By Stephanie Myles/ The Gazette
Jeffrey Loria joined the exclusive brotherhood of baseball owners yesterday, the fulfillment of a dream long nurtured and often disappointed.
The New Yorker's love of the game dates back nearly half a century, to the days when he attended games at Yankee Stadium with his father, the days of Billy Martin the player, Tommy (Old Reliable) Henrich and Phil Rizzuto.
But the philosophy Loria will live by in running the Expos won't be Bronx Bomber-like by any stretch of the imagination. It will have more to do with why he loves the game.
Loria was thinking before every play yesterday as he faced a jam-packed press conference at the Queen Elizabeth hotel in his Montreal debut. He was careful not to let himself get too publicly carried away with the rush of living a dream come true. But the emotion of that accomplishment was clearly visible on son David Samson's face as he looked up at his father from the first row of seats.
Loria was careful not to criticize the previous administration's decisions and mistakes too harshly, even as he pledged to immediately correct certain glaring gaps in the player, marketing and media-relations areas.
There were a lot of smiles directed toward his family: wife Sivia, Samson (the team's new executive vice-president) and his wife Cindi, daughter Samantha, daughter Nancy and her husband Joshua Cohen.
The real work begins now, on several fronts. And Loria offered only brief hints of what's ahead.
The New York art dealer -╩it has become such a catchphrase, Loria himself joked about it yesterday - didn't get into the baseball business to gain access to wealthy potential clients for his art dealership. If anything, he said yesterday, his art business will be diminished, scaled down, because of the amount of time he'll spend in Montreal and on running the team.
There are several American partners who have joined him in putting up the $75 million that will buy him 35 per cent of the team. Now that the deal has gone through, Loria said his investor friends will come forward. But the $18 million he spent Wednesday for the initial buy-in is all his own.
The easiest, flashiest thing Loria could do to keep up the feel-good momentum of yesterday's Montreal debut would be to swing a major trade this week at baseball's winter meetings. Or he could sign a free agent, a recognizable name that would send a clear message that the words "fire" and "sale" won't ever be used in the same sentence with the Expos again.
But Loria is thinking before making that play as well, even as he heads to Anaheim, Calif., tomorrow, one day behind general manager Jim Beattie, for the winter meetings.
Loria said improving the worst defence in the league last year was a major priority - particularly the infield defence. And the 50-per-cent increase in payroll for the 2000 season - pushing the total up near $30 million - was just a start, he said.
When the time comes for those trade-deadline deals teams like the Atlanta Braves or the Yankees make, Loria said the Expos would be there without him having to strong-arm the rest of the consortium.
"When we are in the position that we're chasing a pennant or wild card . . . I will bring it up with the partnership committee," Loria said. "Nobody is going to have anything forced at them like that. But when one is serious about winning a pennant and you're there, and you need to make an adjustment and you want to pick up another player or two. . . . We'll be able to do what we'd like to do to put the team over the hump."
Loria knows the Expos are not his beloved Yankees. He understands that paying David Cone a million dollars per victory, as the Yankees basically pledged to do in handing Cone a $12-million, one-year contract this week, is not a good fit for a small-market club.
The upside is that there will be a young pitcher already in the organization, Javier Vazquez or perhaps Mike Thurman, who can win 10 or 12 games at a cost of about $20,000 per win.
"We're not going to pursue Ken Griffey because he's made it very clear that he wants to play in the southern United States, and I can't turn the continent upside down," Loria joked. "We're interested in pursuing players that will be helpful to us in the long run. There will be name players, hopefully, which we can bring here. And there will be players who can do the job. After all, it's about winning baseball games, and not about paying for past performances."
Note the plural. It seems apparent there will be more than one new face when the Expos gather in Jupiter, Fla., two months from now.
Manager Felipe Alou, on hand to usher in the new era, was thinking trade. He said the free-agent merchandise mart was bargain-basement this year.
Loria touched on a few other areas of concern yesterday. He talked of signing players to long-term deals, of extending the deals of other players already signed.
And he brought up the matter of clubhouse chemistry that was only subtly referred to by some players last season, but one he's obviously already been made aware of:
Another concern is returning the geographical reach of the team back to where it used to be. Loria said the annual Expos Caravan, planned for next month, would be making stops in Ontario and possibly in upstate New York. Both Loria and David Samson promised the cooperation of all players - including, obviously, the reticent Vladimir Guerrero and the glowering Ugueth Urbina - with the media, and an increased involvement in the community.
"One thing New Yorkers and Montrealers have in common is they like to win," Loria said. "And I like to win, too. We're going to have a winning team which is going to draw a lot of fans back. Players are going to be out in the community; hopefully, all the players will participate in activities in the community when they can."
Loria hasn't given up his Yankees season tickets; they remain in the family, he said. But he probably won't have much time to sit in the house that Ruth built. He'll be too busy rebuilding the Expos.