First Watergate, now Expogate

By Jack Todd

On St. Jean Baptiste Day, RDS broadcast a baseball game - a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game. Perfect. On Quebec's national holiday, Quebec's baseball team can't even get a little exposure on French Canada's own sports network.

At 11:30 Thursday night, minority partner Mark Routtenberg was called at home by a reporter for WPTZ-TV in Plattsburgh, who said that an affiliate station in Charlotte, N.C., was reporting that the Expos had been sold and were being moved to Charlotte. Not true - although it certainly is true that managing partner Claude Brochu has been working to sell the club to North Carolina businessman Don Beaver since at least last September, and probably longer.

The ball club, meanwhile, was busy losing two out of three to the Braves in Dumbtown, USA, with Braves broadcaster Don Sutton telling a nationwide audience on TBS that the Expos had given away Randy Johnson in one of their fire sales. Now anyone with a passing acquaintance with the game should know that Johnson was one of three young prospects the club sent to the Seattle Mariners when they added salary in the person of prima donna Mark Langston in an ill-fated attempt to make it to the post-season under Buck Rodgers.

But these are the Expos, and the Expos get no respect. TBS, USA Today, the TV station in Charlotte, even the respected Washington Post - the American media feel free to say anything they want to say about the Expos and their situation in Montreal, no need to let facts get in the way.

The Post's Richard Justice, who ought to know better, got almost everything wrong in a piece on the Expos written a few weeks ago, beginning with this astonishing passage:

"Unless a new owner steps forward in the next few weeks, the Expos are almost certain to be playing elsewhere next season. General partner Claude Brochu was prepared to put the team up for sale this spring after being unable to meet baseball's deadline for obtaining financing for a new stadium. Unable to find a local buyer, Brochu was willing to deal with groups prepared to move the franchise. . . .

"Commissioner Bud Selig intervened to prevent a sale this spring and extended the deadline indefinitely, giving a group led by minority owner Jacques Menard an opportunity to find financing for a stadium and a buyer willing to keep the team in Montreal. Three months later, Menard and his group haven't finalized a deal. They say they are optimistic that they have found their major investor - New York arts dealer Jeff Luria (sic) - and that a stadium deal soon will follow."

The major investor, of course, is Jeffrey Loria, not Luria. He has been the man since last fall, Brochu never tried to find local buyers for the team (that attempt is being made by the Menard group) and Selig did not intervene to prevent any sale: he simply stood aside to give the Menard group more time to get a deal together, not that he had a choice.

All the propagandists pushing the idea that the Expos are about to move to the U.S. ignore one thing, which is that Selig has neither the power nor the grounds to order the team sold and moved. None of this would matter, except that the people who run baseball read the Washington Post or USA Today, not The Montreal Gazette. They watch Sutton on TBS, not Rodger Brulotte on RDS. And in the absence of anything concrete in Montreal, reporters feel free to toss around any sort of misinformation they can dream up.

So what's going on?

At glacial speed, according to special adviser Roger Samson, things are progressing. Samson, who was retained to act as a spokesman by the group baseball refers to as the "continuing partners" to distinguish them from discontinuing partner Brochu, said the whole thing is enormously difficult and complex, but he still believes it's going to get done.

So does Menard, still the key figure in the attempt to bring this whole thing together. After I reported that a source told me last week that Loria was getting cold feet after his nephew examined the Expos' books, Menard called to say that Loria, if anything, "is more excited than ever."

And Stephen Bronfman is ready to commit to the project. Although he apparently does not want to be the managing partner, Bronfman adds a substantial investment and the enormous prestige of the Bronfman name to the group looking to keep the Expos in Montreal.

So why is it taking so long to announce a deal? As Samson explained, when you do something this big, you do your homework.

"When you're talking about investing tens of millions of dollars, you have to be very thorough," Samson said. "Every time an accountant calls to ask about the implications of clause 128b in the tax code, it costs us a week. It's got to be checked out thoroughly, and by the time that's done, we've lost another week."

Samson believes that Major League Baseball has been amazingly patient throughout.

"They've stayed very cool, especially about the attendance," he said. "They could have freaked because of the size of the crowds (hovering around 7,000 through most of the season), but they didn't. And I have to think that if baseball saw a major obstacle that would have prevented this from happening, they would have pulled the plug on us before now."

Instead, baseball has now nearly four months after the original March deadline for the continuing partners to pull a deal together. So what is the real "drop-dead" date? How much longer will this take?

At one point, Samson said "it could be any day now." At another point, he said it won't take longer than a few more weeks, at most, before Montreal baseball fans will know one way or another, for once and for all, whether the Expos will stay or go.

And what about the 2000 schedule that is due by the all-star break? Isn't that the hard-and-fast date that can't be bent?

"Not really," Samson said. "Most of the possible locations they're talking about (Northern Virginia, Charlotte, Washington, D.C.) are on the East Coast. They could just plug the new city into the Expos' schedule."

They could - if baseball could unilaterally haul the Expos out of Montreal. Samson doesn't say so, but baseball has no grounds for moving the team. Not when the team is in default of nothing, not when 85 per cent of the ownership is irrevocably opposed to moving the team, not when a dozen franchises in baseball are in shakier financial shape than the Expos, not when $125 million in new investment has already been lined up.

As for the stadium plans (Major League Baseball is studying plans that call for Labatt Park to be built for a "mere" $200 million Canadian), Samson is confident the three competing plans are all rock-solid.

"We believe in competition," he said. "We brought in competing bidders and we got a solid project."

The trick, Samson said, is to get all this to come together at once. He compares it to cooking brunch, when you have to have the toast and the bacon and the eggs and the ham all ready at the same time.

Loria doesn't want to make a commitment until he's sure the stadium project will have major-league approval, and baseball doesn't want to approve the stadium project without a commitment from Loria. The Quebec government is involved, the municipal government, a dozen minor partners from such financial powerhouses as the Caisse de Depot and the Royal Bank, possibly the OIB, Major League Baseball, Loria, Bronfman. And an intractable Brochu, making every step as maddeningly difficult as he can possibly make it.

So it takes a while. We've been waiting nine months to taste this particular brunch. If nothing else, you should have an appetite by now.

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