By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Montreal is making a pitch to bring back Major League Baseball (MLB) to "La Belle Province" but has not reached first base in a lengthy process that is yet to really start, said commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday.
As another capacity crowd of close to 50,000 filed into the Rogers Centre for the American League wildcard game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, Manfred gushed about the baseball boom sweeping across Canada.
He offered nothing but positive support for the Montreal effort, but the commissioner also warned his Canadian audience of obstacles ahead before MLB returns to a city it left in 2004 because of poor attendance, inept ownership and a decaying stadium.
Before the league considers expansion, Manfred said a new collective bargaining agreement must be negotiated, with the current deal set to expire in December. Also, troublesome stadium issues in Tampa and Oakland need to be resolved.
"I like Canada so much I even went on vacation in Canada this year," began Manfred, playing up to his Canadian hosts. "There are two or three things that need to happen.
"First we need a new agreement, nothing is going to happen on that front (expansion) until we make a new agreement. Secondly, there are two stadium situations.
"Hopefully we are going to make good progress on both of those situations and then it would begin first with an internal debate as to whether baseball wants to go to 32."
Montreal and Mexico City are believed to be at the top of any MLB expansion list.
The league is certainly interested in further tapping into the Canadian market.
Toronto topped the American League in attendance during the regular season with over 3.39 million fans filling the Rogers Centre for 81 home games.
That was third best in MLB, trailing only the Los Angeles Dodgers (3.7 million) and the St. Louis Cardinals (3.4 million).
"The market here buzzing again is a huge boost for Major League Baseball," said Manfred. "I know during the All-Star Game some of the best ratings data we had was all across Canada and those are just tremendously positive stories for baseball."
Convincing owners to slice the revenue pie 32 ways instead of 30 could also require some creative arguments, while many will recall how the Montreal Expos, after a promising start, endured a slow, painful decline amid public apathy before moving to Washington in 2005.
"Montreal was a great baseball market for us for a really long time," said Manfred.
"Their mayor does seem to be a tremendous advocate for returning baseball to Montreal and it is the kind of market we see as being potentially successful for our sport.
"The idea of a broader international footprint, another team in Canada is appealing to us."
(Editing by Andrew Both)