Expos rally brings back memories

by JACK TODD

In the front row, a forlorn fan wearing an Expos tuque and an Expos jacket waved a tattered Felipe Alou poster. As the rally began, former Expo Henry Rodriguez came to bat on the big screen - playing for the Chicago Cubs against the Atlanta Braves. Bill (Spaceman) Lee showed up uninvited, delivered a few comments that were vintage Spaceman - and then disappeared just as he was about to be introduced to appear on stage. Only at an Expos rally, eh?

Actually, the Spaceman's disappearance was perfectly timed, part of a surprisingly warm and spirited rally that drew at least 3,000 baseball fans to Complexe Desjardins yesterday afternoon. By the time Rusty Staub, Gary Carter and Vladimir Guerrero stood together on the stage, symbolizing three generations of Expos stars, to thunderous applause, this cynical old columnist was getting that warm-all-over feeling you used to get when Le Grand Orange doubled off the wall at Jarry Park.

The rally merely confirmed the general mood this week, which was that despite the mysterious status of Alou, the absence of Claude Brochu and reports that Brochu is on his way out as managing partner, the future of the Expos in Montreal looks brighter than it has at any time in the past three years.

Back at the office two hours later, a businessman whose information about the Expos has been reliable in the past called to say that Brochu will announce today that he spent Tuesday in Florida with Alou and that Alou has agreed to a contract extension. True? False? Wild rumour?

Dodgers GM Kevin Malone, in announcing that he had fired manager Glenn Hoffman yesterday, did say that the Expos had not given him permission to speak to Alou, and that members of the ownership consortium, other than Brochu, had spoken with Alou in Florida to try to persuade him to stay.

But Brochu flying to Florida to sign Alou? One more tantalizing phantom story from a wild week on the Expos beat. It would strengthen Brochu's hand with the public if he could persuade Alou that no slight was intended when GM Jim Beattie approached Alou in Florida last week - but even such an improbable coup would be unlikely to strengthen Brochu's hand with his fellow owners.

Brochu, at this point, needs all the help he can get. His strange, clandestine campaign to get Labatt Park built has been conducted in such a decidedly odd fashion that you can see how the rumours got started that Brochu never wanted the park built in the first place. Staub, by far the most popular Expo during the giddy early days of the franchise, was greeted by wild applause - but he also provided some measure of just how far the stadium campaign has run off the tracks under Brochu.

"I was in northern California when I heard this rally was going to take place," Staub told the affectionate crowd when he stepped up to the microphone. "There was no way I wasn't going to get on a plane to be here."

In private, however, Staub said what other former stars have said: that he has been available to help the Expos sell the new stadium all along.

"I met Jacques Menard in France last summer and told him I'd be happy to come here," Staub said. "I saw him on the golf course again last winter and said the same thing, but I never got a response."

That tallies with the way the Expos have handled other former stars who could have helped get the ball rolling here. Steve Rogers, for instance, never even received a reply to his letter offering to help. Lee lives 90 miles away in Vermont, and is loved for his off-the-wall humour, but he was never asked to help. Carter is probably the second-most popular player in Expos history, after Staub, and he's part of the team's English-language television team - but the Expos haven't made use of Carter's tremendous rapport with the public to help sell the stadium.

Andre Dawson still carries a chip on his shoulder against the club, but Warren Cromartie, Ellis Valentine, Bryn Smith, Woody Fryman and a dozen others could have, and almost certainly would have, lent their presence in support of the seat-license campaign. Why they were never invited is one of the several dozen mysteries about Brochu's approach to the stadium project that will probably never be cleared up until Brochu's involvement is history, one way or the other.

Had Brochu appeared at Complexe Desjardins yesterday, he would have been hooted off the stage - at least, in part, because of the strange sequence of events that left Alou dangling somewhere between Florida and the Dominican Republic, with vacant managerial seats in Colorado and Los Angeles already bearing his name.

Alou should have been the centre piece of that rally yesterday, should have been standing at Guerrero's side as the 22-year-old outfielder, who is already the best player ever to wear the uniform, grinned his way through the loudest and longest ovation of the day, his 1,000-watt smile neatly bridging any and all language barriers. If he can't deliver Alou, today or sometime next week, Brochu will never be forgiven, nor should he be.

Chris Widger, the amiable young catcher who was also at the rally to lend his support, agreed the young Latin players on the team depend heavily on Alou and that their performance could suffer if he isn't on hand.

"He's like their father away from home," Widger said. "It's hard to imagine what it would be like without him." No one knows what Brochu will say when he talks with the press today. If he can say that when he was out of town Tuesday, he was in Florida signing Alou to a contract extension, he may regain some of his lost prestige. One Expos source said yesterday that Brochu is prepared to fight to remain managing partner of the team, and that it's not necessarily true that he has lost Alou's services.

At the very least, Brochu can be expected to hold out for the equivalent of his share on the U.S. market. That would be 7.6 per cent of roughly $250 million Canadian, or a cool $19 million in 66-cent dollars.

If Brochu holds out for that much, it won't make him too popular with his erstwhile partners or with the public, especially because his share in the team was a gift from Bronfman in the first place. But at this point, Brochu probably figures the only way he could make himself less popular would be to steal Brother Andre's heart from St. Joseph's Oratory.

When they're already calling you Marcel Aubut II, it can't get much worse.



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