It's a Brand-New Ball Game

By Jack Todd

Build it, and they will come.

For two years we've been saying that. Now, for the first time in this long, wearying and sometimes bitter process, it appears that they will build it.

The rest might be up to you.

Yesterday, Expos chairman Jacques Menard and his partners did what Expos president Claude Brochu has been unable to do - they got a commitment of sorts from the provincial government.

A great deal depends still on the reaction of Major League Baseball through the office of commissioner Bud Selig Jr. But it's hard to see how or why baseball officials would say no at this point. With the $7 million to $8 million a year for 20 years Finance Minister Bernard Landry offered from the provincial tourism budget, there is no reason the Expos should not be able to complete the buy-out of Brochu and build Labatt Park.

Landry's decision to allocate the money gives the club, in effect, a $100-million loan amortized over 20 years, with a heavy penalty if the Expos leave town within that period. With the $35 million already raised from the sale of seat licenses, they are more than halfway to the original $250-million price envisioned by Brochu.

After two years of relentless bad news about the future of Labatt Park and the Expos, the balance tipped radically in the opposite direction in the duration of one press conference. Minority partner Mark Routtenberg said a week ago that he was "85-per-cent sure" the stadium would be built, and it appears today that Routtenberg was right. There are obstacles, obviously.

Major League Baseball will have to study the plan after Landry and Menard have finished working out the details. Brochu has said that he will agree to a buyout only on his terms - which meant, among other things, that the new partners had to agree to his original $250-million stadium plan.

Having made it clear that he wanted to see some sign of Quebec government co-operation, Selig can hardly turn around now and turn thumbs-down on what is, effectively, $100 million in government involvement. Having made it clear that baseball has not moved a franchise in 30 years and does not want to move one now, Selig would be hard-pressed to explain why he was granting Brochu the right to sell and move the Expos in the face of opposition from 85 per cent of the partnership.
Ultimately, it is Brochu who might now be in a corner.

The only way he was going to extract this franchise from Montreal was to convince baseball that there was no alternative - that the game was now so dead in Montreal that it could never be revived. With the provincial government willing to bet on the future of the game in Montreal, baseball has now received the strongest possible signal that the game can and will survive and thrive at Labatt Park. It might require some pressure from his friend Selig, but Brochu has to be made to see that once the agreement with Quebec is in place, he has to make a deal. Once he no longer has the backing of the baseball establishment, Brochu effectively has no option but to sell at the previously agreed price. He might choose to make things as difficult as he possibly can, but if he is to have a future in the game (perhaps in a head-office job similar to that now occupied by former Blue Jays president Paul Beeston), it is in Brochu's interest to facilitate the transfer of power.

Once that transfer is accomplished, you are going to see a huge groundswell of support for baseball in Montreal. A good young team in need of a little pitching help is being prepared in Florida by Felipe Alou, a team that in Vladimir Guerrero and Michael Barrett will soon have the best one-two punch in club history. The enormously popular Alou is signed for the next three years, and a downtown, open-air ball park that plays host to a good, young team can be as big an attraction as Baltimore's Camden Yards.

In saying he would allocate $7 million to $8 million a year from the tourism budget, Landry is conveniently overlooking all the other streams of revenue the Expos can provide. They range from the provincial sales tax on stadium construction to the hefty provincial tax on a player payroll that should exceed $50 million U.S. by 2002, the earliest date Labatt Park can now be in operation.

As for trimming some funds off the cost of stadium construction, the easiest way that can be done is to build a stadium without a roof - but one to which a fully retractable roof can be added as soon as the Quebec government acknowledges that the Big O is nearing the end of its useful life and that the city needs an alternative site for home shows and boat shows.

And how much better would that site be at the corner of Notre Dame and Peel, as opposed to the corner of Pie IX and Pierre de Coubertin?
It's not quite time to uncork the champagne to celebrate victory in the fight to save the Expos.
But you might want to put a bottle on ice



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