Does Loria Have Cold Feet

By Jack Todd/The Gazette

Tom Boswell of the Washington Post said this is taking "longer than the Crusades." Bud Selig said it's taking "longer than Gone With the Wind."

And for the first time in his long stewardship of the so-called "relaunch" group for the Expos, Jacques Menard, speaking in Cooperstown Wednesday, sounded weary, depressed and pessimistic.

With reason. The sale of the Expos and the approval for Labatt Park should have been on the agenda when Major League Baseball's executive committee met in Cooperstown the past two days. Selig wanted it brought to a vote. Claude Brochu wanted it brought to a vote. Every baseball fan in Montreal wanted it brought to a vote. We could all be recovering from a very large hangover this morning.

It didn't happen. Not only did the sale of the Expos not come to a vote, but Menard seemed to hint that American art-dealer Jeffrey Loria is getting cold feet. Asked if Loria might back out, Menard told reporters: "That's always a possibility. There are no sure things in life."

If warning bells didn't go off when you heard that line, then you aren't paying attention.

Maybe Menard's pessimism was simply a negotiating ploy, an effort to put pressure on someone. Maybe. Our sources say Loria is in as solidly as ever, that the work remaining to be done goes more to contract detail than substance, that Loria will be an outstanding owner when he takes over.

We can only hope, because if Loria pulls out, it's pull-the-plug time. The American art dealer (and one of these days we have to ask him to put us in touch with an original Kurt George Grosz) is expected to step up to the plate with at least $75 million Canadian to become the new managing partner of the Expos; without him there is no relaunch group, there are no Expos - and the auction to American interests in Washington, Northern Virginia or North Carolina will begin in earnest.

There has still been no explanation as to why Loria indirectly requested yet another extension to the deadline late last week, when baseball and Brochu were contacted on Friday because the Loria group needed more time.

Special consultant Roger Samson insisted at the time that the problems were merely a matter of paperwork flowing back and forth between Canadian and American lawyers - but either Samson was blowing smoke or he's not in the loop, because that information was just plain wrong. Menard said Wednesday that the problems holding up the agreement are "substantive issues." Brochu described them as "fundamental issues."

Obviously, something more profound than paperwork has gone wrong with this deal. Three or four weeks ago, as Jeff Blair reported in the Globe and Mail yesterday, the deal was on the verge of collapse for unknown reasons. The problems that caused that near-collapse have supposedly been resolved, but there are still issues to resolve.

Menard suggested Wednesday that some of those issues are related, but he was not more specific than that. A story in La Presse yesterday suggested the holdup was over the number of seats in Labatt Park, but our sources say that issue was resolved: Loria wanted provisions for between 3,000 and 5,000 "swing seats" in the event the Expos made the playoffs or the World Series, and the other partners have agreed that those seats should be incorporated in the final Labatt Park design.

There have been suggestions that the problems involve Loria's willingness to commit the team to Montreal for 20 years - the time it will take to pay off the financing for the ball park - or that there have been conflicts between Loria and one or more of the prospective partners, most probably the stubborn and eccentric Jean Coutu.

Menard confirmed this week that Loria himself has between three and five American partners, silent investors who will not have a voting interest in the team. Whatever the problems with his investment, it is not a money problem - if Menard falls short of his $75- million target for local investment, Loria is prepared to make up the difference.

So what exactly has gone wrong? No one really knows, or rather those who know aren't talking. This delay has cost the Loria group some credibility. They missed a golden opportunity for a relaunch a week from Sunday with the Atlanta Braves in town and they succeeded in giving the impression that it is now Loria or his partners, not Brochu or Selig, who are holding up this agreement.

If a deal is still signed within the latest six-week extension granted by Major League Baseball and announced by executive vice-president for administration Robert DuPuy, all that will be forgotten; if this Oct. 30 deadline comes and goes and there is still no agreement, then it's time to pull the plug. That is as far as the deadline can be pushed back while leaving room for construction on Labatt Park to start on time for the 2002 season, and that is as far as public patience with the whole thing can endure.

There is no alternative to Loria; Stephen Bronfman is sufficiently well-heeled to take over as managing partner, but he apparently is willing to invest between $10 and $12 million and no more - and he has no interest in becoming the new managing partner. There is no shortage of other possible investors like car-dealer Sam Eltes - but Eltes is perhaps typical of the potential investors. He enjoys hanging around the fringes and fraternizing with jocks and coaches, but when it comes time to make a financial commitment to a franchise, that's another matter altogether.

Coutu is clearly needed, although he, too, is apparently unwilling to become the managing partner. The Expos need Coutu's pharmacies for their marketing and ticket sales, they need Coutu's connections, they need his clout with the Parti-Quebecois government.

Most of all, they need to get this done. Brochu, everyone's favourite whipping boy, can no longer be blamed for the delay. Brochu has clearly stopped resisting; at this point, he's probably the best friend the Expos have within Major League Baseball, because with the retirement of National League president Leonard Coleman it's entirely possible that Brochu is about to move on to the commissioner's office when this is over - perhaps to replace Paul Beeston or whoever else is named to succeed Coleman.

Selig himself seems to be willing to do everything in his power to keep the Expos in Montreal. And Menard went out of his way this week to thank the provincial government for its support.

That leaves the new partners, who have so far shown less speed than Darrin Fletcher on the basepaths. It's too bad Balkin' Bob Davidson got the heave-ho when the umpires resigned: you almost wish he was around to call a balk here. Enough, already. If this is going to happen, let's get it done. If it isn't, let's start the auction. We've been twisting in the wind for a full year now, and that's long enough.

You compare it to the Crusades or Gone with the Wind if you want. As far as I'm concerned, this whole maddening experience has been like being stuck on the Champlain Bridge at rush hour - with a full bladder.

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