Brochu the Grinch?

Baseball in this town is down to a short-hop grounder to second with two out in the bottom of the ninth. The Expos are six runs down to the Atlanta Braves, and Felipe Alou is fresh out of pinch-hitters.

One underhand toss to the first baseman - and Claude Brochu will jog off the field having accomplished everything he set out to accomplish when he stood up at that maudlin press conference at the Queen E last Oct. 7 and claimed that he was going to step aside for baseball in Montreal.

It is all but inevitable now: the Expos will be sold and moved. This will be their final season in Montreal. Five months after that smarmy October performance, Brochu is about to step aside - but he will take baseball with him. To North Carolina, to Washington, D.C., to Northern Virginia. He will keep the 7.6-per-cent interest he now holds in the team and he will pocket a $500,000 salary, with expenses and bonuses and perks Then, three or five or 10 years from now, when he finally sells his share, he will get more (possibly much more) than the $15 million now on the table.

Brochu will have undermined the prospective new ownership, discouraged government involvement in a new stadium and turned off prospective seat-license and season-ticket buyers, merely by playing dog-in-the-manger.

And he will have done it all simply by being himself. In the subtlest possible way, Brochu has taken the final steps to put an end to baseball in Montreal, simply by being his intractable, niggling, difficult, suspicious, mendacious, evasive self.
"If I can't have it," says Brochu, in effect, "then neither can you."

For three months, we've been thinking it did not make sense, the stalemate in the negotiations between Brochu and the group led by Jacques Menard. If the partners who want to buy Brochu out had offered the $15 million he wanted, why didn't Brochu step aside?

Now, the answer is obvious: Brochu refused to step aside because he has figured out a way to have his cake and eat it, too. Having won his place at the big-league table on the backs of the baseball fans of Montreal, Brochu now intends to enjoy himself to the hilt. Having acted consistently in the interests of the Lords of the Game - and against the interests of the fans who simply wanted a good Montreal team to call their own - Brochu now intends to reap his reward.

He will hold his committee positions. He will reign for a time, either as president or as a highly paid senior adviser, in the front office of a team with the bucks to pursue the big free agents. And he will continue to put out his sanctimonious, self-serving line: blaming others for the failure to win government support for Labatt Park, blaming others because he would not dilute his equity to bring an infusion of cash to keep the 1994 team together, blaming others because he allowed the Atlanta Braves to be transferred to the Expos' division, guaranteeing that for the life of Ted Turner, the Expos would be in an annual three-way fight for second place.

The only thing that can stop this process now is some indication that the provincial government is willing to step in, not with a government handout, but with a plan based on taxable, non-RRSP bonds, possibly in combination with a lottery and a cigarette tax, to fund something like $75 million of the cost of Labatt Park.

Last summer, Brochu could have sold such a plan. He never tried. Last summer, Brochu might still have won public backing for a sensible plan. He never tried.

Instead, in that secretive, maddening, I'm-the-only-smart-guy-around-here way of his, Brochu did an end run around his partners and tried to go to Bernard Landry and Lucien Bouchard on his own. He had all these heavy hitters with strong government contacts inside and outside the partnership - Menard, Jean Coutu, Serge Savard, Pierre Michaud, Jocelyn Proteau, Claude Blanchette - but Brochu tried to do it on his own.

Predictably, he got kicked in the teeth. Predictably, his partners were aghast that they had been left in the dark at such a crucial time. Predictably, Brochu is still blaming everyone but himself for the mess he created.

And still there is no limit to Brochu's gall. Last week, he pointed out that he has refrained from publicly undermining his partners. The truth, as he knows, was that he didn't have to do anything to undermine them except to hang on, knowing that his mere name is poison and that as long as he is still connected with this franchise:
- Jeffrey Loria won't write a cheque.
- The provincial government won't enter into serious talks with the prospective owners about the possibility of government involvement in a new ball park.
- Fans won't buy seat licenses or season tickets.
Brochu claims he won't sell unless Loria will guarantee the Expos will remain in Montreal. He knows full well that Loria has been prepared to offer such a guarantee (in the form of a 20-year stadium lease with a penalty clause covering any premature sale of the club) from the beginning.

Bud Selig can say he's out of patience with the Montreal situation, but the truth is that his bosom buddy, Brochu, created the Montreal situation, that if not for Brochu's little plan to set himself up in Carolina, Virginia or Washington, D.C., Loria would be the principal owner today, Menard and friends would have worked out a deal with the PQ, and a newly energized fan base in Montreal - the same people who were pouring into the Big O 30,000 strong before the '94 strike - would be clamoring for seat licenses and season tickets.

Instead, having completely destroyed all the momentum the Menard group had in October, Brochu plays innocent. He points to a poll saying fans don't want government money invested in a ball park as proof that the stadium will never be built. Now, you can make a poll say anything you want it to: this one framed the question in terms of a direct government handout, so, of course, people said no. Only the weak-minded would cite such a poll as proof of anything - but in this case it serves Brochu's purpose to wave the poll around, since he's the one who created the negative public attitude toward the stadium in the first place.

Let's not kid ourselves here: Brochu is going to get away with it. The other partners are too busy with their other duties and too weary of Brochu to battle on for much longer. Brochu has Selig on his side, and in this situation that's almost as good as having God on your side. Baseball (not surprisingly, given the way Brochu has always acted in its best interests and against the interests of his own team) is inclined to take Brochu's word that baseball would not work here.

The truth is that baseball in this city was all but saved in August of '94. Then Brochu sided with the owners to create the strike that robbed his team of a World Series. When the strike ended, Brochu refused to risk his own personal stake in the team by diluting equity to bring in the cash that could have kept that team together in '95. Brochu claims his partners wouldn't answer a cash call: the truth is that he faced a group of busy captains of industry with little knowledge of the situation, and twisted things so that they had no choice but to agree with him that a fire sale was the only way to go. Four years later, it's all but over - barring provincial intervention or a messy court fight. Normally, this would not be the time to assess blame, but Brochu has been getting away with his mendacious, self-serving version of events long enough. There might be no way to stop him, but we don't have to pretend we don't know what he's up to.

The real gag-me part? When this is over, the man who killed baseball in this town will be the only one who profits when it's gone.



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