The Rays have received permission from Major League Baseball's executive council to explore a plan in which they would play home games in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday.
While the plan is in its nascent stages, the Rays have embraced the two-city solution as the most feasible to saving baseball in the Tampa Bay area after years of failed attempts to build a new stadium in the region, sources said.
Under the plan, the Rays would play early season home games in the Tampa Bay area and the remainder of the year in Montreal, with both cities getting new stadiums, sources said. The number of home games each city would receive has not been determined, sources said.
Manfred referred to the idea of a two-city Rays team as a long-term project.
The ability to play games early in the season in Florida would preclude the need for a domed stadium, cutting the cost of a new building.
"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, 'Iit happened, we saw it,' but that's really all it is."
The return of baseball to Montreal, which lost the Expos when they moved to Washington and became the Nationals before the 2005 season, has long been speculated and has significant support among power brokers in the city, including Stephen Bronfman, the private-equity magnate whose father, Charles, was the Expos' original owner.
A month ago, Bronfman -- who along with Montreal businessman Mitch Garber has expressed interest in taking a minority stake in the Rays, alongside owner Stuart Sternberg -- reached an agreement with a developer on a site in Montreal's Pointe-Saint-Charles neighborhood to potentially build a new stadium.
"My priority remains the same, I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come," Sternberg said via statement. "I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration."
Significant hurdles remain for the plan to take root, sources said. Though two cities sharing a team isn't entirely novel -- the Expos played 22 home games in Puerto Rico in 2003, and Kansas City, Missouri, and Omaha, Nebraska, split home games with the NBA's Kings in the 1970s -- the viability of long-term success remains in question.
MLB's executive council, which includes Sternberg, nevertheless gave the Rays permission to explore the possibility during owners meetings Wednesday and Thursday.
For more than a decade, the Rays have sought to build a new stadium in Tampa or St. Petersburg, Florida, where they currently play at Tropicana Field. Their lease runs through 2027, and a Tampa Bay-Montreal dual-city plan would necessitate finding a stadium site in Florida as well. The timetable for any potential move probably depends on whether the Rays can strike a deal in the Tampa Bay area for a new stadium, sources said.
"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," St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman said via statement. "Ultimately, such a decision is up to me. And I have no intention of bringing this latest idea to our city council to consider. In fact, I believe this is getting a bit silly."
The Rays' average attendance of 14,546 is the second lowest in the majors, ahead of only the Miami Marlins, despite a 43-31 record. Their Opening Day payroll of around $65 million was among the lowest in baseball. Among the difficulty in securing a new stadium, a paucity of local revenue and a poor local-television deal, the Rays have been seen by other cities as a target for relocation -- a possibility should the Tampa Bay-Montreal plan fail.
"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."
MLB has played exhibition games in Montreal in recent years involving the Toronto Blue Jays and has drawn well for those. MLB has loosely talked over the years about expansion into Montreal, but Manfred repeatedly has said expansion would not be considered until the Rays and Oakland Athletics get new ballparks.
A deal with Montreal would keep the Rays in Florida while potentially adding significant revenues to the franchise. Montreal offers a robust corporate base for sponsorships and a fervent fan base that could support what would amount to a half-season ticket plan. Other teams could object to the Rays occupying two geographical territories, though the support of the executive council to explore the possibility, sources said, constituted a significant step forward.
"I was fortunate enough to have played there when it was in its halcyon days," said Steve Rogers, a five-time All-Star pitcher for the Expos from 1973 to 1985.
"It was a destination spot," he said. "I have no doubt that the city of Montreal would go over the top now to embrace a major league team. I do believe that."
It is too early in the process, sources said, to answer such questions as what the name of the team would be or where playoff games would be held.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.