Partnership to Save Expos Showing Stress Fractures

By Jeff Blair
Globe and Mail

Thursday, June 1, 2000
Montreal -- Once heralded as white knights, David Samson and Jeffrey Loria are now being painted as Trojan Horses in Montreal.
But they are easy targets in a city that has little faith remaining in the partnership that appeared to have saved the Montreal Expos.

On May 19, with the Houston Astros in town and the Olympic Stadium stands almost as empty as the private suites of the Expos partnership, vice-chairman David Samson walked up to Mark Routtenberg, president of GUESS Jeans Canada. "Come join me in the stands," Samson said, knowing Routtenberg, who helped open the door for Samson and Loria, would first have to finish his cigarette.
Asked by an acquaintance whether he would join Samson, Routtenberg shrugged. The day before, Samson emerged from a meeting of the team partnership to make public what had been suggested for some time: There was a "problem" with the Expos' finances. What Samson didn't say is that the partnership had in fact fractured -- to the point where there was rift among some local owners, not just between Loria, the Expos' general partner, and the other partners.

But that fracture was evident before the meeting. A month earlier, Samson and Loria made a cash call for $20-million -- and at least two members of the partnership refused to ante up. Others did. In recent days, La Presse ran a front-page report in which yet another anonymous Quebec investor took a shot at Loria -- this time saying baseball was all but dead in Montreal and that Loria wanted to move the team.
Another published report said that the anti-Loria partners had hired National Public Relations to prepare for a showdown with him that may or may not come at a meeting that may or may not be held next week. "We speak only for Stephen Bronfman on the Expos dossier," said Patrice Ryan of NPR. "And we have no comment."

Still, that makes at least three PR firms with their hands in this rolodex-wrecking exercise and God knows how many lawyers. And while all this has gone on, one question has remained unanswered:
Where's the $150-million that was supposed to be available to refinance this team back in December, when Loria and Samson were apparently ready to roll with a business plan approved by Major League Baseball. It allowed for operating losses of $20-million a year for three years? Why the need for a cash call at all?

Under the plan, the partners who wanted to throw out former president and general partner Claude Brochu were to dilute their shares to 30 per cent of the club. Loria was to put in $75-million, giving his group control of close to 35 per cent of the franchise. That figure was to be matched by "new" local investors.

So far, Loria's group has anted up $18-million toward buying out Brochu and the shares he held in trust. That's a far cry from $75-million. And the so-called "new" investors? They've put in less than $5-million, split between Bronfman, Jean Coutu and Loblaw's -- a further cry from $75-million.

Baseball doesn't usually botch its internal investigations of general partners, and Loria has been known ever since he bid $173-million (U.S.) for the Baltimore Orioles in an auction court. At the time Loria was announced as general partner, Jacques Ménard, the partnership's co-chairman, said he was still $10-million to $12-million shy of the necessary local money. Since then, he has not provided any additional details.

Loria and Samson won't sign off on the partnership arrangement until they see the local money, let alone sign anything committing them to a new ballpark. And the local investors either don't like the way business has been done so far or simply can't come up with enough money. The best-case scenario is that this is merely a simple matter of trust. The worst is that it's a matter of money.

Meanwhile, commissioner Bud Selig -- who last year helped remove once and for all the veto an owner had over another team moving within 100 miles of his ball park -- told the Washington Post last week that he is now more open to seeing revenue-losing franchises move. Meanwhile, there are whispers of a private study examining once and for all the economic impact on the Baltimore Orioles of a team in Washington, D.C.

Routtenberg never did join Samson that night. Samson sat in the front row, a blue-shirted security guard conspicuous as the only person around him for two rows. It was a fitting picture, and until the partners can figure out whether they trust or even like each other enough to run a baseball team, no taxpayer should want them even thinking about building a new ballpark.



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