“I think we’re close.”
With those words, as optimistic as any he has uttered, Stephen Bronfman Monday evening pointed his finger as squarely at the once and future Montreal Expos as he ever has.
“There’s a feeling in the air,” Bronfman also told a squadron of reporters on the field before the first of the Blue Jays annual exhibition tilts, this time against the Milwaukee Brewers. “It’s spring. I have a spring in my step.”
The timing could not have been more auspicious, following events last week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original Expos, the club first owned by his father, Charles Bronfman.
Given the sense of occasion and the cautious, step-by-step approach Bronfman has taken to what once seemed an impossible task, those were pretty strong words, even if what Bronfman had in mind (which wasn’t clear from the context) was acquiring the land for a new ballpark, not the imminent arrival of Major League Baseball in this city. Bronfman remained cautious, warning that he didn’t want to lead anyone down the path with false expectations.
“This is a long-term project,” Bronfman said. “It’s a lifetime project.”
All the same, Bronfman indicated that he’s ready to move and move quickly, first by acquiring the $50 million parcel of Griffintown land in the Peel Basin that has been targeted as the future home of the Expos. Bronfman would not be pinned down to a time frame as narrow as a month for an announcement on the land, but he did say that he hopes to have something on the land within a few months.
Even if the ballpark and the return of the Expos never becomes a reality, Bronfman said, there is room for a spectacularly successful development in the Peel Basin — but he made it crystal clear that he wants a new ballpark to be the centrepiece of that development.
Once the Bronfman group gains control of the land in Griffintown, it’s largely up to Major League Baseball and Commissioner Rob Manfred. “They watch every potential market very closely,” Bronfman said. “They know what’s going on.”
Bronfman said the potential markets include San Antonio, Nashville or Portland, none of which has the population or the history of Montreal — and the Major League Baseball Players Association, he said, would block any attempt to move to Mexico City or Monterrey.
The biggest hold-up that remains is that Manfred is waiting to see if stadium issues are resolved in Oakland and Tampa Bay and MLB is also, according to Bronfman, “keeping an eye on one or two other teams” that are a concern.
To be clear, Bronfman doesn’t care whether the team that eventually comes to this city is an expansion team or a team on the move (think the Tampa Bay Rays, moving north to Montreal as the Expos moved south to Washington 14 years ago.)
Bronfman also offered a peek into the way he operates when he said that what he tries to do is to pair his gut feeling with his nuts-and-bolts assessment of any project. This time, the gut and the numbers are very much in tune.
And what will the ballpark be like?
“It will be fabulous,” Bronfman said. And you know he means it.
Bronfman was also clear that he will not build a stadium without knowing that a team is bound for Montreal — no Quebec City situation, in other words.
What if it came to a standoff, someone asked Bronfman. What if the Bronfman group wouldn’t build a stadium without a team and Major League Baseball was saying no team without a shovel in the ground?
“If that’s what it is, if Major League Baseball is asking for a shovel in the ground, I’ll go down to Griffintown and put the shovel in the ground myself,” Bronfman said, “because if they want a shovel in the ground, that means they’ve got a team for us.”
The overwhelming sense, shared by veteran reporters on the scene, was that Bronfman has never sounded so optimistic and the return of Major League Baseball has never been quite so near. There is clearly work to be done with MLB and with the city, provincial and federal governments but Bronfman has a much better chance of winning their support than Claude Brochu ever had.
When I asked at what point he felt the effort to revive the Expos would be worth the countless hours of work (not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars involved), Bronfman pointed to the hard slogging down on the ground by the people at ExposNation, particularly Matthew Ross and Annakin Slayd, and especially to effervescent former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie.
“Cro did a lot,” Bronfman said. “It was really Cro who got the ball rolling.”
Despite the mammoth crowds that turned out year after year for the Blue Jays exhibition games, it was really Bronfman who picked up that ball and ran with it. From a cautious, intriguing figure on the periphery, he has become absolutely central to the return of baseball to Montreal and has handled every situation so far like Orlando Cabrera gobbling up an easy grounder to short.
All the same, Stephen Bronfman took pains Monday evening to emphasize this is not a done deal. But judging by the grin on his face through a long media session during which the usual suspects pummelled him with questions, it may be closer than we think.
By Jack Todd
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019