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Friday, December 26, 2014

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Investors exist for Montreal baseball return: Cromartie

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Former Montreal Expo Warren Cromartie, left, jokes with Jay Horwitz, the New York Mets’ vice-president of media relations, at a Jewish Chamber of Commerce event. [Janice Arnold photo]

There are people with deep pockets out there interested in seeing professional baseball return to Montreal, but Warren Cromartie isn’t saying who.

“I’ve got a pretty good team behind me,” said the Montreal Expos Hall of Famer, the front man for the project to revive the sport here. “I can’t tell you who, but these are people who make this city run.”

Cromartie, who played for the Expos from 1974 to 1983, was a guest speaker at a Federation CJA Jewish Chamber of Commerce breakfast held on March 28 on the eve of the first time Major League Baseball was played in Montreal in a decade.

The Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets played two spring training games at the Olympic Stadium, the home of the National League Expos before they left for Washington in 2004 after 35 years here.

The weekend was part of an effort by the Montreal Baseball Project to revive interest in the game in Montreal.

Cromartie, who retired from baseball in 1991, drew applause when he responded to a question about why someone like Charles Bronfman, the original Expos owner, is so hard to find today.

“As far as I’m concerned, Charles Bronfman was the only owner the Expos ever had,” he said.

The $30-a-plate breakfast, held in Le Windsor ballroom, attracted a standing-room only crowd, most of it too young or not born when the opening pitch was thrown at Jarry Park in 1969.

The event was sponsored by Ernst & Young, the accounting firm, which with the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, released a study in December concluding that a Major League Baseball franchise here would be feasible, provided a downtown stadium is built and more than one billion dollars is raised from government and private investors.

Another panelist, Ernst & Young vice-president William Jegher concurred that there are serious potential investors. The feasibility study was paid for half by the Board of Trade and half by “individuals who have asked to remain anonymous…There are hopefully folks who are ready to put cash on the table.”

Cromartie, Jegher and another panelist, Jays general manager and former Montrealer Alex Anthopoulos agreed that a downtown ballpark is essential, and it must be open air.

The Ernst & Young study concluded that games would have to draw an average of 27,000 spectators.

On this snowy morning, the audience needed no reminder that our winters are long and cold, and Montrealers hunger for the first sign of warmth and sunshine in the spring.

The last thing they want to do on a summer’s day is sit in an enclosed stadium, like the Big O, the panelists said.

Jegher noted that Minnesota has a similar climate to Montreal – long winters, short summers – yet the Twins’ outdoor stadium, Target Field in Minneapolis which opened four years ago – has been a success, with few cancellations.

The discussion, which also included the Mets’ longtime media relations executive, Jay Horwitz, was moderated by Ben Raby, Washington Capitals games radio host and a former Montrealer.

Cromartie feels the Jays-Mets matches and the surrounding hoopla, including a reunion of players from the 1994 Expos team, which had World Series pennant contender, and memorial for legendary catcher Gary Carter, is creating “a buzz” about baseball.

Things are quite different from what they were 10 years ago, and favour Major League Baseball’s return to Montreal, the panel pointed out: there are three national television broadcasters in Canada looking for live sports content and teams are signing big contracts nowadays for broadcast rights. Revenue sharing is far more generous in the major leagues and the Canadian dollar is much stronger against the greenback.

As for finding a franchise that would move here, Cromartie said a couple of teams are known to be struggling, but did not specify.

The Montreal Baseball Project is trying to market the sport as a wholesome family pastime. “We are trying to get the grassroots, the young kids, who never saw a game. Our number one goal is to get them involved in baseball, to understand its roots in Montreal.”

One of the few women in the audience, Tina Cerulli, expressed her fervent hope that baseball will return.  Her six-year-old son is playing T-ball and looks forward to the day he can see big league games in this city.

 

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