The Nightmare of Incompetence

by Jack Todd

It would be nice to say that you can stand behind the batting cage at Roger Dean Stadium here and watch Mark McGwire pulling batting-practice pitches 450 feet down the left-field line and forget everything but baseball. It would be nice, but it would not be true. You can never quite forget. You can't forget that this might be the last spring training for the Expos or that this is a franchise living on borrowed time - that any day now, someone, somewhere might step up to a microphone and say the plug has been pulled.

It is woven into every conversation down here. If two or more people with any connection whatsoever to the Expos are in one place, it comes up again and again and again - like the third Michigan hot dog you should not have had at Lafleur's.
"Gee, that Michael Barrett is going to be a great one," someone says. And someone else answers: "Yeah, it's really too bad. . . ."

You don't even have to finish the sentence. Everyone knows what you mean: too bad Montreal won't see him develop. Too bad inept salesmanship and an intractable government killed a solid stadium plan while it was still in its cradle. Too bad the Field of Dreams has become the Nightmare of Incompetence.

With some people, you don't have to say a word. You can see the strain on their faces: Claude Raymond, Jacques Doucet, Rodger Brulotte, Dave Van Horne. Ask Felipe Alou, who decided to stay with the Expos because he thought this stadium can be built, and the veins bulge on that powerful neck.
"Now you got Major League Baseball and everybody else saying there are no baseball fans in Montreal," Alou says, "but Montreal has the best baseball fans in the world. For 20 years you've been stepping on their heads, and you still get a million fans to come out to that farce - that farce I'm telling you, they have to be great fans.
"Montreal has had Major League Baseball for 30 years and it never built a stadium for baseball. We had all these great players - Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland - and they let all those players get away. All of them. And you still get a million fans a year. Let them have a real baseball stadium and a team they know, these players we have here that are ready to blossom into some of the finest players in baseball, and then you'll see. That's the only way you're going to see how good these fans really are."

The crying, screaming shame of it all is that Labatt Park would be such a brilliant success. Montreal in the summer, one of the liveliest downtowns left in North America, the stadium just a few blocks down the street. On July afternoons or a crisp September evening in the middle of a pennant race, the place would be absolute magic. Instead, the stadium plan and everything that goes with it appears to be caught in a fiasco wrapped inside a foul-up, a mess looking for a place to turn into a debacle.

Wednesday's press conference in Montreal was a typical example. Marketing flop Jean Saine trotted out 2-year-old numbers for the press, begging the question: why are we doing this?

For a gang that can't shoot straight, the Expos' marketing people have been amazingly adept at shooting themselves in the foot for the past decade. Claude Brochu, the alleged marketing man in charge of the franchise, had incredible luck in hiring general managers, but no success at all in what was supposed to be his area of expertise: the man couldn't market a free date with Kim Basinger.

Wednesday, all Saine had to do was break a bit of news to give reporters a reason for living - a new study, maybe even a twist on an old study - to keep the assembled jackals of the press from having him for lunch. Instead, Saine presented himself as an hors d'oeuvre, and reporters, predictably, gagged.

I understand what Saine was trying to do. No one was listening first time around because it was Brochu talking, and Brochu couldn't sell snake oil to a diamondback with dandruff. They needed to get the numbers on the table again before Jacques Menard meets with Lucien Bouchard, to make people understand that this can work. And they blew it. Not for the first time.

With the Expos, things have reached the point where thiey absolutely have to get better because they couldn't get any worse. Honestly, if you had sat down with a group of arm-chair cynics in October and tried to dream up a fiasco, you couldn't have done better than this.
"OK, OK," one guy would say, "imagine this: it's almost April and Claude Brochu is still hanging around making a hash of things. And how about this - while they're setting up for the auto show at the Big O, the new roof caves in. And then they send a marketing guy out to hold a press conference and he gets laughed off the stage."
"C'mon," someone else says. "You're going too far now. Nothing could get that ridiculous."

Now it all comes down to Lucien Bouchard. Either the premier can be made to see that a baseball team can generate enough tax revenue over the next 20 years to pay for itself several times over - or the Expos are gone. Brochu couldn't convince him. In this instance, at least, Brochu made a sincere effort in September and failed. So what's different now? First, the people leading the effort have either solid Parti Quebecois credentials or good contacts with the PQ government.

Second, the way things stand now, the only people who can really lose in all this are the partners in the Menard group. To get this stadium built and to keep the Expos in Montreal, they are willing to do what Brochu would never do: dilute their equity.

What does that mean? Well, if New York investor Jeffrey Loria, for instance, comes in with $50 million, and if other investors put in an additional $50 million, their share would be worth roughly half what it's worth now. A share that is now worth $10 million, in other words, would be worth $5 million. And the partners will never get it back: if the club is sold and moved within 20 years, the first thing that would have to be paid off would be the balance of the stadium debt.

That's a real sacrifice, a commitment the ownership group was never able to make under Brochu because he would never agree to reduce his own equity in the team - understandable, in a way, because that equity represents his personal fortune.

Now Bouchard is dealing with people willing to put their money on the line. Menard, the finance professional, can lay on the table a dozen different plans that make it absolutely clear that any government investment would be more than repaid through taxes - taxes on the stadium, taxes on the tickets, taxes on the player payroll, taxes on parking and concessions. It's the same concept that leads the government to invest in everything from GM plants to call centres - to generate jobs and tax revenue; the same concept that has led successive Quebec governments to provide cut-rate electricity to aluminum smelters and to make up the difference on the backs of residential consumers.

The case is pretty open-and-shut. We went through some of the ways this could be done last fall: taxable bonds that are not eligible for RRSPs, lotteries, a cigarette tax. By now, even the most wide-eyed optimists in government and the OIB have to know the Olympic Stadium is all but finished as a venue for baseball, home shows or anything else. The obvious conclusion? If you want to hold on to all those events, you help the Expos build a $300-million stadium with a functioning retractable roof, and you bask in the credit for having built the Anti-O, a popular downtown stadium loved by all and boondoggle to none.

How much do I believe in this? If Bouchard makes it happen, I'll cheerfully vote "Yes" in the next five referenda - and I'll wave a little Quebec flag on Opening Day at Labatt Park.



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