Yankee fans following road trips to A.L. East rivals may not have to visit one of MLB's most humdrum parks and cities much longer: frustrated with MLB-low attendance and a notoriously weak park, the Tampa Bay Rays' owner "has discussed moving the club … to Montreal." Believe or don't believe reports that "play[ing] to a half-empty (or worse) stadium night after night … wore on Maddon" in his decision to leave the team he managed for nine years. But clearly the Rays, despite being roughly tied with the A's as the team most praised for innovative decision-making, are also roughly tied with the A's as MLB's most troubled team; the hit they'll take from losing simultaneously one of the most respected GMs and one of the most respected managers just compounds their structural attendance and park problems. Yet a team looking for a more devoted fan base would be making a curious decision by shacking up with Montreal, the one city MLB jilted by permanently confiscating its MLB team for lack of local support. I suppose D.C. non-permanently lost a team and is supporting its new team, but from my personal experience, Montreal isn't very similar to the capital of the nation where baseball is/was the national pasttime.
In 1991, I went to a Montreal Expos game. Of 17 MLB parks I've visited, Olympic Stadium was the most depressing experience. Attendance was pitifully low, and the roar of the crowd was deafeningly quiet, even grading on a curve for size: the few locals who ambled in showed little to no interest in a game being played with neither a puck nor a net at the end of the wooden stick; maybe the action could've gotten a rise out of them if Larry Walker had taken a swing at an ice-skating Hubie Brooks. Possibly that was a weird day, but Montreal's support of the team was bad enough to make the team flee the country, so I don't think I'm being too hard on the Québécois.
Arguing which city should next get an MLB team is fun. Montreal may be the most uncreative choice, as a city that did have a team once, but I am dead-sold on a dark-horse pick: San Juan, Puerto Rico. It very likely won't happen: its low average income and lack of megacorporations mean that even sellouts won't bring in the big bucks you get when the law firm of [insert four old guys' names] buys luxury boxes in [insert old-line established city on the mainland]. Yet it really should, and the Rays would be a great team to move south, for three reasons.
(1) It's plenty big. San Juan has 400,000 people, making it only the 46th largest American city – but it has 2.5 million in its metro area, and all of Puerto Rico is within about two hours' drive, so the local fan base is really 3.6 million. Its small-city/large-metro makes it basically the opposite of San Diego, which has 1.3 million in the city but only 3 million in the metro area, thanks to being surrounded by ocean, desert, military bases, and a national border. San Juan's city/metro split makes it almost identical to my hometown of Denver, which has only about 600,000 in the city, but 2.6 million in the metro area, and a broader regional draw far exceeding 3 million because Rocky Mountain folk outside Denver are used to driving long distances to get to the nearest city for sports and cultural events. The on-deck circle for an MLB team includes some cities with more corporate presence, like Portland and Charlotte, but not many with a local fan base of 3 million -- and after the Rays' depressing attendance, maybe priority #1 should be avoiding another half-empty park in a city without enough humans to buy millions of tickets a year.
(2) The draw could extend beyond the local and generate a great Yankees rivalry. Nearly five million Americans of Puerto Rican descent live on the mainland, spread all across the eastern seaboard ("concentrated in the Northeast (53%), mostly in New York (23%), and in the South (30%), mostly in Florida (18%)"). I've been to Yankee games in a half-dozen other cities, and we expatriate New Yorkers always show up in obnoxious force in our NY caps. Couldn't you see a strong following for a Puerto Rican MLB team playing lots of games against A.L. East rivals? Which visiting team makes for a more spirited 50,000 fans in the Bronx: Tampa Bay or Puerto Rico? I'd guess that within a few years, Puerto Rico will take over from Boston as the #1 Yankees rival. And couldn't you see Latin American players viewing the island's team as a preferred destination for - sort of the opposite of Seattle's and Toronto's difficulties landing players?
(3) It establishes a long-overdue first true MLB beachhead in the Spanish-speaking world. This is probably the biggest reason: with domestic interest declining, baseball isn't really our "national pasttime" any longer -- but it absolutely is a national pasttime in the Caribbean and much of Latin America, which provides MLB way more talent than its modest population should. The intense Caribbean and broader Latin American passion for baseball isn't a law of nature, though, so it shouldn't be taken for granted; after all, a few decades ago, nobody would have thought baseball would lose its privileged position atop American sports to football and basketball. Land an MLB team in the Caribbean -- a region with no NFL, NBA, or other such top-level pro sports teams -- and baseball could permanently solidify its position as the dominant sport of the Caribbean and maybe nearby Latin American countries.
So those are the plusses, but really #3 is my biggest argument. Sure, a new San Juan team -- let's change their name to the "The Puerto Rico Edgar Martinezes" (I saw him play there in winter ball in 1989 or 1990, so I think of him as the Mayor of Puerto Rican baseball) -- would bring in somewhat less revenue than, say, a team in north New Jersey. But their baseball-crazed fan base of 3.6 million will buy tickets like hotcakes, so they're not going to underperform Oakland, Milwaukee, Cleveland, or any number of other American cities also lacking huge populations and luxury-subscription megacorporations. MLB most certainly is using revenue-sharing to subsidize those non-megacities for the sake of MLB's geographic breadth; let's face it, MLB would probably be maximizing its revenue by moving the A's and Brewers to Orange County and north Jersey.
If MLB is subsidizing support for baseball in non-megacities on the mainland, why not subsidize the support of a baseball-crazed region that provides a talent pipeline MLB hardly could live without? Moving the Rays to the 31st largest mainland city would be safer but a shortsighted neglect of an opportunity not only to make a smart investment in an overlooked fan base, but also to show respect to a region that's done a lot more to support MLB than anyplace else on the table.