Labatt Park a Tough Sell

by Jack Todd

Creaky old Candlestick Park (the corporate designation currently in use is so awkward, we refuse to use it) was bathed in early fall sunshine for the lunchtime start of yesterday's game between the Expos and the Giants.

Watching players take infield practice on green grass before the game was almost too idyllic; the game that started in cow pastures long before the American Civil War is still best played on a surface that resembles a pasture, give or take a few cow chips.

One day after the happiest day of this difficult season for the Expos, one day after Vladimir Guerrero signed a five-year, $28-million deal, committing himself to Montreal well into the next millennium, the question on everyone's mind is whether we will in fact see Guerrero play in Montreal even once after the end of next season.

Four weeks from today, possibly earlier, the Expos will make the most momentous announcement since the city was awarded a National League franchise on May 27, 1968: they will announce that Labatt Park is a go (perhaps even a provisional go), or they will announce that the Expos will be sold and moved after the 1999 season. Compared to the stadium project, getting Guerrero's signature on a piece of paper was a snap.

With Labatt Park coming down to the short strokes, there is a deepening pessimism among the Expos traveling contingent about the possibility the stadium can be built.

"If they can't turn (Lucien) Bouchard around, then it's dead, period," one Expo employee was saying here Tuesday night. "I don't know if people understand the urgency of this thing."

The temptation for Bouchard to go on playing the simplistic hospitals vs. wealthy ballplayers schtick as the PQ approaches an election is irresistible. It's bad economics, but it's the kind of thing it's easy to sell to voters - build a ball park, lose another palliative-care pavilion. That the tax revenues from a viable stadium project could build a palliative-care unit five years down the line either hasn't occurred to Bouchard or is too complex for the bombast-and-sound-bites approach of an election campaign.

That the city of Montreal would be the greatest beneficiary of the project does not seem to have entered the thinking of Bouchard or most of the other politicians, any more than it has penetrated the thinking of the hidebound anglo commentators who have been bashing the project from the beginning.

With a better sales job to the public, Claude Brochu might have been able to exert some pre-election pressure the other way, but the Montreal public remains so relentlessly uninformed that the opinion of the general voter or baseball fan simply doesn't matter.

I still get E-mails saying it's ridiculous for the various levels of government to shell out $500 million for a new baseball stadium; a new park would cost half that, and in public, at least, the Expos have never made a pitch for a direct subsidy. Some of the more recent columns on the subject assume that the club has given up on its plan to sell $100 million in seat licenses.

In fact, the $100 million is still very much part of the package - the Expos simply believe that the seats will be an easier sell once the shovel is in the ground, the park is beginning to take shape and the 2001 season is approaching.

Even so, it may all come down to that intractable fellow in the premier's office. What is bothersome about Bouchard's approach is that it is so singularly inflexible. In his public statements, at least, Bouchard has left himself no room for such creative options as applying the income taxes on player salaries to ballpark construction.

Perhaps Serge Savard's sales efforts within the business community will turn the tide over the coming four weeks. Perhaps Brochu and his people are receiving private assurances from Bouchard and his people that are at variance with Bouchard's public statements. (What? A politician telling an untruth before an election? Could it be?) Perhaps Bouchard will lose the next election (hey, we can always hope) and Jean Charest will find a creative way to get this thing done - but that leaves the Expos on hold until well after the election, and they are determined to make a final announcement by Sept. 30.

From the beginning, I have supported the project, not because I care so passionately about baseball, but because since the days when I was writing the city column for this newspaper, I have wanted to see Montreal gain back some of what it has lost to Toronto over the past two decades.

Our city is far healthier today than it was during the dreary years of the Mulroney recession, but it still lags far behind Toronto. This is a good project, a good, viable, lively, downtown ballpark which would become an integral part of the mosaic of the city - not a bad, dull, remote, chilly concrete monstrosity which simply destroys the feel of the game.

It is ridiculous and irresponsible to flog the old argument that a good, intimate, downtown park won't work, because the Big O doesn't work. The truth is that a core of 10,000 fans have hung in through all the terrible years at the Big O, the fire sales, the strike. A good downtown park with a competitive team doubles the core; even the inept Expos marketing department can sell seats to office workers who have to stroll four blocks to watch Guerrero on a summer night. Before Jacobs Field was built in Cleveland, there were nights when the Indians played with fewer than 1,000 people at old Municipal Stadium. Baseball was supposed to be officially dead in Cleveland. But the Indians got their new park and signed their core of young talent to long-term contracts and went to a World Series. But that fades, you say? Through 70 home games this season, the Indians have drawn 2,991,966 fans to Jacobs Field, and they're headed to the post-season again.

Northern Virginia is waiting. The money is there, the politicians are in line. Unless some of the fundamentals change in the next four weeks, Northern Virginia will have a team and Montreal will not. The window of opportunity for a Jacobs Field or a Camden Yards will close, and that weed-blown field south of the Molson Centre will remain an empty patch of ground.

Once the trucks leave town, they will not be back. Given its recent history, there will be absolutely no chance major-league baseball will ever return to Montreal. No super-station pans of the city skyline night after night when the Cubs or the Braves are in town, no tens of millions of people watching a Mark McGwire home run vanish into the Montreal night. No Expos, no baseball, no stadium. Just the queasy certainty that the sour apples in our midst have triumphed again.

There's a term for that sort of thing. It's called a Pyrrhic Victory.

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