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Could Montreal make a play for Rays?

TAMPA — In the future will we have to call our hometown baseball team les Rays?

Former Montreal Expos icon Warren Cromartie — so popular in Montreal he once had his own candy bar, the CroBar — is mounting a campaign to lure a team back to the francophone city on the St. Lawrence River. Cromartie told The Tampa Tribune on  Tuesday that he isn't targeting any team specifically, including the Rays.

However, he acknowledges certain teams are struggling with attendance or their finances and he's more than willing to let baseball writers and sports agents make the Rays-to-Montreal suggestion.

Cromartie doesn't have the money to buy a team or pay for a new ballpark, so he knows he faces long odds. For now, he's hoping to find a would-be owner to buy and relocate a team, while he “makes noise” to keep Montreal in the discussion. He has support from Montreal's chamber of commerce, the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal.

“I'm on this journey, and right now it's going well,” Cromartie said Tuesday. “I know it's a long shot. I like the long shot that we're in.”

Cities in North America have a long and ugly history of trying to outbid each other when a sports team goes searching for a new stadium. In fact, St. Petersburg tried for years to lure a team before landing the then-Devil Rays as an expansion team in 1995. The threat that a team might bolt for St. Petersburg gave big-league owners leverage to demand a new stadium from their cities.

Montreal appears to be the potential baseball market du jour.

Baseball super-agent Scott Boras floated the idea of the Rays moving north of the border during the baseball winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista this month. That set off a flurry of speculative articles by the national press, which generally lampooned Tropicana Field and the Bay area as a baseball market.

Coincidentally, Cromartie and Montreal's board of trade issued a feasibility study around the same time suggesting Major League Baseball is viable in Montreal. It wouldn't be cheap — purchasing a team would run about $525 million and building a stadium would run at least $500 million, without factoring in additional costs such as infrastructure, accounting firm Ernst & Young projected in the study.

Still, it's doable. A Montreal team would draw 27,700 to 31,600 fans per night, the study said. It doesn't mention the Rays or make any comparisons, but for the record the Rays' average home turnout was an major league worst 18,646 last season.

A Rays spokesman declined comment Tuesday about Montreal's efforts. Over the summer, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg told FoxSports.com that he wants to keep looking around the Bay area for a ballpark and has no plans to look at Montreal. However, he did tell the website he believes baseball can work in Montreal. For Cromartie, bringing baseball back to Montreal has become his full-time pursuit.

Cromartie, 60, grew up in Miami and came up with the Montreal Expos in the mid-1970s. He had a measure of success in the late 1970s and early 1980s and hit .304 in the 1981 season, playing alongside such Expos stars as Gary Carter, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines. But, at the peak of his career in 1983 he departed to play several seasons of pro ball in Tokyo.

Today, Cromartie lives in Miami, but said he maintains close ties to the Canadian city and to Quebec overall. He met his ex-wife, with whom he has three kids, while playing minor-league ball in Quebec City. Montreal just seemed exciting, “electric,” as he looked out at the city's lights during bus drives between Quebec City and Montreal in his minor-league days.

“Montreal's pretty much made me who I am,” he said Tuesday. “That's the jersey I wore.”

He insists Montreal is ready for baseball again, even if things didn't go so well the last time. During the Expos' heyday in the early 1980s, the team drew a healthy 25,000 to 29,000 fans per game, according to the baseball site Baseball-Reference.com. But that fell to embarrassing levels by the early 2000s, when it couldn't even crack 10,000 fans on average.

Major League Baseball eventually stepped in and moved the team to Washington, D.C., in 2005, becoming the Nationals. Cromartie said he believes the Expos' weak attendance had more to do with fans' “venom” over its previous owner, Jeffrey Loria, than a lack of interest in baseball.

Major League Baseball is in no mood to expand beyond 30 teams, so Cromartie believes relocation is his best chance at landing a big-league club. That said, he refused to comment on which team he thinks is most likely to relocate, and he declined to comment on the Rays' protracted effort to get a new ballpark.

He's counting on Major League Baseball to step in at the right time, and if there's a team ripe for relocation, to steer it Montreal's way. In the meantime, he'll try to keep Montreal's name out there. He's getting some moral support from an unnamed Albany, N.Y., fan who created the Facebook site Move the Tampa Bay Rays to Montreal.

Montreal has its advantages, including a metropolitan population of over 3.8 million, but it has its skeptics. Vince Gennaro, author of a book on baseball economics called “Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball,” said you'd have to consider Montreal, Portland and Las Vegas when considering new markets. But, there are no sure-bet “silver-bullet” markets left in North America for baseball.

Meantime, incoming St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman didn't sound especially worried about Montreal last week.

“There's a lot of rumors about a lot of other cities that want the Rays,” Kriseman said. “I understand why they do. (The Rays) are a great team, they're a great community partner. But we want them to stay here in St. Pete.”

Tribune reporter Howard Altman contributed to this report.

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