Why you should care

Because they like America’s favorite sport in Canada, too, eh?

Montreal is not a baseball city. Warren Cromartie has heard the refrain for years. The city adores its hockey and poutine, but America’s pastime was just a passing fad, thank you very much.

Cromartie doesn’t heed. The gregarious former Montreal Expos star is a one-man activist with a rough sort of charm, a gap-toothed smile and a simple goal: to bring baseball back to the City of Saints.

“This is where [pro baseball] started for me,” he said, “and this is where I’m bringing it back.”

Cromartie has a special place in his heart for Montreal not just because of his own career — he played for the Expos with cheer and flamboyance, and for the longest stretch of his career — but also because the city was the site of Jackie Robinson’s first pro game in 1946 for the Montreal Royals, a minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. A Robinson statue stands prominently in front of Olympic Stadium, the Expos’ longtime home.

Away from Olympic Stadium, baseball seems forgotten. Yet Cromartie has reason to be optimistic about his quest to bring a Major League Baseball franchise back to Montreal, a goal that seemed unthinkable just three years ago. His organization, the Montreal Baseball Project, has won over local sports fans — and, equally as important, the business community, from whom he has raised nearly half a million dollars, with the promise of more to come.

A fan holding a sign with a tombstone and the years 1969-2004

Source Shaun Best/Corbis

But Cromartie’s efforts and buy-in from Montreal’s business and civic leaders seem to have revived the city’s appetite for baseball. A pair of exhibition games at Olympic Stadium in March drew nearly 100,000 fans and praise from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who said in July that Montreal would be “an excellent candidate” for a team. Fans started impromptu chants of “Let’s Go, Expos!” and a lost generation of young Montreal baseball fans got their first taste of the game.Much has changed since 10 years ago, when the Expos left for Washington, D.C. Back then, few fans were sorry to see the team go. The Expos had one of the best collections of young talent in MLB history in the early 1990s, but they let all their best players leave in free agency so their owners could save money. Fans were disillusioned. Fewer than 10,000 per game showed up by the Expos’ final season in 2004.

Seeing the first opening day for a new Montreal franchise would be a crowning achievement for the 60-year-old Cromartie, whose career has brought him in contact with a litany of sports greats. His father was the first: The late Leroy Cromartie played second base for the Negro League’s Indianapolis Clowns and was a three-sport All-American at Florida A&M. As a child, Warren met black superstars like Buck O’Neil over the dinner table in inner-city Miami.

There’s a lot in favor of Montreal’s second chance. Each of the other four cities that lost their only MLB team after 1950 eventually received a new franchise.

The elder Cromartie, who won a conference football championship in college and played in a Negro League exhibition game at Yankee Stadium before turning 23, was an athlete in the mold of fellow multisport star Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in April 1947 when he took the field for the Dodgers. Though Leroy Cromartie never got his chance to play in the slowly integrating MLB, he profoundly affected his son.

“My father told me in high school that I was going to focus on baseball, not football, and I immediately said OK,” Warren Cromartie said. And he carried those ambitions all the way to the MLB, signing with the Expos out of junior college in 1973.

The Expos were part of the MLB’s rapid expansion in the 1960s, which saw the league grow from 16 to 24 teams. They failed to record a winning season in their first decade, but Cromartie helped changed the team’s fortunes. In 1979, they became a force to be reckoned with, winning 53 percent of their games over the next five years, including multiple 90-win campaigns.

Cromartie lacked the raw talent of outfield mates Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine. Still, he was a linchpin on the field, playing in nearly every Expos game from 1977 to ’83. And he was beloved off the field, enough to inspire a candy bar, at least for a time (the CroBar, naturally).

It was at first base that Cromartie made the biggest out in Expos’ history: the final out of the 1981 National League Division Series, the only postseason series the franchise ever won. Watch below.

“He was very much involved in the city at the time,” said Norm King, a lifelong Canadian baseball fan who profiled Cromartie for the Society for American Baseball Research. “I think the city captured his heart, and I don’t think it ever left.”

Maybe so. But Cromartie himself left in 1984. It may have been less wanderlust and more disgust with MLB; after the 1983 season, he played out his option with the Expos and the team “made no determined attempt to re-sign him,” according to the Montreal Gazette. When he retired in 1991, he assumed his biggest contributions to Montreal baseball were behind him. He got a one-year deal with the Kansas City Royals but retired during the season. Then he returned to Florida and took up sports broadcasting — the tagline of his AM radio show was “Call me, homey” — among other ventures.

But when former Expos great Gary Carter died in 2012 and none of Montreal’s leaders seemed to care, he began trying to turn public opinion in favor of a new team. He reached out to Montrealers via social media (his Twitter handle: @tweetmehomie) and persuaded the Chamber of Commerce to raise $400,000 for a feasibility study, which showed that fans and businesses alike wanted a team. Now he’s trying to secure a deep-pocketed owner to fund the project’s anticipated $1.025 billion price tag — $525 million to bring in a new franchise and $500 million for a new stadium.

Photo of outfield of Expos Stadium with thousands of empty seats.

Olympic Stadium, Montreal

There’s a lot in favor of Montreal’s second chance. Each of the other four cities that lost their only MLB team after 1950 eventually received a new franchise.

But the MLB has shown no willingness to expand beyond its current 30 teams, meaning another franchise would have to leave its current home for Montreal. And it’s unclear where Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred, set to replace Selig in January, stands on the issue.

None of that will deter Cromartie from his quest to expand baseball’s global reach. While his father was barred from organized baseball, Cromartie has been a star in the U.S., Canada and Japan, earning the respect of teammates, coaches and fans at every stop. The game seems to take hold in a new country every year, and the most recent World Baseball Classic in 2013 featured 16 countries from five continents. But if Cromartie has his way, the game’s next expansion will be watched over by that Jackie Robinson statue in Montreal.

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