By Jack Todd/ The Gazette
It's enough to make you want to kiss Youppi! right on his fuzzy orange lips. Thirty years after Charles Bronfman brought baseball to Montreal and nearly 2 1/2 years after Claude Brochu launched a stadium initiative designed to keep the Expos in this city, the team's future is at last secure.
Brochu is about to accept an $18-million-U.S. farewell, New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria is about to replace him as president and managing partner, and chairman Jacques Menard is about to take his bows as the man who put the deal together.
Major League Baseball owners. meeting in Irving, Tex., finally gave the deal their approval yesterday after a 30-month, Perils of Pauline voyage through the treacherous waters of franchise survival in the late 20th century - a voyage that has frayed tempers, worn out loyal fans, fractured friendships and more than once threatened to capsize the good ship Expo, or at least to send the whole kit and kaboodle to a safe harbour south of the border.
The final approval from Major League Baseball, originally expected before the end of the '99 season, comes as something of an anti-climax. It has been clear for two months that the deal was essentially done, clear for two weeks that approval would come before the end of November.
The delay will be a costly one. The new owners have lost two key months for the sale of seat licenses for Labatt Park and season tickets for the Olympic Stadium, where the club must find a way to survive for two more years before their new digs will be ready at the corner of Peel and Notre Dame St.
The quick approval yesterday, however, would seem to indicate that Major League Baseball believes this proposal is rock-solid - especially in comparison with a half-dozen other places where the game is on a foundation of quicksand, like Minnesota, Oakland and Kansas City. It implies recognition too that, whatever the problems of doing business in a bilingual, multicultural city, Montreal is at least the genuine, big-league article, unlike some other locales where the sport is foundering.
Much has been made in the past few months of dissension within the ownership consortium, now to be led by Loria, which has been able to keep the Expos in this city. The remarkable thing, given the disparate nature of the new ownership, is that they were finally able to work together, not that a little blood was spilled on boardroom carpets along the way. The group includes, among others, separatist labour leader Raymond Bachand, eccentric pharmaceutical millionaire Jean Coutu, hard-charging Caisse Desjardins boss Jocelyn Proteau, Provigo head Pierre Michaud, Guess Jeans entrepreneur Mark Routtenberg, Paul Roberge of San Francisco Jeans - and Loria and his son David Samson, the bright, brash and sometimes abrasive Young Turk who has (according to those privy to the plans) captained a stadium redesign project for Labatt Park that will stun skeptical Montrealers. Room had to be made, too, for Premier Lucien Bouchard and his finance minister, Bernard Landry, who were persuaded to contribute $160 million over 20 years to the Labatt Park project.
Inevitably, conflicts arose, especially the reported tiff over the identity of the club president - with Loria wanting the job for his son, and Menard and others holding out for a francophone president, namely Richard Legendre of Tennis Canada. Contacted at his Florida home last night, Routtenberg insisted that arguments over the identity of the new club president are irrelevant.
Spare some credit, while you're in a generous mood, for the ousted Brochu. While Loria was emerging as the unlikely White Knight (an art dealer, for the love of Nap Lajoie, not a newly minted Internet zillionaire) prepared to invest a great deal of real money to save the Expos, Brochu went from hero to goat back to - well, at least back to gentleman. Without Brochu's acquiescence, not to mention his help in the back rooms of baseball, this fragile coalition might have melted like November snow long before the deal was actually done.
There is still, obviously, much hard work to be done: zoning approval for Labatt Park, management structures, marketing, seat-license sales, construction of the new ballpark.
Somehow, the new owners hope to at least double last year's paltry attendance, when the Expos drew only 773,000 fans to Olympic Stadium - a full 400,000 fewer than any other team in baseball. It won't help that they have already lost two months that could have been used to persuade people to come back to the Big O.
The delay in getting this deal done will be less costly on the field, where most of the players who interested the Expos are still available, through either free agency or cautious trades.
Loria has already - to the surprise of many observers - made the decision to stick with GM Jim Beattie, even though Beattie has what could best be described as an uncomfortable relationship with manager Felipe Alou. Beattie has, however, put together a solid, if unspectacular, record while running the Expos on a threadbare budget; Loria obviously believes that, given the resources, Beattie can do the job.
His first task will be to find - perhaps at next week's winter meetings in Anaheim - a name player who will help the Expos as much at the box office as on the field. Huge names have already been bandied about in connection with the Expos, most of them of dubious value in terms of the goals the club should have at this point - respectability in 2000 after a disappointing 1999 season, building a contender for 2001, making a genuine run in 2002.
There were reports that Brochu nixed a trade during the general managers' meetings that would have sent Rondell White and Chris Widger to the Colorado rockies for slugging third baseman Vinny Castilla and pitcher Darryl Kile. The reports were untrue; Brochu has properly disqualified himself from such decisions since at least the end of the season, and there were sound baseball reasons for passing on a deal that would have saddled the Expos with even part of Kile's salary.
There are other rumours. One has the Expos getting involved in the bidding for free agent David Cone, the ultimate mercenary pitcher. That one makes about as much sense as the Kile deal: Cone is not going to go somewhere where he is unlikely to make the post-season and the Expos have (or should have) little use for a big-ticket pitcher nearing the end of his career. Next season or the year after, maybe. Not now.
At least we can now talk seriously of next season, the year after, and the year after that. We can welcome Alou and Vladimir Guerrero and Michael Barrett and Dustin Hermanson back to town next spring, knowing that we have nothing to do except kick back, enjoy some good baseball - and await the opening of Labatt Park.