would also be a perfect fit in the division where the Rays currently call home and so it would require no realignment. The question is, what is more likely to be in place within five years, a new baseball stadium for the Rays somewhere on Florida’s sunshine coast, or a new stadium for the relocated and rebranded Montreal Expos in French Canada?
Fans who want baseball to return to Montreal have circled March 28 and 29 on their baseball calendars, the two dates when former MLB ballpark Olympic Stadium (using the ballpark term loosely), will once again play host to the great game which was last on display on its artificial surface for the final Montreal Expos home game on Wednesday September 29, 2004, a loss to the Florida Marlins. Nine and one half years will have passed between that final Expos game and the two-game exhibition series between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets. For its criticisms, at least the Big Owe did not turn into a sewage dump like the Oakland Coliseum and if the Athletics ever did leave the Bay Area, the one city that thinks it has a suitable temporary stadium big enough for Big League ball is Montreal. Of course such a relocation would be tied to a new stadium that would eventually become home to the new Expos and sadly one of the great logos and team names tied to the long and glorious history of the Athletics would be lost. That is assuming that the Athletics moved to Montreal.
ON those same dates of March 28 and 29, San Antonio is trying to sell baseball on its viability as a future home to a Big League franchise such as the Athletics. San Antonio managed to transform its white elephant known as the Alamo dome into a temporary baseball park, as the stadium built in 1990 was intended to bring football and keep the NBA Spurs in town, but it was never even considered for baseball. IN fact, baseball was the only major North American sport that the venue genuinely could not hold under its original configuration and design. Yet a year earlier in 2013, the stadium hosted a two-game exhibition series between the Texas Rangers and San Diego Padres, a series that drew 35,000 the same night the Spurs were in town and then pulled in another 40,000 the next afternoon. This year while the Jays and Mets are playing in Montreal, San Antonio plays hosts to the two existing Big League teams from the Lone Star State as the Rangers face the Houston Astros. The Alamodome too would be just a temporary site if San Antonio were to obtain a team in Major League Baseball, as a stadium designed truly for baseball would have to be built.
A second franchise though will closely be watching the unfolding of events in Montreal and San Antonio; the Tampa Bay Rays WHO HAVE PLAYED IN A LESS THAN IDEAL BASEBALL SETTING SINCE THEIR 1998 INCEPTION. From almost the beginning, the Rays ownership groups found out a hard lesson in baseball real estate, its location stupid and it’s also about having a truly available local fan base that didn’t already have a team to call its own. Tropicana Field when it was built was supposed to be the modern baseball domed stadium, only it was built before the region even had a chance at a team, built before the new modern take on ballparks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Arlington and Denver forever changed the way a ballpark is designed. Worse, the stadium was built in a location that lacked desirable fan experiences outside the ballpark and it was a night mare to travel to the facility from Tampa by public transit. Even with its problems though, fan attendance more than anything showed how the Tampa area was not ready for Major League Baseball. Average attendance in the expansion season of 1998 was around 30,000, dropping sharply to 18,000 the next year and average attendance has never again touched even 20,000 despite the Rays posting winning and contending seasons now for six straight years. Montreal averaged more than 25,000 a game during its high point from 1979-1983 and for several other seasons between 1984-1997, the Expos averaged more fans than what the Rays have drawn since their second year in St. Petersburg. As much as Florida fans are rightly criticized, Miami had an excuse in that the stadium was not truly built for baseball when the Marlins moved into Joe Robbie starting in 1993. Miami drew 37,000 that season, 32,000 in 1994 and even after the strike, they drew over 20,000 in 1995 and 1996, peaking at 29,000 in 1997. If ownership didn’t tear down a championship franchise, Marlins attendance would not have been ruined as it would be for years to come, a situation only further inflamed by the breaking down of the 2012 team after the new ballpark opened in south Florida. The Miami fans can be forgiven for not trusting their local team’s ownership to do right by the fans, the same cannot be said for Tampa. Miami for its first 19 years had a genuine issue of not knowing if the rain would wash out the game, Tampa fans did not have that problem to deal with either. Comparing the Rays fans to the Diamondbacks and Rockies fans in their franchise history is an insult to the fans of the Rockies and Diamondbacks, though one can argue with some truth that those teams both quickly rose to successful heights.
What the Rockies and Diamondbacks have though is something the Marlins lacked and something the Rays truly lack, a genuine local fan base with local roots. Many Arizona and Colorado fans did not have teams of their own to cheer on growing up, they watched and listen to games play by teams far away. Many of the fans in Florida though did not grow up in Florida, but rather in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and thus those fans cheer for their favorite home town nine when their heroes pay a visit to Miami and especially to St. Petersburg.
Could baseball expand again to 32 teams and perhaps give those franchises to San Antonio and Montreal, sure it could, but this season marks 16 years since the 1998 expansion and next season will be year 17; 16 years was the previous record time between new franchise additions from 1977-1993. Thus, the more likely result for San Antonio and or Montreal is to obtain and relocate an existing franchise and the Athletics and Rays are both primed picking.
The loss of the original Athletics name would not of course be a new thing for baseball, because while the Braves, Giants, Dodgers and Athletics have maintained their team names following relocation, the Browns changed to the Orioles when they transferred from St. Louis to Baltimore and both of the franchises that left Washington took on new names as the Twins and Rangers. So while Montreal could bring back Le Expos, San Antonio’s team would also probably take on a local flavor in its identity and the top candidate would be Missions, in honor of the long time minor league team name that is inspired by the cities long history with the old Mexican missions and presidios.
How would this impact alignment? Montreal would be a natural fit in the AL East with Boston, the Yanks, Baltimore and Toronto. If the Rays go to Montreal, it is just a natural progression, while if the Athletics went to Quebec, the Rays would be moved to the Central and the Royals would have to shift west. An Athletics move to San Antonio would require no change in division alignments and Texas would have three teams in the same division, I would recommend a flip of Houston or the new San Antonio franchise to the NL and a transfer of Arizona or Colorado to the AL. If Tampa moves to San Antonio and Oakland stays put on the west coast, that franchise would have to move into the AL West with Texas and Houston, thus pushing the Astros to the NL Central, moving the Brewers to the AL Central and moving the Tigers back to the AL East, so that your divisions would be as follows: AL West: Seattle, Oakland, LA Angels, Texas, San Antonio…AL Central: Kansas City, Minnesota, Chicago Sox, Milwaukee, Cleveland…AL East, Detroit, Toronto, Boston, New York Yankees, Baltimore…NL West, San Francisco, LA Dodgers, San Diego, Arizona, Colorado…NL Central, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh…NL East, New York Mets, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Miami.
March 28-29 will mean a lot to observers in many cities, in New York at the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, in Oakland, in St. Petersburg. But it will mean more perhaps to those in Montreal and San Antonio than anywhere else, as they make their case for expansion or relocation into Major League Baseball. They won’t have Spurs basketball or Canadiens hockey to compete with, the former plays a road game on Friday and will be home Saturday night after the 1:05 start for baseball in San Antonio, the ladder is off Friday and plays a Saturday night road game after the 1:05 start of baseball in Montreal.
Given the unlikely chance that two different franchises would relocate at the same time, Montreal and San Antonio will be competing in one major column that shows up in the boxscore and it is not runs, hits, errors, or runners left on base, no its that very last number on the page, ATT. Which stands for attendance.