Expos Will Have to Wait Longer

By Jack Todd/The Gazette

Cancel those reservations for Cooperstown. The Expos' situation, which has been pending longer than the Neverendum, will not be resolved when the executive committee of Major League Baseball meets in the Hall of Fame city next week.

Foot-dragging from Bud Selig's office? Delays from Claude Brochu?
No - the Expos were taken off next week's agenda at the request of the Jeffrey Loria group, which is waiting to take control.

"There's only so much you can ask human beings to do," special adviser Roger Samson explained late yesterday afternoon. "There is so much paperwork that has to be prepared, especially with all the cross-border materials going back and forth between lawyers. Once you have people working from 7 in the morning until 3 the next morning, you can't really ask more than that.

"I've always said that what we're doing is trying to save the Expos," Samson said. "As long as we accomplish that, another month won't matter."

He's right - except that the new owners would have gotten a big public-relations boost if the announcement could have been made as they hoped on the final home Sunday of the season, Sept. 26, with the Atlanta Braves in town.

The delay is the bad news. The good news is that everyone now seems to be working to get this done, including Brochu - who appears to have put aside his doubts about the new business plan and to be doing everything in his power to get this over with so the new group can step in.

Brochu's doubt is perhaps contagious. I began to have doubts myself this week, especially after we heard from Jean Coutu. Coutu, who knows as much about baseball as I know about pharmaceuticals (and no wisecracks about the '60s, please), said this week that he had a verbal agreement with the new owners - in exchange for his $10-million investment - that the Expos payroll would not exceed 85 per cent of the average payroll in baseball.

Apparently, such an understanding exists, although the actual figure could be closer to 90 or 95 per cent of the average. However, according to Samson, the ceiling was put in as team policy to meet the concerns of several prospective investors, not Coutu alone.
"They don't want to get into a bottomless pit and you can understand that," Samson said.
"What the agreement means is that if we want to increase the payroll for any reason, Mr. Loria has agreed to ask the other investors for their approval."

That is just a smart way to run a baseball operation - just as Pierre Boivin of the Canadiens has said that he doesn't see a reason to increase the Canadiens payroll until and unless they are in a position to contend for a Stanley Cup.

As it is, the Loria group has planned all along to increase the payroll in annual increments - to $28 million U.S. next year from the current $18 million, then to $38 million in 2001 and $50 million in 2002, enough for the Expos to make some serious noise if they retain their excellent scouting and development system and continue to benefit from outstanding field management at the major-league level.

Even so, it will be a long while before the Expos convince their critics in the U.S. - and some of the skeptics here - that they can make a go of it in Montreal, especially with a bargain-basement ballpark. This stadium plan - and baseball in Montreal in general - took a pounding Thursday from Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell, who wrote: "If the Montreal city fathers cut any more corners, there'd be no third base."

Boswell, the most respected baseball columnist in the game, once waxed eloquent about the virtues of baseball in Montreal. No more. After pointing out that the Big O drew two crowds in the 5,000 range and a Labour Day crowd just over 7,000 for the Rockies series this week, Boswell wrote:
"What is this, some kind of sick joke? When will baseball finally get the message? Montreal hates baseball, hates the Expos, couldn't care less if the team leaves and doesn't deserve to have a major-league team. Half the time, Montreal even hates being in Canada.
"Putting a team in Montreal was a M-I-S-T-A-K-E. It will always be a sump hole for baseball, just like Tampa Bay is rapidly turning out to be."

One of these days, we are going to have to get Boswell up to Montreal and straighten him out. Montreal was a great baseball city for 15 years - until failures, fire sales and the Big O began to erode the fan base. It can be - if everything is done right - a great baseball town again.

All you have to do is look to Montreal's football team to understand why the Expos can succeed in Labatt Park. Everyone talks about the Expos - but no one goes to the Big O. No one talks about the Alouettes - but they could draw 25,000 a game if they had the seating at Molson Stadium. Give baseball fans an downtown park where they don't have to be locked indoors, and American columnists will no longer sneer at those minuscule crowds.

It's going to take more than mere approval from Major League baseball, however. As soon as the Loria group has the go-ahead, the various investors have to get to work in Montreal, selling seat licenses and season tickets. There will be a great deal of good will in the city once the deal is done, so it will be up to people like Coutu to move quickly to take advantage of it.

Loria will have to hire a competent, bilingual team president who can move quickly to establish credibility in the community and to put a solid marketing plan in place. You will hear all kinds of names floating around in the next month or two, but there is one place Loria can go where he will find a competent, bilingual executive who has already proven he can successfully market a sports franchise in Montreal: Larry Smith of the Alouettes.

You hate to see a good guy like Robert Wetenhall lose Smith, but Smith at this point has the Als humming along so well they should be self-sustaining. The Expos, once this deal is done, will have all their work ahead of them.

Yes, we did say "once this deal is done," because it's no longer in question. It's now a matter of when, not whether - and in that sense, we've come a long, long way.

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