NEW YORK — The Ex-Rays?
Starved for fans despite success on the field, the Tampa Bay Rays have been given the go-ahead by Major League Baseball to look into playing a split season in Montreal.
No timetable for the possible plan was announced. An idea under consideration is for the Rays to play early in the season in Tampa Bay and finish up in Montreal, the former home of the Expos.
Commissioner Rob Manfred made the announcement Thursday at the end of the owners’ meetings, saying the executive council had granted the Rays “broad permission to explore what’s available.”
Manfred said it’s too soon to detail the particulars — as in, where the team would play postseason games, or in what stadiums. He did not address whether this would be a step toward a full move.
“It’s an interesting kind of idea,” Rays outfielder/infielder Brandon Lowe said before playing at Oakland on Thursday night. “It’s in the future. It’s so far ahead of us that it’s going to be big news right now, but I feel like a lot of us are just kind of, ‘it happened, we saw it,’ but that’s really all it is.”
Still, that was plenty enough to spark excitement in Canada, where the Expos played from 1969-2004 before moving to Washington and becoming the Nationals.
With their introductions in French and English, jaunty organ music, goofy mascot Youppi! and fun tricolor logo, Les Expos flourished for years with a truly international flair.
Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, in a statement, said: “My priority remains the same, I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come.”
“I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration,” he added.
Forget it, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said. Tropicana Field is located in his city.
“I want to be crystal clear. 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,” he said.
“And ultimately such a decision is up to me, and I have no intention of bringing this idea to our city council to consider. In fact, I believe this is getting a bit silly,” he said.
The Expos then, like the Rays now, operated with a small payroll, often losing stars to big-market clubs, such as Pedro Martinez and David Price. And low attendance plagued both franchises.
Tampa Bay is averaging 14,546 fans per home game, ahead of only the Miami Marlins. The Rays have played at Tropicana Field since their inception in 1998 and drew their lowest home crowd of 5,786 against Toronto last month.
The Rays — the parent club of the Durham Bulls — had looked into building a new stadium for years but in December abandoned a plan to build across the bay in Tampa’s Ybor City area. They are committed to play in the Tampa Bay area through 2027.
“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, adding, “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,” he said.
MLB has played two series in Mexico this season, and the Red Sox and Yankees are set to play in London next week.
In their last two seasons before moving, the Expos played 22 games per year at San Juan, Puerto Rico.