As the 2004 Major League Baseball season was winding down, the league officially announced the Montreal Expos would be relocating in the offseason, becoming the Washington Nationals. That brought baseball back to the nation’s capital for the first since the second incarnation of the Senators rode off to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex following the 1971 season.
It was an sad end to a franchise that had shown such promise in the 1980s and 1990s (I still think the team would have had a good shot at winning a title in 1994 if the strike hadn’t happened), before the wheels began to come off in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
Within the past couple of weeks, MLB has given the Tampa Bay Rays the option of potentially playing half of its home games in Montreal, allowing the franchise to explore a possible relocation in the future by using virtually the same strategy the league tried with the Expos in 2003 and 2004, when Montreal played a handful of games in Puerto Rico.
Naturally, a lot of Rays fans are upset about this, but there are some issues that make this look like a tantalizing idea. The latest agreement the team reached with the city of St. Petersburg keeps the Rays from leaving until at least 2027. If the team wants to find a new field to call home (something that should have happened years ago), the only places it can look to build this new park are Pinellas County (St. Pete, Florida) and Hillsborough County (Tampa).
The Rays have been attempting to secure a new ballpark on and off for the past decade, but every time the team has tried, the effort has fallen flat on its face. Around the time Tampa Bay secured its first (and so far only) American League pennant in 2008, the Rays looked into building a new stadium in St. Pete while last year, plans were made to build a park in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa but were abruptly cancelled.
Speaking of stadiums, if the Rays took MLB up on its offer and split time between Florida and Quebec, the team would have to look at a nicer venue than Olympic Stadium to call home when away from Tampa Bay. Of all the things that doomed the Expos in its final years, Olympic Stadium was one of the biggest problems the team faced. The venue worked well as the centerpiece for the 1976 Olympic Games, but proved not to be as great of a ballpark for the Expos as the years wore on. Even when the Expos were a serious contender, the team had issues bringing fans into the ballpark for games.
In the same part of Montreal as Olympic Stadium sits Saputo Stadium, the home of the Montreal Impact of Major League Soccer. Since coming into the league, the Impact has seen strong attendance numbers, averaging 19,690 over seven seasons. While it may be in roughly the same location as Olympic Stadium, the fact Saputo is a relatively nice venue without any seriously major issues proves the location within the city (another argument made against Olympic Stadium as a sports venue) is not as big a concern as the overall appearance and condition of the stadium itself.
So, could the Rays splitting time between Tampa and Montreal truly come to pass? Quite possibly. Could Tampa Bay make the move north and become not only a divisional but regional rival to the Toronto Blue Jays? Perhaps, but it is a bit of a long shot. It may not be any time soon, and there are a multitude of hurdles to clear, but there is indeed a chance — however slight — it could happen.
Donald Campbell is a former staff writer for The Outlook.