By Jon Cook
Could 37-year-old media magnate Pierre Karl Peladeau be the white knight the Montreal Expos have been looking for? Peladeau's surprise announcement yesterday that his company, Quebecor Inc., "is open to the idea of becoming involved" with the team has sent Montrealers' hopes soaring like a brushfire.
Confronted by the harsh realities of a small market, a declining Canadian dollar, skyrocketing player salaries, fan apathy and a second-rate stadium, the Expos were down to their final out with their pitcher coming up to plate before Peladeau stepped in to pinch-hit. Like Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series, the Expos hope Peladeau strikes the game-winning home run that turns the franchises' dismal fortunes around and propels them to glory. And like Gibson Peladeau has demonstrated his ability as a clutch-hitter. Peladeau, who assumed control over Quebecor last year after his father -- Pierre Peladeau -- died, came on in the late innings to save the Toronto Sun and its newspaper chain, Sun Media Inc. from a hostile takeover by rival Torstar Corp. Compared to the $983 million and the additional $300 million in debt that Quebecor spent to purchase Sun Media, the $75 million the Expos are looking for is chicken-feed.
For Peladeau the transition to Expos' owner would be fairly seamless as Quebecor would join a number of media companies that control baseball teams, including Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (L.A. Dodgers), Ted Turner's Time Warner Inc. (Atlanta Braves), The Walt Disney Co. (Anaheim Angels) and the Tribune Co. (Chicago Cubs). Peladeau's investment would likely hinge on him gaining the rights to broadcast Expos games on his Quatre Saisons television network. Since buying the money-losing network two years ago, Quebecor has beefed up its sports coverage and increased its audience among viewers age 18 to 49.
The Expos who already claim to have a group of investors willing to put up $125 million, including New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria's $75 million, would be able to start construction on a new $200 million downtown stadium with Quebecor's contribution. The proposed Labatt Park stadium is sorely needed to replace the cavernous Olympic Stadium that became the focal point of fan discontentment after part of the new roof collapsed under the weight of snow during its installation this winter.
"People are convinced that with a new stadium the Expos have a future," Jean Simard, a spokesman for the team's ownership, told The Montreal Gazette. Simard added that Quebecor was not looking to buy the team outright. Peladeau might follow Murdoch's example and share the ownership with another major partner as the Dodgers' owner did with cable mogul John Malone.
While corporate ownership would appear to be the answer for cash-strapped teams like the Expos it can have an adverse affect as billionaire press barons promote their own agendas over that of the club. Murdoch's arrival in Dodgertown led to the clash of egos that precipitated Tommy Lasorda's retirement and the trade that sent superstar catcher Mike Piazza to the Florida Marlins. Would Felipe Alou and Expos' franchise player Vladimir Guerrero become casualties under Peladeau's regime?
When Quebecor took over Sun Media one of the first victims of the corporation's cost-cutting operation was Toronto Sun editor-in-chief Peter O'Sullivan. Hopefully Peladeau is more of a baseball fan than an owner focussed on the lowest common denominator - profits. If that turns out to be the case then the Expos have truly found their knight in shining armor. In the end all that really matters to the ballclub are Peladeau's deep pockets.
Expos' chairman Jacques Menard has compared the team's situation to the baseball analogy of being on third base, just 90 feet from scoring the winning run at home plate. Let's just pray for the sake of baseball in Canada that Peladeau can get the job done and drive in the winning run.