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Cromartie hungry to bring baseball back to Montreal

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Warren Cromartie’s energy can be infectious. When the former Montreal Expos and Yomiuri Giants star gets going on a topic, his voice rises, his words drip with conviction and even over the phone, you can imagine him flashing that familiar, toothy, megawatt smile.

The subject on Cromartie’s mind today is the Montreal Expos. More specifically, how he hopes to bring the team, which relocated and became the Washington Nationals after the 2004 season, back to the city.

“It’s been quite a journey, and something I’m supposed to do,” Cromartie told The Japan Times in a telephone interview. “It’s not something where I’m trying to be a hero or anything.”

The Expos’ departure was a bitter pill for many Montreal residents, and it was one of these spurned fans who, in a chance meeting, helped inspire Cromartie to start the Montreal Baseball Project (MBP), a group whose aim is bringing baseball back.

“I started this journey about a year and a half ago,” Cromartie said. “Coming from the airport in Montreal, a fan who recognized me from when I was in Montreal, asked where can they go to see anything with the Expos on it. At that time we didn’t have anything, and I thought that was pretty much a travesty.”

Over a year later, Cromartie was the picture of confidence on Dec. 12, when the results of a feasibility study — a collaboration of the Montreal Baseball Project, Ernst & Young and the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal — concluded it would be viable to bring a team to the city. “We knew what we knew all along, that Montreal is viable,” he said.

While many have decried his quest as a longshot at best, Cromartie remains undeterred.

“They’re (Montreal residents) quite big on their sports with the (Canadian Football League’s) Alouettes, the (NHL’s) Canadiens and the Major League Soccer team, the Impact. I think times have changed for Montreal. I think Montreal is ready.”

The landscape has changed

There’s no denying that Montreal has undergone changes since losing its baseball team, a few of which may even make the city more receptive to a team than in 2004.

Some of the biggest changes have come in the media says Jonah Keri, author of “The Extra 2%,” a New York Times national bestseller that studied the secrets of the Tampa Bay Rays’ success, and also of the upcoming book “Up, Up, and Away,” which delves into the history of the Expos, told The Japan Times in a telephone conversation.

“I think that the market has the capability to support a team,” Keri said. “For a few reasons. Number one, before, there was really very little media presence in terms of national sports networks. Now you’ve got four national sports networks.”

Two of those were involved in a huge shakeup last week, with Rogers Communications Inc. paying $5.2 billion (Canadian, $4.9 billion U.S.) to win the broadcasting and multimedia rights to the NHL away from Bell Media.

“Nobody ever spent that kind of media money before,” Keri said. “That was very much an American thing to do.

“So now the thought is, Bell’s this big company — they’re a cable provider, a telecommunications provider and they own TSN (The Sports Network) and they generate programming — so that’d be a great fit if they had some replacement or something like the Expos or a team in Montreal.

“So there’s that, there’s more money in the province, the economy is in somewhat better shape than it was before. So there are some things going for the city.”

Cromartie says changes in baseball also help. “We (MLB) have revenue sharing now, we have television money now, we have social media now, the dollar is a lot better in Canada compared to the U.S., and we have an extra playoff team,” he said. “So lots of things have changed since 10 years ago.”

Many who know Cromartie would describe him as strong willed, outgoing and somewhat flamboyant.

He hit .280 with 60 home runs and 371 RBIs in nine years (1974-1983) with the Expos, and was a fan favorite during his years with the Kyojin (1984-1990), playing with exuberance and zeal in front of packed houses at Korakuen Stadium and later Tokyo Dome.

He can be found on Japanese television even today, as one of the stars of a Mobcast (which offers social media and game services) advertisement in which a baseball manager switches out every member of her losing team for nine Cromarties who come out victorious then throw their arms in the air and break out into cheers of “banzai,” something Cromartie would do as a player.

Charisma, a seemingly limitless reservoir of energy, and the sheer force of his personality helped make Cromartie a star on two continents, but even he can’t simply wish the Expos back into existence.

The results of the feasibility study were positive, but there are still the issues of a stadium (he envisions something downtown in the 35,000-seat range), ownership, and private funds.

Even then, it might not be enough to get the job done.

“I don’t even think it’s an owner, or the money, or whatever,” Keri said. “Honestly, I think those are secondary things. My biggest thing is, what incentive does Major League Baseball have to go back to Montreal?

“As far as they’re concerned, I would guess, it was such a bad situation the first time, that why would they want to try it again? I could sit here and say, well this has changed and that has changed, but from their standpoint, it was fail, fail, fail. It was the only team to move in the last 40 years, and that should tell you something.

“Even if it was ‘OK, we’re going to be amiable to it,’ what’s the mechanism going to be? Relocation? Well there’s not a team that’s planning to relocate anytime soon. Is it going to be expansion? Well, there’s no plans for expansion either. So we’re sort of stuck here, where, yeah, in theory it’s a good market, but you need an opportunity for it to happen.”

Contrary to the sad picture painted during the Expos’ final years, the team didn’t lack for fan support for the most part.

“It’s never been about the fans in Montreal,” Cromartie said. “It’s always been about ownership.”

According the Baseball Reference, from their inception in 1969 through 1997, the Expos failed to crack one million in attendance on just three occasions — and the strike-shortened 1994 season wasn’t one of them.

That ’94 team was one the fans especially wanted to watch.

When the strike began Aug. 12, 1994 (it ended April 2, 1995), the Expos sat atop the NL East with a 74-40 record and a roster that featured an outfield of Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker, a young, jheri-curled Pedro Martinez in the rotation and closer John Wetteland in the bullpen.

The strike washed away what was shaping up to be Montreal’s best season, and a fire sale gutted the team the very next year.

Jeffrey Loria assumed control of the team four years later, and his missteps in subsequent years led to the team being targeted for contraction and later sold to Major League Baseball.

Without a good product on the field amidst financial and ownership strife, Montreal surpassed one million in attendance just once — in 2003 when the Expos played home games in both Montreal and San Juan, Puerto Rico — from 1998-2004.

“I don’t think the city was ever unsuitable for baseball,” Keri said. “The whole idea of the very small crowds, and this isn’t working and that isn’t working, I think a lot of that was kind of circumstance the first time. I would imagine that there would be more support this time around.”

Cromartie is banking on it and determined to generate enough of a groundswell to inspire an army of supporters.

“The next step is to secure stuff with the private sector and government sector and hone in on ownership,” Cromartie said. “And finding a location for the stadium, securing a site for the stadium. Also finding what I call my champions. People with passion, someone with passion, someone with integrity, to step up to the plate.

“Now, they could be Japanese. I pose the question to a company in Japan that may be interested in becoming a part of history with a long-standing organization, Montreal Expos, and a great city and town with fans who would embrace a good working partner in Japan to open the doors between Montreal and Japan.”