Reuniting Old Friends: Baseball’s Continued Absence from a Great City

The last few weeks have been long and uneventful for me, working long days and in baseball? Well, I am still in the denial stage regarding the Travis Snider-Brad Lincoln trade and losing streaks the Jays were on. Please tell me when its safe to look at the standings again. Sigh. So, for my first ever blog post I figured I’d write about something less depressing, that is a better way to get readers, no? On that note, I welcome you with open arms to this blog that I finally found the time and willpower to start, after pondering the idea for months. My name is Michael, and I live in London, Ontario, or at least I will for the next few weeks. In late August I’m moving to Toronto to go to school, hence the blog name. I will be majoring in Urban and Regional Planning and attending many Blue Jays games on the side. In short, I am very excited.

The Toronto Blue Jays are my team, and there aren’t many things I love more than my Blue Jays, other than perhaps the Montreal Expos, a team you may remember if you’re old enough. I hardly remember the Expos, but I am, for some reason very passionate about the team, and you will learn that very quickly on this page. Anyhow, I don’t want to write a whole lot about myself, but feel free to comment or contact me in some way if you’d like to chat more. I always enjoy interacting with other baseball fans, no matter the team.

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I have been paying less attention to baseball over the last few weeks, due to my weariness regarding the Blue Jays, and have been drawn to the Summer Olympics like never before. I have been watching these Olympics due to the sheer power and athleticism of all athletes, and by the honor and history of Britain demonstrated throughout the games – most notably at the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies. In other words there isn’t much glory in cheering for Canada at the summer games. But, we get ours in the winter. As the games wrap up in London and I bask in the excitement one last time, I would like to genuinely congratulate all the Americans reading this on your nations dominance in medal winnings, all hundred and however many.

I’m interested to see the fallout of these Olympic Games, particularly London’s Olympic Stadium and whether it will become a functional facility or merely an eyesore.  I recently traveled to Montreal for a few days and nights to enjoy some of the best stand up comedy in the world at Montreal’s annual Just For Laughs festival, and took an afternoon at Montreal’s Olympic Park, the centerpiece of the 1976 Olympic Games and home to the Montreal Expos 1977-2004. A site that has become, to many, a textbook definition of an eyesore, and the very thing that modern Olympic hosts aim to avoid when constructing their Stadiums. Atlanta has gotten great use out of their former Olympic Stadium since the Braves moved in spring of 1997 , while Vancouver avoided constructing a new facility completely by allocating their spending money to renovations of a current multi-purpose stadium, and both undoubtedly considered Montreal’s mistakes during their design process.

On top of the uselessness of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium post-1976, the Olympic Park was not even completed in time for the opening ceremonies. The tower actually remained under construction into the late 1980’s. There were also numerous construction errors, illustrated best by a piece of concrete that fell from the stadium roof onto the playing field in 1991, and a massive debt of over $1.6 billion dollars that burdened the Provence of Quebec until it was finally payed off in 2006. A lot of trouble for a facility that never did become the centerpiece of the Montreal entertainment industry as it was supposed to. Terrible acoustics made it a second-tier venue for concerts, a fixed roof made it unattractive for soccer and American football, and these elements, combined with the presence of AstroTurf and the sheer size and lack of intimacy made it inadequate for baseball. Sad for what I think is really a historical and architectural feat.

The Montreal Olympic Park as seen from the corner of Rue Sherbrooke and Boulevard Pie-IX.

It was a little disturbing walking on my would-be stomping grounds, even years after the departure of the Expos franchise from the stadium and city. I vividly remember watching a news reporter stand at the corner of Rue Sherbrooke and Boulevard Pie-IX (pictured above) before or maybe after the final Montreal Expos home game in 2004. Interviewing a grown man in tears. Just one of those images I will remember always. I find it discomforting that a city that once was an envy of many baseball franchises had such a bitter end with Major League Baseball and the sport in general. However, the lack of a legitimate venue for Major League Baseball was a prominent factor in the downfall of the Montreal Expos, and evidence of this illegitimacy was unavoidable when walking through the stadium.

I took a tour of the stadium and tower before taking the Metro back downtown to go to a comedy show. While on the tour, I got a chance to chat with the tour guide quite a bit about the Olympic Park, specifically its uses today. He said the tower is constantly a popular destination for both locals and tourists, the Olympic pools, at the base of the tower, are functioning as a public swimming center and training facility, and the former Velodrome, now known as the Biodome is an indoor zoo and aquarium (all pictured below). The stadium, however, is largely out of use, hosting only clinics, shows, and other relatively small events when considering the 60, 000 seat capacity.

A rear view of the tower, note the elevators track on the back of the incline which makes for interesting views of the Olympic Park and Northern Montreal.

The Olympic Pools are located at the base of the tower, utilized by everyone from beginners to Canada’s swim team for training.

The Montreal Biodome, with a monument dedicated to all athletes and nations to win gold medals at the 1976 Olympic Games in the foreground. Canada did not win gold in 1976.

The Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact and Montreal Allouettes of the Canadian Football League only play a handful of games at the stadium per year, when the weather is too bitter, or when attendance is expected to exceed the capacity of their usual, open-air home fields. There are rarely concerts, and never baseball games, so the Stadium is drawing very little interest as a venue despite its capacity and supposed versatility.

The Olympic Pools, two are visible in this picture, with more to the left and beneath the bleachers.

The Montreal Biodome, as seen from the elevator ascending the tower.

Inside Olympic Stadium. Relative to the baseball configuration, this picture is looking towards the infield, taken from right field.

I was wearing a Blue Jays hat the day of the tour which started a conversation on a topic I have been interested in for years, the likelihood of the Blue Jays playing in Montreal. The guide and I had a great discussion on the obstacles and dedication it would take to overcome them. However, between the topics we discussed and those I thought of on the train ride back to London, I believe there are fewer reasons to doubt the feasibility of the Blue Jays playing a regular season home series at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium than most would think.

Blue Jays President of Baseball Operations Paul Beeston mentioned the idea of Toronto playing a pre-season exhibition game in Montreal a year or two ago, and while that scenario is much more realistic, I believe a regular season, three or four game series would be more beneficial for both the Blue Jays brand and the City of Montreal. Blue Jays ownership would hear it from not only their players, but the players of the opposing team, Commissioners Office, the MLBPA, and from the food providers and employees at Rogers Centre in Toronto. However, compensation could be offered to the parties affected.

The center field scoreboard at Olympic Stadium, still fully functional despite the absence permanent tenant at the stadium.

The Florida Marlins played a ‘home’ series in San Juan, Puerto Rico not long ago before they were re-branded and moved into a new ballpark, and I remember the Tampa Bay Rays playing a series or two in Orlando a few years earlier, so this idea is not new or untested in Major League Baseball, though Olympic Stadium would likely have to meet some requirements before it once again became an official Major League Baseball venue, as there is no alternative venue in the city. If it has been done before, I can’t see why the Blue Jays would encounter any more trouble than the Rays and Marlins did not too long ago.

To maximize the financial effectiveness of this excursion to Montreal, I believe it should be a weeknight series, and preferably against a National League team. This is because in Toronto, the Blue Jays historically draw better on weekends, just as most teams do. Attendance numbers during interleague home series are often below season average as well. Moving a series that would otherwise draw modest attendance numbers at Rogers Centre, to Montreal where there is far more potential seems logical. Having a National League team in to Montreal to oppose the Blue Jays could also bring an aspect of familiarity to those fans who enjoyed the Expos during their 36 year tenure in the city. The Pirates, Mets, and Braves all played in the same division as Montreal, and normally I’d say the Phillies, however Roy Halladay still has a place in the hearts of many Blue Jays fans. Having him pitch against his former team creates quite a buzz within the fan base and therefore having the Blue Jays host Philadelphia in any other city than Toronto would be unwise. With a division realignment coming in 2013, interleague series will be played throughout the season, allowing for the Blue Jays to play against a National League team in Montreal in April or early May, instead of in June or July when attendance numbers tend to rise.

The outfield concourse at Olympic Stadium.

For the Blue Jays, playing a series in Montreal not only seems profitable, but it would also go a long way in truly establishing them as Canada’s team, rather than just as Toronto’s. Which is a rebranding strategy Blue Jays ownership has explicitly stated numerous times as a goal of theirs. They have near exclusive rights to an entire nation, yet interest in the team is limited in Western Canada, and in Quebec especially. A series like this would undoubtedly show their commitment to Quebec, Montreal in particular, and would serve as a useful tool for measuring the Blue Jays’ popularity in the region. Montreal’s concern for the Blue Jays has never truly been tested, and the city’s interest in baseball has been a complete mystery for near eight years, as there has not been a game of professional baseball played in Greater Montreal since the Expos relocated following the 2004 season. Making Montreal the most populated metropolitan center in North America without pro baseball for nearly a decade.

Even with this obvious incalculable X-factor, I see little reason for why a series in Montreal wouldn’t be successful, should it be properly advertised and promoted. If the experiment were to be successful, the Montreal private sector may become interested in bringing baseball back to the city, which should be the ultimate goal of Rogers Communications and the Toronto Blue Jays if an event like this is ever organized. Plenty of financial backing will be required in bringing a professional baseball team to the city, a process that would require the construction of a much-needed new ballpark and creating a dedicated ownership group. Returning professional baseball to the city would cause a revival of Montreal as a baseball market, and with Toronto holding exclusive media blackout rights to the region, the Blue Jays would become the most accessible Major League team to all the baseball fans created or re-energized by the return of what would be a Minor League or Independent franchise to Montreal.

The Montreal Olympic Park as seen from Mont Royal.

It has been quite some time since Jeffery Loria, the now defunct Quebec Incorporated, and others combined to rid Montreal of professional baseball. It is now time to start thinking about returning the sport to the city, which will likely take nearly a decade anyways between actually drawing a franchise to the city, assembling an ownership group, and constructing a new baseball-specific stadium. Having the Blue Jays play meaningful baseball in the city would go a long way starting this movement. Should this idea for some reason be unattainable, a similar plan should definitely be implemented in Vancouver. The healing process must begin soon between Montreal and professional baseball, and an event such as this would go a long way in mending the relationship. All parties would benefit.

Thanks for reading, you are more than welcome to leave comments. I’ll leave you with the rest of my pictures from Montreal below.

Visit often,

Michael.

Bonsecours Marketplace in the Old Port district.

Some French Architecture in the Old Port district.

Montreal’s Old Port district in the evening, full of great boutiques and what not if you’re into that. I’m more focused on the restaurants when I travel.

The biggest, loudest fireworks show I’ve ever seen.

Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica at night.

Overlooking the Just For Laughs festivities from my hotel room.

A view of downtown Montreal from the Expo Islands.

Habitat ’67. An innovative housing project constructed for the 1967 World’s Fair, hosted by Montreal.

Casino de Montreal, as seen from the Expo Islands.

The Montreal Biosphere, on the Expo Islands. Originally an exhibit at Expo ’67.

My first live comedy show at Montreal’s Club Soda, I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

Riding the Metro out to the Olympic Park.

The right field bleachers of Olympic Stadium.

Another shot of Montreal’s Olympic Tower.

In the tower, looking over the roof of Olympic Stadium towards downtown Montreal.

Overlooking the Montreal Olympic Park from the tower. Roof of the Biodome is visible in the bottom right, and the construction site at the bottom left of the photograph will eventually be an observatory.

From the tower, overlooking Saputo Stadium, home of Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact, and the Athlete’s Village apartment complex from the 1976 Games.

Provence-paid advertisement remembering the late Gary Carter.

After a show at Comedy Works, a small club where I saw Scottish Comedian Danny Bhoy preform, among others.

St. Josephs Basilica, 312 steps to the top if I remember correctly.

Approaching St. Josephs Basilica.

Atop the Basilica stairs. Climb was well worth it, the view is spectacular.

Inside the Basilica.

Overlooking the city atop Mont Royal.

Some more beautiful French architecture.

Looking towards the city from the New Port.

Notre Dame Basilica.

Inside Notre Dame.

More Old Port architecture. Montreal is just as beautiful in the night as it is during the day.

My last show was at the Place Des Arts, across the street from my hotel. The show was hosted by one of my favorite comedians, Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live.