This is Getting Painful

By Jack Todd

After yesterday's Olympic Stadium meeting with Claude Brochu and the partners seeking to buy him out meeting face to face for the first time since last October, minority partner Mark Routtenberg summed up the situation with a sublime phrase:
"Nothing's developed, but on the right track."

There is no breaking news, in other words, but the attempt to buy out Brochu and to build downtown Labatt Park is still moving forward, although at a pace that has more in common with Chinese water torture than progress. Drip . . . drip . . . drip . . . While the young Expos play for crowds that would make for a nice backyard barbecue, the few fans still paying attention want nothing except for it to be over. (You would never know it from the Expos' marketing, but slugger Fernando Tatis and the St. Louis Cardinals are coming in for a three-game series beginning tonight. Tatis and that other guy should draw 30,000 a game easy, but at last word the Expos were expecting about 16,000 tonight.)

Yesterday, La Presse reported that a financing deal is in place to provide $100 million for Labatt Park; last night, Raymond Bachand of the Solidarity Fund (who has become perhaps the key player in the ownership group) said first that the La Presse report is not accurate and then corrected himself: it's merely premature, probably because it isn't yet signed.

So it goes. A step forward, a step to the side, a quarter-step back. As Brochu works to wear down the group trying to buy him out and move the team to the U.S., the war of nerves is getting on everyone's nerves. Everyone, that is, except Brochu himself, who is looking mighty chipper these days. As you would be, if you knew you were going to hijack a minimum of $15 million out of this, no matter how it breaks.

If only we could return to the happy days when Routtenberg and the others were confidently predicting a deal would be done by Dec. 1, the holidays at the latest. What are essentially protracted negotiations with Brochu and Major League Baseball have been going on so long that when they started there were no more than a dozen people in North America who could spell "Kosovo." When they began last Oct. 7, Michael Jordan still ruled basketball, Wayne Gretzky ruled hockey and John Elway hadn't even won his second Super Bowl.

Yesterday's meeting changed nothing: Brochu yesterday attempted to cow the partners with a long and detailed report on salary escalation from baseball's so-called Blue Ribbon committee.

It pointed out, among other things, that if Vladimir Guerrero were a free agent today, he would command $100 million. OK, $99 million since Guerrero started making an error every time he gets anywhere near a baseball. Brochu is evidently counting on the baseball ignorance of the partners to carry the day for him, because there's a flip side to that argument: the insanity can't go on, and with no recent small-market successes in Minnesota or Montreal to point to, the large-market owners are eventually going to have to bring some kind of sanity to the sport.

Apart from that, the routine business of the day changed nothing, except that Brochu and the other partners proved that they can sit in a room together for 90 minutes without clawing one another's eyes out.

According to the La Presse report, the next step is for an American analyst from the firm Ernst & Young to go over the three stadium plans commissioned by the Jacques Menard group to determine whether they are indeed workable, because the Americans are having a difficult time believing that Montreal can build a quality stadium for $175 million Canadian. (Brochu's initial plan for Labatt Park, worked out by the able Laurier Carpentier, was to cost $250 million.)

The plans, however, have been provided by reputable firms, bonded and with a turnkey price. The hope now is that the analyst will give at least one of the plans his approval, making it difficult, if not impossible, for baseball to continue to stall.

None of the new stadium designs include a roof, although the designers estimate that the foundation for a retractable roof can be provided at a cost off about $25 million and the roof itself added at a later date (perhaps after the government finally decides to abandon the Big Uh-Oh) at a cost of $75 million.

Having found that the most expensive $10,000 seat licenses were the easiest to sell because corporations want to buy only the best, the designers have incorporated more premium seat licenses, both behind home plate and down the line, and they have come up with a considerably more appealing way to market the seat licenses by adding a trip to spring training to meet the players, a plaque at the stadium honouring each purchaser of a seat license, comfortable theatre seats and possibly inter-active computers at the seats. (Those who have already purchased seat licenses, obviously, would receive all the added benefits.)

As Brochu himself often pointed out, San Francisco (which is to open its new park for the Giants early next season) had great difficulty selling seat licenses until the go-ahead was given for a new ball park, at which time the seat licenses sold like hotcakes.

"If baseball would swing its weight behind us," Routtenberg said yesterday, "we could get this done just like that." By its very intransigence, however, baseball is tacitly backing Brochu, making it easier for him to wear down the partnership, to drive away the fans, to make this deal inhumanly difficult to accomplish.

The nearest thing to an ally the Expos have in Major League Baseball is Paul Beeston, the former president of the Toronto Blue Jays. Beeston used to complain loud and long about Brochu's mismanagement of the Expos, so he knows the score, whether he is saying so for public consumption or not.

Beeston's influence on Bud Selig might be crucial. In the end, whether the financing is in place or not, it might come down to this: will Bud Selig believe the other owners and the baseball fans of Montreal, or will he accept Brochu's view of things?

Whatever baseball says about the May 31 deadline, the more likely scenario is that the stadium plan will be swatted back and forth like a ping-pong ball for some weeks or months; since baseball can have no sound objections to the plan, Selig and Brochu are more likely to stick to their strategy of wearing down the partnership, hoping that a key player such as Bachand, Jocelyn Proteau or Menard will throw in the towel.

For the rest of us, there's nothing to do but wait and watch and try to have faith. Nothing has developed, but they're on the right track.

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