By Jack Todd/The Gazette
Jeffrey Loria wants the world to know: He's in. In fact, he never thought about being anything else. The New York art dealer who is trying to put together a deal to buy the Expos broke his media silence last night - indirectly - to say he is still at the table, that he is not backing away and that he is not going to give up now when he is within reach of a lifetime dream: owning a major-league franchise.
Loria, who has to be cautious on his own dealings with baseball to avoid angering the commissioner's office, asked minority owner Mark Routtenberg to put the word out to the Montreal media in the wake of news stories this week - including this column yesterday - based on remarks Jacques Menard made in Cooperstown this week. Asked if it was possible Loria might pull out, the usually optimistic Menard said: "That's always a possibility."
In a telephone conversation late yesterday evening, Routtenberg - speaking for Loria - said Loria's withdrawal is not a possibility.
It was not Loria who made the decision, late last week, to ask Major League Baseball for another postponement when the owners' executive committee was prepared to vote on the sale of the team and to approve the plan for Labatt Park in Cooperstown this week. That request came from Menard, acting on behalf of the current ownership. Loria, who had his lawyers in New York working until 4 a.m. night after night in an attempt to put the deal together in time for the Cooperstown meeting, reluctantly went along with the postponement.
It is still not clear what the issues are that still divide Loria from the other investors. There are a couple of economic issues to solve - although widespread reports that Labatt Park itself is an issue are incorrect, as is any hint that Loria will not be front and centre with the money to get this done.
What might concern the partners is that they know Loria is a strong-willed individual with a deep knowledge of baseball; because Claude Brochu shut them out of the decision-making process while he ran the club, they might be worried that the same thing will happen with Loria - only more so, because Loria will have real money invested in the team and because there are obvious cultural and language differences between Loria and a majority of the partners.
It is Menard who is representing those interests in negotiations with Loria. Jean Coutu, who has made his own case in the noisiest public way, is away for four months and has entrusted his interest to Menard.
Other investors, such as Paul Roberge, might be worried that their opinions will be swept aside by an aggressive American who is unwilling to listen to what they have to say. Having been burned by Brochu, they are being far more cautious this time.
There might be another risk, which is that some of the existing partners have reached the point where they would rather see the team moved and sold than to dilute their equity and see their own share in the Expos reduced in order to bring in investors like Loria and Coutu.
The fact is both sides need each other. The existing partners need Loria's money, but they also need his deep understanding of the game and its economics. Loria needs their local connections, their good will, their ability to sell seat licenses and season tickets, and to provide sponsorships.
It all fits together, but you reach a point where both sides have to make a leap of faith and decide to trust one another implicitly. The feeling here is that the next 10 days to two weeks will be critical; many a phony deadline has come and gone, but the Oct. 30 deadline is very real. Bud Selig is already getting scorched by the American media for his patience with Montreal; pass that deadline and baseball will lose all patience and pull the plug.
From everything we have heard, Loria will be a smart, savvy, activist owner - a man who already knows more about the Expos and their farm system than anyone in the current ownership group, Brochu included. He impressed Felipe Alou, and Alou is a good judge of character
He is the guy. Not only that, he's the only guy. If baseball is going to happen in this town, if the season-long party that Labatt Park will become is going to happen, it is going to happen with Jeffrey Loria.
Maybe it will be necessary to lock Loria in a room with the existing partners until this thing gets done; if that's the case, I know about 100,000 baseball fans who would be only too happy to guard the door.