'Better Late than Never'

By Jack Todd/ The Gazette

The white knight forgot his armour. There was no lance, no shield, no sword - and his white steed looked suspiciously like a limousine, but Jeffrey Loria rode to the rescue yesterday - and his first words, delivered in French, were appropriate: "Better late than never."

It took 14 months to put this together following the emotional day in October last year when Claude Brochu announced that he would not be part of the new ownership group, but finally Loria - a mystery investor in the beginning who kept very much to himself until yesterday - is front and centre, ready, willing and very much able to run the show for the reborn Montreal Expos.

Until now, Loria has kept such a low profile that Le Journal was beside itself yesterday when it trumpeted on the front page that it finally had a current photo of the elusive Loria: "It's him!" said the headline, next to a picture of a man who is not Loria. Neither was the man in the picture that ran with Bert Raymond's column or in the huge shot that ran with a news story inside.

These things happen, and from now on, Loria promises to be a very visible component of sports in this city, a hands-on owner who talks freely of the baseball decisions "we" will make, meaning himself and GM Jim Beattie. Loria has decided to stick with Beattie, but Beattie might find that he has less a free hand than he expected with the departure of Bill Stoneman.

Beattie's new boss is a former second baseman and shortstop in New York City who certainly knows what it feels like to get hit in the face by a bad-hop ground ball. Loria has two passions - art and baseball - and today he is a very fortunate man who is able to finance one of his twin passions with the other.
"The most exciting part about baseball," he said yesterday, "is that you never know what's going to happen. There are always an endless amount of possibilities."

Loria impressed yesterday more as a warm, funny human being than as a hard-nosed businessman. He received a lengthy standing ovation when he was introduced, then triggered another ovation when he introduced Jacques Menard, the man who put this deal together. Loria's French is somewhat less polished than advertised, but he communicates in the language better than many English Montrealers, and he promises to get better.

If Loria handled himself well yesterday, it is possible that Stephen Bronfman stole the show. Bronfman, who would look a lot like his father, Charles, if not for a shock of Kennedyesque blond hair, was funny, relaxed, and sharp - and he held a scrum of reporters in thrall for at least a half hour after the main press conference was over. All the principals make clear that the younger Bronfman was absolutely pivotal in putting all this together, particularly with convincing Major League Baseball that the game could still work in this city. In explaining why he decided to get involved, Bronfman was especially eloquent.
"Obviously, I knew there were some troubles with the team," Bronfman said. "Then I went to Opening Day this year. I saw 40,000 screaming fans, and it brought a tear to my eye. I said to myself: 'Y'know, Dad built a great thing here. I'll be damned if it moves.' I went back to the office and called Jacques Menard and said: 'Jacques, I'm in.' "

Asked later how his father reacted to the news, Bronfman laughed: "He said: 'Don't go near it.' "

More seriously, Bronfman added: "He's just proud the team has been able to stay here in Montreal - but I'm glad he's not here. He's always been a fan, and now he has even more reason to root for the team."

"Besides," Ted Blackman growled, "Sam told Charles the same thing when he bought the team - don't go near it!" If Loria, Menard, Bronfman and all the principals were at their gracious best yesterday, the press conference still had its ugly moments. A group of photographers and cameramen got into a noisy argument while Loria was trying to answer a question, a marginal radio reporter tried to dominate the microphone when questions were taken from the floor, and a female television reporter, asking the second question of the day, informed Loria that "we" expected a francophone president to run the Expos, and asked why weren't "we" getting what "we" wanted.

Loria could have pointed out that there are 75 million excellent reasons why "we" didn't get "our" way on the choice of the Expos president. Instead, he was gracious but firm. Loria himself will be running the Expos, with his son, David Samson, in the position of executive vice-president, as his right arm. It is Samson who will move to Montreal with his family, so you can bet that the dapper young man will be something more than his father's right arm.

The sour notes aside, this was a feel-good moment. You could look at the head table (minus Raymond Bachand of the Solidarity Fund, who failed to make it back in time) and see one American, one Canadian anglophone, three francophones. Despite all the stories about dissension among the various factions in the ownership group, this was a story of accord, not discord. Despite the attempts of the vindictive few (like the television reporter whose use of the royal "we" was so abhorrent) to start a language battle, these individuals got an enormous deal done across the great divide.

Even larger challenges lie ahead. Loria promised yesterday that ground would be broken on Labatt Park before Opening Day; that is absolutely critical to the team's marketing effort. Equally critical is the state of baseball itself; the game has a long way to go to put itself on a sound economic footing. In Colorado a day before the Expos' relaunch, the Rockies signed speedy free- agent outfielder Tom Goodwin. With the Texas Rangers this past season, Goodwin hit .259 with three home runs. With the Rockies, that and his 36 stolen bases was good for a three-year, $10.3-million contract for a one-dimensional outfielder. And a story in yesterday's Gazette pointed out that the '99 Yankees became the first team in history with an average player salary of more than $3 million. Menard himself noted yesterday that the National Football League shares more than 50 per cent of its revenue to level the playing field; in baseball, the figure is less than 25 per cent. For the Expos to make good on Loria's dream, they must first hope that baseball gets its house in order. If the Yankees, Braves, Orioles, Dodgers, Red Sox, Astros, Rockies and a handful of other teams are going to have stratospheric payrolls while two dozen other franchises struggle along on a pittance, this just isn't going to work - and not only for the Expos.

Even without assurances that baseball will finally begin to act, Loria is ready to take the plunge. He said the payroll will increase by 50 per cent this year, enough of a stretch so that GM Beattie can leave for Anaheim today with mid-level free agents on his mind, or with the option of taking on salary in a trade. There is free-agent pitching help out there: Graeme Lloyd to strengthen the bullpen, and Chuck Finley for the starting rotation if you want to spend more money. The Expos need at least one veteran starter, another genuine major-league bat in the outfield, more power from first base.

But Loria begins with something Charles Bronfman did not have when he started back in '69: a genuine nucleus of a solid team. Vladimir Guerrero, Michael Barrett, Ugueth Urbina, Javy Vazquez, Dustin Hermanson, Orlando Cabrera, Jose Vidro, Chris Widger, Rondell White.

And Loria begins with something Bronfman did have, something that eluded Brochu throughout his entire tenure with the Expos: the enormous good will and good wishes of this city. Journalists are supposed to be cynical and suspicious and hard to please, but after a two-year battle to save this team, we are surely allowed one day to feel good about baseball, good about Labatt Park, good about Jeffrey Loria.

Even the Christmas carols being piped into the Queen E yesterday afternoon got into the act, the voices of an unnamed choir rising in praise of the new majority owner: "Lor-or-or-or-or-oria, in excelsis dei ..."

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