Brochu is Millstone to Expos

By Jack Todd

Immediately following tomorrow's game here against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Expos will break camp and prepare to fly to Washington, D.C., for two more games against the Cardinals at RFK Stadium.

The games at RFK, you understand, are pure coincidence and are in no way related to the fact that prospective buyers in both Washington and northern Virginia plan to have the Expos play the next two or three seasons at RFK if they can purchase the team. In no way should you assume that the games in Washington are part of some dire and dark conspiracy on behalf of Claude Brochu and Major League Baseball, any more than the game the Expos played against the Minnesota Twins in North Carolina this time last year had anything to do with the fact that Don Beaver's Carolina group is the third of the major suitors for Brochu's hand in unholy matrimony.

Hey, coincidences happen, right? Right - and pigs can fly stealth fighters.

Whatever, the games in Washington took on a very different tone last week following the meeting of Jacques Menard and other partners in the anti-Brochu group with Premier Lucien Bouchard and Quebec Finance Minister Bernard Landry. This week, the high and mighty Washington Post was still reporting that the Expos have been unable to garner any government support from the Labatt Park project necessary to keep the team in Montreal, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Landry's stunning announcement that the government was willing to give the Expos $160 million from the tourism budget over a 20-year period changed everything.

The Expos opened training camp as a team that was just waiting for the moving vans; today they are just awaiting confirmation that Brochu is leaving and that construction can begin on their field of dreams down at Notre Dame and Peel. It's now time, however, for the process to pick up speed; it's been nearly six months since Brochu first announced that he would be negotiating an arrangement for his departure with the Menard group.

Today, there's no further excuse for delay. It's time for Brochu to close the deal, pocket his $15 million and depart gracefully.

(Don't believe what Brochu said last week, that he will probably just spend his time playing golf. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig Jr. is as close to Brochu as he is to any owner, and he will take care of the man who has supported him through thick and thin. Most probable scenario? Brochu ends up as a vice-president of Major League Baseball with particular responsibility for the small-market portfolio; an ironic destiny for the man who almost ran baseball in one small-market city into the ground.)

As recently as the night before the Landry announcement, Brochu was confidently telling intimates that there was no way the government would come through with assistance for the Expos. In the event, it was a near-run thing: the meeting with Bouchard and Landry started badly, and it was only after Bouchard himself seized on the idea of an $8-million annual contribution from the tourism budget that the logjam was broken and the process that should result in a new ball park finally set in motion.

Brochu was clearly shocked; for months he had been telling people that the government would never come through for the Expos and in one 10-minute press conference Landry had turned Brochu's world upside down.

But Brochu is nothing if not a wily survivor. When Brochu finally spoke the next day, those who know him best felt that he was already preparing himself to accept the inevitable. Those in the organization who are closest to him insist that Brochu has been willing to depart since October if his conditions are met:

- First, the provincial government had to be willing to support the stadium project.

- Second, the new owners had to commit themselves to remaining in Montreal for at least 20 years.

- Third, they had to meet his sale price: $15 million U.S.

The significant conditions for Brochu's departure have all been met. One member of the new ownership group estimates that Brochu's mere presence will cost the team $3 million U.S. in increased revenue this season, lost revenue that no amount of nickel-and-dime cost-cutting can replace. It's an intolerable situation, one in which the organization is being run against the clearly stated wishes of 85 per cent of the ownership group by a lame-duck president who has already basically agreed to the terms of a buyout.

As soon as the Menard group finishes working out the details of their agreement with the Bouchard government (probably sometime next week) they can present the plan to Major League Baseball. Once Selig has official confirmation of the plan, it's hard to see how his baseball could withhold its approval of the new ownership group for much longer - or how Brochu himself could justify further costly delays.

With Brochu still in charge, the organization is at a virtual standstill. The marketing department (always inept even when Brochu was supposedly trying to keep the team in Montreal) is now both inept and inert. Little or no effort has been made to sell season tickets or tickets for the home opener, television coverage of the season is all but non-existent (even the home opener will not be televised), seat-license sales for Labatt Park are at a standstill and the team is apparently destined to begin the season with an excess of position players and a severe shortage of proven starting pitchers.

There is a clear rift within the organization over the immediate destiny of talented young Michael Barrett. Felipe Alou wants Barrett to start the season at either third base or behind the plate, depending on the health of catchers Chris Widger and Bob Henley. The brass wants Barrett at Triple-A Ottawa for at least a quarter to half of the season to prevent Barrett from accumulating service time toward the day when he will be eligible for arbitration and then free agency - a decision that will cause serous resentment among the players in the room, who will see one of their own getting the shaft.

Then there's the little matter of the absence of proven starting pitching. The Expos have a dozen different trade scenarios that could bring in a real pitcher: if Rondell White is consigned to left, they could trade White for a pitcher and move Jose Vidro to left. They could trade Shane Andrews and play Barrett at third, or trade Brad Fullmer and play Andrews or Vidro at first. If they do none of the above, even with another year of experience for all the youngsters on the roster, they will be lucky to win 75 games.

Again and again, the group that is apparently on its way out makes decisions that will profoundly affect the new ownership; last year, for instance, the Expos could have traded closer Ugueth Urbina for Braves phenom centre fielder Andruw Jones. Why, given that Urbina is one of the best closers in the game? Because a young team that wins 70 games a year doesn't need a high-profile stopper, while Jones is an everyday player who with Barrett and Vladimir Guerrero would have given the Expos three of the top young players in the game. When the team was ready to contend they could have gone shopping for a closer.

This has gone on long enough. Now Brochu has to step aside, then Major League Baseball has to act with uncharacteristic speed to approve the new ownership group and the stadium plan. There is no way baseball could withhold its approval when the Oakland A's, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates and even the San Francisco Giants are all in worse shape than the Expos will be? Even Selig's own small-market Milwaukee Brewers (and they are still his despite the sham arrangement that put his daughter in charge) now have a new ballpark, but no team.

It has always been true that the Expos ownership group could match deep pockets with anyone, even the George Steinbrenners of the baseball world. It has not always been true that they were willing to inject new cash in the franchise. Today, because 85 per cent of the current owners are willing to dilute their own share of the club in order to bring in new investment, $125 million is waiting in the wings for the moment Brochu signs on the dotted line, led by Jeffrey Loria's investment of at least $50 million U.S. and substantial contributions from Jean Coutu and Loblaw's.

Now the Expos also have the following:

- A $160 million commitment from the provincial government.

- A $100 million stadium naming deal with Labatt.

- A total of $40 million from luxury suite sales for Labatt Park.

- A total so far of $35 million from seat-license sales - a substantial sum raised from the corporate sector and private baseball fans with the most hated figure on the Montreal sports scene acting as chief salesman. Too much attention has been paid to the fact that the seat-license drive fell short of Brochu's $100-million target, too little attention to the fact that $35 million is not chicken feed, especially not when the figure will double with the departure of Brochu.

There are still details to be worked out, but there is no longer a reason for Brochu or baseball to stand in the way. The project is solid, the money on hand substantial, the future bright. The problem is the present, and the present problem is Brochu.



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