This is Getting Painful

By Stephanie Myles

The five Expos vice-presidents were very unhappy that their confidential letter to Raymond Bachand, the head of the Quebec Federation of Labour's Solidarity Fund and a key member of the ownership group trying to ensure the club's survival in Montreal, was made public.

But it accomplished one thing: it turned the focus - if just momentarily - away from the in-fighting between team president and general partner Claude Brochu and his fellow owners, and toward the club's employees, who are living a nightmare as their abilities are questioned and their job status becomes shakier by the day.

The letter, leaked Wednesday to French-language Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil, admonished Bachand for his remarks a week ago about the Expos' marketing effort leading up to the weekend series against home-run titan Mark McGwire and the St. Louis Cardinals. Bachand qualified the effort as "pitiful."

"Such comments from a member of the partnership are unjustified, irresponsible and not respectful," the letter, written by the vice-presidents on behalf of the employees, said in part. "We would appreciate that, in the future, you would abstain from making such comments in the media and show evidence of greater solidarity."

Bachand responded yesterday with a letter that stated it was the effectiveness of the marketing campaign that he was putting in question, not the efforts of the employees.

"We didn't want to attack him in public, but only make him realize that the conflict between he and Claude Brochu has repercussions on all of us," vice-president of communications Johanne Heroux said yesterday. "The people here are good people, who put in a lot of hours and don't make all that much money. Very few people have left, despite the insecurity, despite the fact that, for several months, it's not the cheeriest place to come and work."

Brochu told The Gazette Wednesday that the expenditures for Opening Day came out to about $5 per ticket sold; costs for the series against the Cardinals were about $4 per ticket.

Brochu said the lack of attendance this season involves several factors, not the least of which is the climate of uncertainty. He added that it's clear fans don't want to come out to Olympic Stadium, so there isn't much logic to spending dollar upon dollar in a cause that is essentially already lost. Brochu lauded the efforts of vice-president of sales and marketing Richard Morency and his staff. Brochu said that through their hard work and hard-won personal relationships with the team's current crop of corporate sponsors, very few have jumped ship despite the failing attendance. Meanwhile, new special adviser Roger Samson has been on the job at the Expos' downtown offices since Monday.

His salary will be paid by the club, part of a package of "survival" expenses incurred after a specific date that - if the effort fails and the club is sold and moved - will not come out of Brochu's share of the profits.

Samson sat in on a meeting Wednesday that included a representative from Major League Baseball, a member of the architectural firm HOK - responsible for the design of the majority of the new baseball stadiums built in the last five or six years - and an independent consultant agreeable to both baseball and the ownership group. Expos vice-president Laurier Carpentier was also on hand, as was Vianney Belanger, who is overseeing the stadium project for the club.

The baseball representatives were in town to check that the stadium plans conform to MLB standards in terms of revenue-generating capacity, Heroux said.

"And they looked at the business plan, whether it was viable, solid, within the debt limits set out by baseball, and viable in the long term," Heroux added.

Samson said the stadium project's critical path dictates that if it is to open for the 2002 season, construction must begin by the end of this year or early next year.
"I think the winds have changed in the last few days," he said. "The fact that (baseball) has sent these two people here says something. The credibility of the partners has grown in a major way at the major-league level - it's rare that businessmen fight so hard to not make money."
The MLB representatives left town with briefcases full of information, and requested additional documents that will be forwarded to them.

There still has been no decision on which of the three submitted designs will be chosen. And until then, the designs won't be made public.
"We're looking at design, municipal zoning, the functionality of things like crowd movement and the league's requirements," Samson said.

Brochu said baseball would begin work on the 2000 schedule any day now, and that realignment for next season was still a possibility. There has been sporadic talk over the years that the Expos might move to the American League East - something that would hardly sit well with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos if the club were not only to move into his neighbourhood (Washington, D.C., or northern Virginia), but into his division.

So the very latest this situation could drag on would conceivably be the end of June, when the schedule must be finalized.

"There have already been exceptions to this," Samson said. "But we're looking to not be an exception."

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