Expos Get Baseball's Blessing

By Ken Daley and Stephanie Myles/ The Gazette

The Expos' future in Montreal became significantly more secure yesterday, as Major League Baseball owners voted unanimously to let New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria buy a controlling interest in the franchise.

Loria, whose offer was approved last month by Expos chairman Jacques Menard and his partners, heads an investor group expected to purchase approximately 35 per cent of the franchise in a deal worth about $75 million. When the purchase is completed, Loria will become the team's new general partner, replacing current president Claude Brochu. Local investors include Stephen Bronfman, son of Charles Bronfman, who owned the team from its inception in 1969 through 1991.

The younger Bronfman will become co-chairman of the ownership committee along with Menard.
"We're very hopeful that this is going to contribute to the long-term stability and health of the Montreal Expos franchise," said baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who was in Irving, Tex., for the owners' meeting. "And, frankly, I'm glad to have that behind us."

The owners' approval of Loria quells fears that the franchise would be sold and moved to the United States. Baseball has not approved a franchise relocation since 1971, when the Washington Senators moved west to become the Texas Rangers.

But the Expos appeared vulnerable after attendance at Olympic Stadium dropped to 773,227 this season, a per-game average of 9,547 - the lowest in the majors. Suitors for the Expos had emerged in northern Virginia and Charlotte, N.C., but they now must direct their efforts elsewhere.
"And for that, I give Jeff Loria and David Samson (Loria's stepson) and Stephen Bronfman a lot of credit," Selig said. "They really had a lot of tenacity when it was needed."

Samson is expected to move to Montreal to represent the majority group's interests on a full-time basis. Lawyers for Loria, Brochu and the existing partnership still must work out the details and timetable of the ownership exchange. Loria is rumoured to have three other investors on board for a potential total investment of $75 million.

Under an agreement in principle reached in early October, Brochu will receive $15 million for his 7.2-per-cent share of the club. Other existing partners will dilute their ownership shares to make room for Loria's group. Neither Loria nor Brochu was commenting yesterday. Selig, however, went out of his way to commend Brochu for his handling of the franchise during an often turbulent nine years.
"Claude Brochu has been really a great part of baseball," Selig said. "I'm sorry to see him go, but happy that this has all worked out well."

But the best news for the Expos is, no more approvals are needed from Major League Baseball.
"We don't have to go back to Major League Baseball now. We have the green light to execute everything we said we would do," Menard said. "Let's say they have in essence ratified our game plan and given their blessing to our business plan. It's up to us as Montrealers to be up to the challenge and execute it."

It's expected Loria will make his first speech as the Expos' new general partner toward the end of next week. Menard said it would be up to Loria to decide how much of the future might be revealed then. "It's his prerogative. He's the leader," Menard said. "Let's allow him the pleasure and responsibility to play his part."

Some of the other new local investors could also be introduced next week. After that, Menard said, several obstacles remain.
"All baseball has done is given us authorization to proceed with a transaction. Now we have to do it," Menard said. "At that point, we'll announce the other steps we must take: proceeding with the recapitalization, finalizing the financing, ensuring that all the golden rules are followed concerning the necessary approvals for an infrastructure, such as a baseball stadium."

The Expos' long-term future still hinges on a downtown ball park that can provide more revenue to help sustain a competitive roster.

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