Long Trip for Expos Near End

By Jack Todd

If you want to know how long this stadium thing has been going on, think about this:

When Claude Brochu first unveiled his plans for a new downtown ballpark, the two-time champion Denver Broncos had never won a Super Bowl. Alain Vigneault had never coached a game in the NHL. Vincent Damphousse, Mark Recchi and Jocelyn Thibault still played for the Canadiens, and the Expos had David Segui at first and Mike Lansing at second.

Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, John Elway and Barry Sanders were still active in their respective sports, France had never won a World Cup and the Nagano Olympics were still the better part of a year in the future. So it figures that when this never-ending story finally approaches its conclusion I would be out in the Nebraska panhandle getting reacquainted with my old home town and listening to Colorado Rockies broadcasts on the radio - between the Iowa hog-market reports and Jim Reeves singing Four Walls.

Even if Jacques Menard backtracked a little yesterday from his statement to CKAC Monday night, even if an official announcement from Bud Selig isn't expected until after Sept. 1, you can almost hear the sound of that spade going into the ground.

And no, it appears that it won't be digging the grave of the Montreal Expos, despite numerous reports to the contrary in most of the major news outlets in the U.S. It appears the Expos have won approval from Major League Baseball for their business plan, after drawing up a detailed, lawyer-proof plan 19 separate times, and the rest of the pieces are almost in place.

But what a long, strange trip it has been. It has shattered friendships, tested loyalties, frayed the nerves of owners and front-office personnel, worn out reporters and very nearly cost the franchise the services of Felipe Alou, the organization's best-loved and most respected employee.

From the people who sell hotdogs to Claude Brochu, from the clubhouse guys to Jacques Menard, the battle to save the Expos has taken its toll.

I have personally written so many columns on the subject, bounced so many times from giddy optimism to black pessimism, that by early this summer utter weariness set in and all I wanted was an end to it, good or bad. Let 'em go, let 'em stay: just for the love of Shoeless Joe Jackson let's get it over with.

There were times when it seemed the only media types who still believed in the stadium were CIQC's Mitch Melnick and myself, and we were personally under fire from so many sides that you began to feel like the the only ducks to land on the pond on the first day of hunting season. Minority owner Mark Routtenberg went through the same thing, as his friendship with Brochu began to fray and Routtenberg became one of the very few who still believed passionately in baseball in Montreal.

If it was difficult for us, it was infinitely more difficult for the people whose jobs, careers and futures have hung in the balance. If a deal is near, you hope it's not too late for Bill Stoneman and Jim Beattie to decide to stay. There have been rumours all year that Stoneman and Beattie would leave when Loria takes over: for what it's worth, I hope both will stay. GMs have come and GMs have gone, the Expos have lost all kinds of people from their scouting and minor-league operations, but Stoneman has kept the baseball side of this operation remarkably stable. In Beattie, he has finally found a GM who isn't in training for a job somewhere else.

Despite the desperate lack of funding and all the rest, the Expos baseball organization is the envy of the majors, even as the marketing operation under Brochu's direct control has been little better than laughable. And while the Expos have shown a remarkable ability to replace good people, you don't lose quality individuals like Stoneman and Beattie without taking a hit.

You can't help, at this point, feeling a little sympathy for Brochu - this odd, crabbed man who tends to seem untrustworthy even when he's being honest. Brochu began all this, I think, with the best of intentions and probably suffered more than anyone when the whole project was on the verge of falling apart because he was so personally unpopular. Yes, $15 million soothes many a wound - but the wounds are still there for Brochu, and they always will be.

Finally, there is Jacques Menard, who apparently intends to sever his ties with the team as soon as the deal is complete. Menard, who has to be one of the five busiest men in the planet, went into this with nothing to gain for himself and a great deal to lose. He put his reputation as a deal-maker and consensus-builder on the line, he worked overtime to bring all the disparate elements of this incredibly complex business together, knowing all along that if he succeeded he would be quickly forgotten and that if he failed he would be damned as the man who couldn't get it done.

Now, very nearly at the end of the day, it appears that Menard has pulled it off. He isn't going to make any money off this and he won't get much attention either once Loria takes over - but if it is up to me, Jacques Menard will throw out the first pitch when Labatt Park opens in 2002.

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