Montreal Mayor and abrasive Expo’s loyalist Denis Coderre is a man on a mission. Since taking office in 2013, Coderre has embarked on a devout pilgrimage to bring Major League Baseball back to the City of Saints. His impassioned rhetoric, which emanates from a place of nostalgic testimony, has been the foundation of Montreal’s recent Bring-Back-Baseball initiative.
Oddly enough, despite the uncertainty of Quebec’s economic future, recreation and leisure spending of a pro-sports variety has been all the rage in La Belle Province, from the shores of La Vieille Capitale (Quebec City), to the dilapidated roads of ‘Quebec’s metropolis.’
Denis Coderre took time out of his busy schedule to talk about things that really matter: bringing baseball back to Montreal. Here’s what he had to say.
The Concordian: You’ve been very vocal about your desire to bring baseball back to Montreal, and have even stated publicly in a CBC article, “it’s not just about gaining back a team — it’s about how can we get baseball back to Montreal.” What steps are you and your administration taking to help bring baseball back to Montreal?
Denis Coderre: Well, first of all, we need to show the love of baseball. Because frankly, I’ve been to those exhibition games the last two years and the first thing you have to realize is [that] it’s not nostalgia, it’s part of our DNA. Clearly this is a baseball town, from the Royals to Jarry Park to the Olympic Stadium. Clearly, what we need to do is provide the infrastructure for kids to learn baseball, so kids can show their passion or find their passion for the sport. So I put up $11 million to fix up the fields. Since then, I’ve noticed there’s been a race to get kids registered. Montreal isn’t just a hockey town, or a soccer town, it’s a sports town and I think that everybody in every sport deserves a shot. I remember when I went to visit the Dodgers, everyone had a story about Montreal. You have to remember that the great Jackie Robinson got his major league start by going through Montreal. There is room for baseball here and all those planets are aligning together. But it’s important as a mayor of Montreal, not only to promote pro sports but also to make sure that we’re making concrete decisions for the sport itself. As a former minister of sports myself I always felt that our responsibility from the government level is to promote and facilitate the [sporting] environment so kids can be more active and promote their passion for all sports.
TC: In the current Canadian economic climate, do you feel the financial burden of professional sports is worth the long-term reward, especially for a city in a province facing austerity?
DC: Totally. Because I believe it’s not a matter of ‘are we fighting austerity?’ and all that. We have to be rigorous about the way we manage public funds. At the same time I think that [pro] sports isn’t a leisure expense, it’s an investment. By investing in sports, it’s an industry, but you’re investing in people and the money you save by promoting sports, in healthcare, is amazing. I read somewhere back when I was [Sports] Minister, that if you raise by five per cent the citizens’ sporting activity—which means three times a week, 15 minute sessions—you will save $5 billion dollars in healthcare. So it’s an investment. It’s an industry too and for baseball like any other sport. Look what happened with soccer, or Canadian football, or hockey. [Sports] are a window to the world. Especially with [baseball], I would suggest that a lot of people were coming from outside Montreal. Look at Formula One, 51 per cent of people are not coming from Quebec. Thirty one per cent are coming from Europe and there [are] a lot of people from the States. Now, imagine if you have a baseball team. Let’s all dream together—if we’re in the same league as the Orioles, the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Blue jays, can you imagine how it sounds if you can say “Oh let’s see the game against the Yankees today” and you’ll have people from New York that will come. Same thing for the Red Sox, we’ll have a lot of people from New England and Massachusetts come here. I witnessed it myself when we had the Expos or when he hosted the exhibition games. This is a hub. Montreal is a great hub.
TC: How do Montrealers benefit beyond the boastful banter of housing another pro sports team? What exactly do you see Montrealers having to gain with the financial and emotional investment of trying to attract a pro baseball franchise?
DC: As I said, it’s part of our DNA. I heard somewhere that at the registration level, baseball for Quebec youth has risen by 25 per cent in the last year. It’s not just a business—it’s something great. I mean, you know the feeling, and Montreal is a player. Montreal is a North American player and a worldwide player in the sports area. This is an Olympic City. We celebrated on July 9 the opening of the Olympic house. Every decision in Canada regarding the Olympic sports will be taken in Montreal. We will celebrate next year the 40th anniversary of Montreal as an Olympic City. So from just about any sport, people have a story in Montreal. [What they say in] Field of Dreams is true: “if you build it they will come.”
TC: Do you feel your vision of the Expo’s return to Montreal has the sufficient support of other Montreal elected officials and city councillors?
DC: Have you heard a lot of people say no to that?
TC: A lot of people on the left have been a little bit skeptical.
DC: On the left? Don’t label it that way. Be careful not to stereotype. That kind of labeling is not accurate, frankly. It’s not a matter of left and right. It’s a matter of love for sports.
TC: When I mean left, I’m taking into account the people in opposition of austerity measures.
DC: Why do you put austerity and sports together?
TC: Well when there are public funds involved—
DC: No. When we’re talking about investment, it’s private investment from private investors and at the end of the day there’s some return attached to it.
TC: That goes without saying, but when these franchises come to big cities—
DC: When I was sports minister—we [had to] believe in ourselves you know? It’s important. You had some people who were saying, ‘We shouldn’t invest in sports because we are missing beds in hospitals.’ I said, ‘If we put up prevention tools…’—First of all it’s an investment. It’s not an expense. Secondly, if you focus on the [sic]—because at the end of the day it’s a big cycle that will bring back more people—it’s a well-being issue and quality of life. A lot of people will exercise, a lot of people will practice the sport, no matter what. No matter which sport. If you talk about it, they will feel like they’re part of something. As a prevention tool, you’re saving a lot of money. So you’re creating an environment of—not only investment, economics-wise, but for the community itself it’s going to be a good policy because it’s going to focus on the well-being of the population.
TC: To clarify, I think where it becomes a right left issue—or maybe I misspoke—
DC: It’s not a right-left issue.
TC: We are facing austerity in Quebec and that’s what people have been talking about and if you look around North America new stadiums [pro sports teams in general] demand a lot of public dollars, especially in the MLB; look at the Marlins.
DC: It’s premature to talk about stadiums right now. We have to show the love of our sport. We have to demonstrate that it’s a bottom-up issue. We have—you know you don’t pull a flower to make it grow faster. But frankly, Major League Baseball is listening. As you know Mr. Manfred and I have been meeting each other, talking to each other. He says nice things about Montreal all the time! So at the end of the day, we shouldn’t dole any money anywhere? I mean look at Formula One, when it provides tens of millions into the economy and it’s creating jobs and all that. It’s all part of creating wealth and sharing it afterwards. It’s the definition of development at the end of the day. So it’s not a matter of austerity versus, it’s a matter of how can we all work together to be a metropolis that we’re proud of and that will bring back a lot of investment.
TC: So do you believe Montreal’s Formula One model can work in a baseball sense?
DC: No. I believe that [sport] is an investment. Formula One is another thing. That’s another thing that some people say not to invest in, but it’s provoking and creating wealth [for the city] and that’s why I’m saying that’s an example of another [sports] investment, not an expense.
TC: To what extent are you and the city of Montreal willing to go to ensure the return of the Expos?
DC: Oh, in my book it’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when’. Montreal will be back. I believe that. Montreal is a baseball town. We need them back. A lot of people are talking to me about it and frankly, economically [and] socially, it’s a great thing.
TC: How do you plan on ensuring the unfavourable conditions that led to the Expos’ departure aren’t reproduced with this attempt at their return?
DC: Well I know that, at that time there were some people who didn’t do their job, because they left. Where were the promoters? Of course you had the issue with the sponsors versus the enterprises and all that, we all know the saga. We don’t all agree with the way some treated that file … We’ve got to believe in it! That’s the Field of Dreams issue, my friend.
TC: So are you drawing an allusion that past administrations didn’t do their job?
DC: I’m just looking at the results. As a matter of fact, in 1999 I was a member of parliament, and I was part of the group that tried to save the Expos. I met for the first time Paul Beeston, when he was at major league baseball in New York. I was there! We visited the Orioles and other stadiums in order to build [our own new] stadium. But at the end of the day some people pulled the plug. But I was always there to promote baseball. I’m not going to redo the past. I don’t think it’s worth losing energy on that. Clearly what I am saying now is that we have winning conditions, all those planets are aligning together and we are focused on the sport itself. So if you talk about sports, and you focus on sports, something might happen, you know, to give 100 per cent it’s 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration, and it’s working.
TC: The Blue Jays preseason games of the last two seasons have been an astounding success. However, two games is a very small sample size. Do you believe that baseball in Montreal can garner enough support to last a gruelling 168-game MLB regular season?
DC: I’m not there just to live an experience. I’m there to make it work. So of course when you focus on baseball, they will come. I mean we had four years with over two million in attendance. That’s huge. The market in Montreal is a market for baseball. Now, we have to realize that at the same time, it’s not just a matter of attendance. Sports have changed; 10 years ago, the attendance was the number one revenue [generator]; now, it’s the third or fourth. Frankly, I believe that they will come. If we’re all focused and all working to get the team, people will come. Now I said if we are in the same league as the Blue Jays, The Red Sox, the Yankees and the Orioles, do you really believe that we will have problems to fill the place?
TC: Rob Manfred told ESPN the other day that he’s “open to the idea that there will be a point in time where expansion may be possible.” When you hear baseball’s head gatekeeper make comments like that, do you feel that reflects positively on your quest to bring back the Expos?
DC: You know Rob Manfred is an amazing commissioner. When I met him, the week after we went to a game in Detroit and he said, the loss of Montreal’s baseball team was a tragedy. Three weeks after he went to the Giants game in San Francisco, and he said, “We believe in expansion and we believe that Montreal is City number one.” Rob, even before I met him, spoke highly about Montreal. John McHale Jr. came to Montreal the last two years of exhibition—
TC: Who is John McHale?
DC: John McHale’s father was president of the Expos. Now [John McHale Jr.] is working at the MLB.
TC: Quebec City, under the leadership of your friend and colleague of sorts Regis Labeaume, has gone so far as to build a stadium without the guarantee of a pro team. What are your thoughts on that approach, and is this a strategy Montreal under your leadership would ever consider?
DC: I’m not going to compare because the NHL and MLB are different.
TC: Even in the realm of pro sports?
DC: It’s not the same—but at the same time, Mr. Manfred was here and we need a plan and we need to be serious about it. I supported the return of the Nordiques. Regis is supporting the return of the Expos. Of course we will need equipment attached to it. It’s too premature to talk about it now. But frankly, I think that we have to show the Major leagues that we are serious about it. We’re talking about investors, we’re talking about stadiums, we’re talking about a lot of things. Right now I think that the most important thing is to show the MLB that we’re for real when we’re talking about baseball, and it will start with the love of the sport.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed for flow and length.