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Mike Wilner: The Tampa Bay Rays have teased Montreal baseball fans before. But this time feels different

Mike Wilner: The Tampa Bay Rays have teased Montreal baseball fans before. But this time feels different
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For the last 17 years, the only big-league baseball in Montreal has been a half-dozen sets of exhibition games hosted by the Blue Jays at the end of spring training.

Soon, though, the real thing could return.

Ever since that first pair of games against the Mets back in 2014 drew nearly 100,000 fans to Olympic Stadium, eyebrows have been raised and interest has been piqued in bringing major-league baseball back to La Belle Province, with billionaire Stephen Bronfman, the son of longtime Expos owner Charles, front and centre.

The thought back then was that Montreal would build a new, open-air stadium by the water, a cosy 30,000- to 35,000-seat venue, and get either an expansion franchise — when MLB eventually added a couple of teams — or perhaps relocate one of the financially fraught existing clubs such as Tampa Bay, Oakland or Miami.

A couple of years ago, though, the idea of a time-share between Tampa-St. Pete and Montreal was floated, with the team taking advantage of two climates by playing home games in Florida in the early part of the season and then moving to Montreal, perhaps with a second “home opener” on Canada Day.

A smaller, open-air natural grass stadium would be built in the Tampa Bay area as well.

When the playoffs start next week, that sister-city idea, once ridiculed, will be more real than ever.

The Rays, who clinched the AL East Division title this weekend, will put a sign up in foul territory down the right-field line with what they’re calling a “very simple Tampa Bay Montreal graphic.”

It’ll be the first concrete indication that this thing could really happen.

Rays president Matt Silverman said Saturday on the team’s pre-game show, “This Week in Rays Baseball,” that he’s “more optimistic today than I’ve ever been that we’re going to make this happen.”

“Once the page turns to the off-season,” Silverman added, “we’re going to be more visible and more vocal about our plans, because we’re entering crunch time.”

The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season, so it would appear that the team is committed to play six more seasons at the stadium former Blue Jays manager John Gibbons once described as a “house of horrors.” But leases can be broken, of course.

With no shovels in the ground on a new ballpark in either location, it’s impossible to imagine anything changing all that soon. The MLB schedule for 2022 is already out, and includes the Rays playing 81 home games at the Trop.

They’re scheduled to host the Jays for a little two-game series on Aug. 2 and 3, ahead of a four-game trip to Detroit. Could that be shifted up to the Big O for a little “Hi, how ya doin’?” test run? It’s certainly not out of the question.

Yes, this could just be a ploy to make a franchise-sharing move seem more real, and put pressure on local governments to pony up the dough for a new ballpark that could keep the Rays in central Florida full-time. After all, both the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants used the Trop as leverage decades ago, threatening to move to Tampa Bay. The Sox got a new stadium, the Giants got new owners and both stayed put.

Maybe I’m being naive, but this seems different.

As ugly as the 2004 ending to the Expos franchise was — a demise sparked by the 1994 strike that saw a 74-40 team’s season come to a screeching halt in mid-August — the Expos were a well-attended, beloved team for years and years. There should be no question that Montreal can support big-league baseball, and right now sharing a team with the Rays is the best way to get it.

They might only be Nos Demi-Amours this time, and they might be called the “Tampa Bay Montreal Rays,” but it really does feel as though baseball might finally be back where Rusty Staub, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Larry Walker and Vladimir Guerrero Sr., among others, made so many memories.

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