Baseball in Montréal Recap

This past week I’ve had the chance to go watch the Toronto Blue Jays at Olympic Stadium in Montréal. I’ve been 2 years before and it seems like every time I go I reconsider my opinions about whether or not baseball should return to Montréal. In my first year, the Blue Jays were playing a Saturday game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in front of about 45 000. It’s the largest crowd I’ve ever seen but the fans weren’t really into it. So I thought no, they shouldn’t get one. The next year it’s Vlad Jr.’s first game in the place he was born and the crowd overall was better but the attendance was about 26 000. Now in a smaller but mightier crowd this year, I truly have understood why the fans keep going, and it has nothing to do with the Blue Jays.

The fans aren’t there to cheer on the Blue Jays or care if they win or lose, the fans want their team back, one to call their own. While chanting “Bo Bichette” for the next couple of years may be good enough, it doesn’t measure up to the passion the Expos brought to the city of Montréal. Although there are certain barriers from bringing the Expos back to Montréal at the major league level, the city of Montréal became a viable market for the Major Leagues after decades of proving they’re great minor league fans.

While the direction of Stephen Bronfman and associates are focused on bringing a Major League team to Montréal, a minor league team would help contribute to the demand Montréal baseball fans have been craving to have a baseball team in the city. Looking at cities like Baltimore, Atlanta, Toronto, and even Montréal, all of these towns had a minor league team until the Majors thought it would be a good idea to expand to their markets. As Canadian teams have played in the International League before, it’s not a problem for them to re-enter, and as Montréal has a stadium (they can play in for a few years before a new one is built) and a big population, they could easily support one. As the only Canadian Minor League team is in Vancouver, bringing Minor League Baseball to the East Coast of Canada, could help grow the game in Québec.

Although some would be concerned about a Minor League team staying too long that would hinder them from getting a team, this actually would not be the case. Atlanta only had a minor league team for four years before the Braves came from Milwaukee in 1966. Baltimore’s Triple-A team ( the Orioles) were able to have a team until 1953, with the St. Louis Browns moving to start in Baltimore in 1954. So if Montréal were to get a Major League team, it would be easy to move them. A minor league team may not be the answer Montréal fans hope for, but it’s a better solution than maintaining the same course. A minor league team would give Montréal fans the chance to prove themselves 72 nights a year instead of 2 nights, and will finally give the fans something to truly cheer about.


Ichiro Suzuki’s Legacy

Ichiro Suzuki is truly a once in a generation type of player. He is the best lead off hitter since Rickey Henderson, the best hitter since Pete Rose and the best international star since Roberto Clemente. As the 45 year old right fielder plays for the Mariners in the 2019 opening Series in his home country of Japan, a lot of people are speculating this it for him. In his 19th season, the 10 time All-Star and 10 time Gold Glove winner will not spend the rest of the season on a rebuilding Mariners team.

What he leaves behind is a resurgence in Japanese baseball and the desire for Japanese players to come over and play the American style game, but those who followed him here in North America. He has paved the way for Japanese stars such as Shohei Ohtani and Yusei Kikuchi to be competitive in the majors for many years to come. He made the game global and was one of the likely reasons we saw the birth of the World Baseball Classic.

Unfortunately Ichiro like Ken Griffey Jr will likely go down as one of the greatest to never win a World Series, but the two World Baseball Classic Championships he won as a member of Team Japan will cement his legacy as a baseball star beyond the American market. Ever since he came over in 2001, he was a star in this game, he was someone to look up to and played baseball the right way. I had the chance to watch him live in his prime in Toronto and it is something I will never forget.

As he was taken out of the Mariners roster part way through the 2018 season, Ichiro began his transition into his future in the front office. With Major League Baseball deciding that the Mariners and Athletics were going to make the season debut in Japan, Suzuki jumped at the chance to come out of retirement and play in his home country. There is a high likelihood that he will be elected in the first ballot for the Hall of Fame joining the class of 2025. The next phase of his life will be growing the game that he loves. There’s a possibility for him to be a scout in Japan, or assuming a role to work in player operations to help with struggling players. I do not think I could possibly think of someone who is truly more beloved than Ichiro Suzuki and he will truly be missed.

An in-depth look at the Mariners

The Seattle Mariners are often forgotten about when discussing Major League Baseball teams. They have yet to win the American League pennant and have only won three division titles in their forty-two seasons. Yet with all-time greats such as Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey Jr in their primes, the Mariners have yet to make the playoffs since their record-breaking 2001 season, which you guessed it, ended in heartbreak. So how exactly does that happen? I believe that there are at least five problems that can attribute to their mediocrity, and how they can improve. Let’s break it down, shall we?

The biggest problem with the franchise seems to be their lack of depth. It’s great to have players like Felix Hernandez in their prime but baseball is a team game, this is not an effective strategy as a team is only as strong as their weakest link. An example of this can be seen through the current Los Angeles Angels. As they have phenomenal players in Mike Trout and Shohei Otani, but the rest of the team is mediocre at best. Whether it’s in baseball or television, a group of stars benefits from a great group of supporting players. This has been a rooted problem in their system.

Another problem is found when looking at the Mariners through the farm system. For a championship calibre team to form, a core consisting of at least three stars coming up through the system for the organization to build a team around. For the New York Yankees in the late 90s, their core consisted of Jeter, Pettite and Posada. For the Cubs, it was Bryant, Baez and Schwarber (Rizzo came up through the Padres system). For the Royals, it was Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas. For the Houston Astros, they have Altuve, Correa, Springer and Bregman. All of these championship teams have had the same formula to establish their legacy into baseball history. However, there has been no core of at least three stars to come up through the Mariners system at the same time.

Looking back at their past draft picks, it is easy to see where the team has gone wrong Of their 46 first round picks, only 21 came to the major leagues. With most prospects, they would leave the Mariners after their six years is up. When you think of players like Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez, the Mariners aren’t exactly the first team that comes to mind, despite Seattle drafting them both during the first round. Keeping players in Seattle is difficult especially when the team around them is not performing as great as they should be.

Looking at the on field product over the past seventeen seasons, the Mariners have been consistently mediocre. In the American League West since 2002, they only finished in second place just three times. This is in an era where the American League West had a division of only four teams with Houston moving over after the 2012 season. As the Athletics, Angels and Rangers have experienced memorable Octobers during this time, the Mariners have unfortunately been watching this all from the sidelines. For Seattle, they have consistently been poor over the last seventeen years at producing offensively.

A big factor could be that Safeco Field is a pitcher’s ballpark, but on the road, they seem to do worse. Since 2001, they have been in the bottom five teams in the American League in terms of runs scored every year except five. In order to score runs, players need to be on base. Unfortunately for the Mariners, they were in the bottom five in the American League for On Base Percentage (OBP) for every season except six. This is very important as On Base Percentage was the driving force for their rivals the Oakland Athletics to rebuild once their big stars have left their team for free agency. As Seattle is also a small market team, the “Moneyball” strategy could be effective if they aspire to get back to October baseball.

As for the pitching and defence, it has been inconsistent, to say the least. With the exception of generational pitcher in Felix Hernandez, his fellow members of the pitching staff have not been the best. Looking at the teams Runs allowed  (RA) and Earned Run Average (ERA), it has been all over the place. In 2013, the Mariners finished with a record of 71-91 with their RA being 12th and ERA 13th in the American League. However, in 2014, the Mariners finish with a record of 87-75 and with the RA and ERA being 1st among the American League. In 2015, they go back down to 11th and 12th just to come back up in 2016 being 6th in RA and 3rd in ERA. With pitching being such an important part of baseball, this inconsistency is not healthy for a team that wants to go back to the postseason.

The final problem I wanted to look at is the fan base itself. For the Pacific Northwest region, there are only three professional sports teams; the Mariners, the Seahawks and the Trail Blazers. As the Mariners play the majority of their season with no other team in the region playing, there should be no problem trying to bring in fans. The attendance is average compared to the American league but has not averaged over 30 000 fans a game since 2007. Attendance and the fan base isn’t exactly a huge issue but it is worth mentioning considering that they are in a region with almost no competition and a good chance that Portland could be getting a baseball team very soon. Not to mention that ticket sales are where teams seem to get their profits from, so more fans can help bring better players to the organization.

Overall, the Mariners organization is not a lost cause. Every small market franchise goes through playoff droughts. There have been longer playoff droughts than the Mariners’ seventeen-year skid. If they are able to draft correctly and keep those players, produce more on offense and have consistent pitching they will get out of this drought. As they are currently one of two franchises who have yet to go to the World Series, it is safe to say that the fans have been patiently waiting for a turn around to come sooner rather than later.

There have been changes in the last couple of months and I will update at a later date.

Baseball and Montréal. Now what?

Baseball and Montréal have had a rather confusing relationship over the past 25 years. Montreal has been historically the home the Montreal Expos, but after the infamous strike of 1994, the local interest in hosting an MLB franchise decreased. In 2004, the team packed up and moved to Washington – and yes that means Bryce Harper could have been in a Expos uniform in some alternate history. Sadly that is not the reality of things. Instead, the La Belle Province has been left with no major or minor league teams, leaving the province void of baseball.

What seems to be a glimmer of hope in Montréal is the Blue Jays annual exhibition games played at the former home of the Expos, Olympic Stadium. The stadium is not per-se the most ideal baseball venue as its dome-like structure is reminiscent of an ugly Tropicana Stadium in Tampa. Nonetheless, Olympic Stadium is still full of history with a great location adjacent to beautiful downtown Montreal.

While the Jays just finished their fifth series in Montréal, this series was a bit different this time around. This was the first time a series was featured on a weeknight at Olympic Stadium, making this a true test for the Montréal faithful. The average attendance for a game over the first 4 series was roughly around 48 000 fans. However, during this year’s two-game series, the attendance was a combined 51 000 – half the size of previous games.

A number of factors can contribute to the problem itself. For one the game was played on a weeknight, not necessarily easy for those who work full time or baseball fans outside of the city to attend the game. The second being the roster itself. The Blue Jays are not the star-studded team it used to be. The Vegas win projection is only 81.5 games which is only good enough for 4th in the AL East. No to mention rotation stars like Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson are currently on the DL. Lastly, it does not help when ticket prices increase for weeknight games. All these factors bring into the question of the annual spring showcase in Montreal.

As someone who experienced the Jays in Montréal for the second time, this past Monday, I can tell you that the fans may be few in numbers but the fans were certainly more passionate this year than last year. The fans were loud, they were proud and they want their team back; it’s as simple as that.

Currently, the unattractive stadium, ownership, and lack of support from the new mayor do not bode well for the advancement of baseball in Montreal. As the years go on, however, the popularity of baseball in Canada continues to grow. There is hope for the eventual return of a baseball team in Montréal despite the current situation. One solution could be the Jays hosting a weekend series during the regular season in 2019 around the June 24 Québec holiday. Another stepping-stone could be the relocation of one of the Minor League teams. For the meantime, Montreal is still at least 5 years away from getting any chance at a Major League team.  So for all you Expo fanatics screaming about not having a team, please calm down, relax, shut up, and just enjoy this season and everything it holds.

Blue Jays 2019 Season Preview

The 2019 Blue Jays season will be one of a trying time for the players, front office and fans. This season ahead seems to be a transition year as players such as Kendrys Morales and Justin Smoak head into Free Agency after this season, and young guns like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. begin to make their start on this franchise for years to come. As does new manager Charlie Montoyo who is here for his first of three seasons. As the Rays former bench coach, he provides fresh insight on analytics and will likely experiment with things such as the opener.

This is going to be a tough year for the Blue Jays as they have arguably the toughest
schedule in baseball in 2019. With 86 of their 162 games this season against teams that won
90 or more times in 2018, this young core will be tested early and often. Fans will get to see
19-year-old reliever Elvis Luciano become the Blue Jays’ youngest pitcher to play in
franchise history. As well as other great talents like Billy McKinney, Rowdy Tellez and
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. as they attempt to vie for starting positions in the Blue Jays lineup.
Transition is definitely the theme of this season as we move on from the ALCS runs of the
past and look to the future with our next generation of stars.

There is an exciting core right now in Buffalo this season as many of them were on the 2018
AA Champion New Hampshire Fisher Cats and the 2017 A Champion Dunedin Blue Jays.
So fans in Southern Ontario who want a glimpse of the future can head down the road to
watch them. With exciting players like Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, they will be quite
entertaining to watch.

Other great things the Blue Jays faithful have to look forward to this season is seeing Roy
Halladay being inducted into Cooperstown on July 21. On August 27, Josh Donaldson
comes back to Toronto for the first time since being traded to Cleveland last season with his
new team the Atlanta Braves. As well as June 5 vs the Yankees being the 30th anniversary
of the first game at Rogers Centre. Overall, 2019 for the Blue Jays will be a season of
patience, transition and optimism. So let’s just have fun for the time being.