Expos Fans Can Relax

By Jack Todd/ The Gazette

OK, everybody take a Valium. With all due apologies for paraphrasing the classic Aislin cartoon, it's time the people stirring the Expos' pot in search of a little controversy went back to fussing over the Neverendum.

We have assurances from sources as near to the horse's mouth as we can get that the sale of the Expos to a group headed by New York art-dealer Jeffrey Loria is still on track, and that the people who keep suggesting otherwise are - well, a little closer to the other end of the horse.

As for the supposed brouhaha over Loria's son, David Samson, it's the classic red herring. The stuff that is actually holding up the deal is much more boring than a thrilling French/English dustup over Samson. No doubt it makes better reading to hint that the boardroom battles resemble the Plains of Abraham, but the truth is that the real holdup is due to the legal technicalities that are being pored over by lawyers for corporations such as Bell Canada and Canadian Pacific.

(Samson has often been incorrectly identified as Loria's son-in-law; strictly speaking, he is Loria's stepson, a designation Loria does not like. In this space, from now on, he will be identified simply as Loria's son. And, soon enough, as the new president of the Expos.)

Yesterday, a spokesman for Loria went so far as to put a firm date on completion of the deal, which would see Loria purchasing about 35 per cent of the club for $75 million Canadian and taking over as principal owner and managing partner from Claude Brochu, who will be bought out for $15 million Canadian.

Andre Boutillier, Loria's Montreal spokesman, said quite firmly yesterday that the deal will be completed within three weeks.

"The deal is going through," he said. "It will be done within three weeks."

Boutillier confirmed that the team presidency is an issue, but insisted that it is not a stumbling block to the sale of the Expos to the Loria group.

"We are negotiating," Boutillier said. "Negotiations are going on. That's all I can say."

Boutillier said it has been frustrating for Loria and Samson to see quotes from various anonymous sources within the ownership group when Loria has respected the wishes of Major League Baseball and refrained from speaking to the French media.

"When we see these statements appearing, especially in La Presse, Mr. Samson would like to call to correct some of the information," Boutillier said, "but we can't do that."

One anonymous source told La Presse columnist Rejean Tremblay last week that Samson was a "little Napoleon" and that to bring him in as president of the franchise would be "a disaster."

"I was with Mr. Samson all day (Thursday)," Boutillier said yesterday, "and I can tell you he was laughing over that." (We're only speculating here, but it is possible that the source for that quote was none other than Premier Lucien Bouchard himself. Certainly Bouchard has been behind the move to install a francophone as president of the Expos in return for help from the province in paying off the interest on the loan for construction of Labatt Park, and it seems unlikely that men such as Pierre Michaud of Provigo and Loblaw or Jocelyn Proteau of the Caisse Desjardins would make such a comment while in negotiations for the relaunch committee.)

Jacques Menard, the Expos' chairman and head of the relaunch committee, did not grant a request for an interview yesterday and was said to be on his way out of the country for a little rest and relaxation. Brochu did not respond to a request for an interview and Loria and Menard declined comment through Boutillier.

The francophones who have been mentioned as possible candidates for the presidency are not that strong. Richard Legendre comes from Tennis Canada; he's a tennis guy, and he's used to working with the largesse of federal money to throw around. A much more bizarre suggestion mentioned is Roger Samson (no relation to David), a rather vague and watery individual who was supposedly acting as a spokesman for the relaunch group over the summer. Samson returned phone calls only intermittently and seemed most concerned that his weekends at his cottage not be disrupted, a strange attitude for a spokesman or the president of a major-league franchise. That brings us back to David Samson, a brash, young dynamo who has ruffled some feathers - no one denies that. Boutillier repeated yesterday what others have said about Loria and Samson: "When this deal is complete and people in Montreal get to know them, they are going to adore these two. They are going to be like the people who run the Cirque du Soleil - they will get that much respect in Montreal."

Loria, of course, already speaks fluent French. One source predicted yesterday that Samson (whom everyone characterizes as bright, young and energetic) will be doing interviews in French by the end of the year.

Making some allowances for the fact that Boutillier is a hired spokesman for Loria, it's hard to see how the minority partners can block Samson's appointment as president when Loria is the one who is saving the team. And for those who suggest (as Philippe Cantin did in La Presse yesterday) that Samson and Loria will be carpetbaggers who will quickly grow weary of the shuttle from New York and want to move the team elsewhere, Samson plans to buy a house and settle in Montreal, and Loria plans to involve himself heart and soul in the business of running the Expos. Cantin brought up other objections to the deal yesterday, some valid and some not. He asked, for instance, how the new owners could sell $70 million in seat licenses for Labatt Park when Brochu's sale drive stalled at $35 million. The answer to that one is simple - Brochu succeeded at the high end, with the sale of $10,000 and $8,000 seat licenses to corporations. Ordinary fans balked at buying the low-end licenses because they did not trust Brochu and they needed evidence the stadium would be built before forking over their money. As soon as the Loria group puts a shovel in the ground, seat licenses and season tickets will begin to move.

As for the minority investors, they are understandably cautious because they feel they were ignored by Brochu. But clauses written into this agreement give them as much or more power as any other minority owners in baseball; they are in a strong position because that is what they want, and because Loria wants strong local partners. The worst thing about all this delay is that when the sale does go through, the Loria group will have little more than two months before spring training, but Loria and Samson have done so much groundwork that they will move into high gear the instant the deal is signed.

This is going to happen. Have faith, take a deep breath and get ready to buy your season tickets, because it's going to be a helluva ride.

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