Nos Amours Will be Back

By Jack Todd/ The Gazette

With the end to this year-long Expos soap opera so close you can taste it, Felipe Alou's charges played their final home game of a miserable season last night against the Florida Marlins, then flew to Philadelphia with the future of the franchise still hanging in the balance - just as it was when they played their Home Opener last spring before a roaring, optimistic crowd of 43,000.

Despite a very cautious public statement from Jacques Menard, however, it appears the fate of the Expos won't hang in the balance much longer. Last night, a source confirmed earlier rumours that the entire process is speeding up at last and that it should be complete - including approval from Major League Baseball - within two weeks, or possibly less than that.

There remains the possibility that a major announcement could come as early as tomorrow. That is wonderful news for baseball fans who have watched helplessly from the sidelines while the hope and good feeling of Opening Day has been squandered in a summer of nerve-wracking negotiations, as New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria attempts to complete his takeover of the team and to win baseball's approval for his business plan and his plan for downtown Labatt Park.

After ups and downs of this year-long roller-coaster ride, two weeks does not seem long to wait for a result that will put Loria in charge and will set this team on a firm new course toward the millennium.

Menard - who has steered this deal through perilous waters while somehow acting simultaneously as head of Nesbitt-Burns and chairman of Hydro-Quebec - last night laid out a characteristically cautious scenario for how things will unfold:
- Over the next few days, Menard hopes to remove the remaining "substantive issues" from the table and to have the plan ready for presentation to both the existing partners and those in the Loria group early next week.
- The partners will look over the work that has been done by the relaunch committee headed by Jocelyn Proteau and raise any further questions they have at that time. Assuming everything progresses well, the partners could approve the plan by the end of next week.
- Major League Baseball will then be notified that the Expos are ready to present their business plan and their stadium plan.

Most of the details of the plans have been going back and forth between the commissioner's office and the relaunch committee for months.
- Menard would say only that after that he hopes to have Major League Baseball's approval by Oct. 30, but other sources indicate that approval is expected before the middle of the month, if not sooner. Menard is wary of saying anything that would infer in any way that baseball might move more quickly, but since most of this material is thoroughly familiar to the commissioner's office by now, there is no reason for baseball to delay once the partners have reached agreement.
- Once baseball gives the nod to the Loria group and to Labatt Park, a whole "cascade" of events will occur, to use Menard's phrase. The Expos will have to invite the city and neighbours of the ball park to "squeeze the Charmin'" and to determine that the Expos will be good neighbours.
- All the usual consultations will be done with the city on zoning issues and all the rest, and construction on Labatt Park will begin this winter. Menard emphasized that in a deal of this size, last-minute crises are not unheard of - but that he is confident that the will exists to solve any problems that crop up, no matter what they might be. The one part of the entire complex process that does appear to be complete is Labatt Park itself. Details of the stadium, Menard said, are no longer an issue - and it will be "a stadium to make you proud." Menard did not say so specifically, but neither did he deny that Labatt Park will have more than 35,000 seats, meaning that Loria got his way when he decided he wanted a bigger stadium - or at least the option of adding 3,500 to 5,000 "swing seats" for playoff games.

If you want to know how hard this has been, you should know that when Menard was asked last night if this was the most difficult deal he has ever done, he said: "By far. Nothing else even comes close."

Even now, Menard is almost painfully careful not to give the impression that anything is done, not to assume the approval of the partners in advance, not to presume that Major League Baseball will automatically be sold.

It does appear that this whole tantalizing, elusive, excruciating process is drawing to a positive close, but not without wringing a last few drops of anxiety from the worn-out baseball fans of Montreal. It's a shame that an agreement could not have been reached earlier, a pity that it could not have been announced last Sunday with the Braves in town, or even last night before the last home game of the season.

Still, it's better, as Brochu himself said before the game, for every step to be taken cautiously, every move prepared thoroughly. Brochu, who before last night's game held the last of the on-field scrums that have been a regular feature of his eight-year tenure, sounded more positive than he has at any time since he personally gave up on his dream of seeing Labatt Park built his way.
"I'm very optimistic," Brochu said. "If there is a change of control, I think we can be optimistic."

Brochu even sounded philosophical about the pounding he has taken this year from this columnist, among others. "That's the way it goes," he said. "We always tend to blame one person when anything goes wrong. You take the hits. It's not a bit of fun, but it's part of the game."

Asked why he again sees a future for the game in Montreal after taking a much more pessimistic view of things in a statement to the press in Florida last March, Brochu hesitated a bit before pointing to Loria.
"You can do anything in baseball," he said, "as long as you have deep pockets."

Alou, in his final remarks to the press before the game, said that Loria is a man who "wants his name in the papers, wants to talk, wants to win."

Privately, he said later that Loria impressed him as a man like George Steinbrenner or Jerry Colangelo, a man who is getting into this to be a high-profile owner and a winner, a man who will not settle for finishing up the track while the organization develops star players for other teams.

Like everyone else, Alou clearly can't wait for Loria to take charge. More acutely than anyone else, he feels the frustration of his young team, short four or five key players of a winning contingent, worn out at the end of this season, with Vladimir Guerrero swinging at pitches 2 feet out of the strike zone and Jose Vidro so tired he can't get a ball out of the infield.
"They cleaned out their lockers completely," Alou said of his players. "They didn't leave anything here, because no one knows if they're going to be back next year or not. The other 29 teams in baseball, no one else is doing that." Next week marks the one-year anniversary of the press conference at which Brochu announced that he was stepping down once a new partnership could be put together and an agreement reached to buy him out. At the time, no one dreamed that the process would consume a year and more.

It has not been without cost: lost revenue from fans who might have turned out to watch a better team, time lost for marketing and the sale of season tickets and seat licenses, another year for people to get out of the habit of baseball. All that hurts, but it's nothing that an aggressive, knowledgeable owner can't overcome. Yesterday, Alou was talking about how important it was to get this done before the free-agent season is over and all the available free agents, especially starting pitchers, have been signed.

Imagine that: an Expos manager talking seriously about free agents. The next time this team plays a game in Montreal (and there will be a next time), things are going to be very, very different.

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