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Expos for Sale: Team Becomes Pawn of Selig

Washington 'in a Class by Itself'

On Oct. 5, 1998, Selig flew to Montreal to meet with the premier of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard.

The trip was a last-ditch effort, arranged by Brochu, to obtain financing for the new ballpark that was critical to the Expos' survival in Montreal. Brochu, a former Seagram's executive, hoped Selig could win over the premier, who a month earlier had turned him down. Selig launched into his standard pitch. In many ways, it was the same one he had delivered repeatedly to get Miller Park built in Milwaukee. The bottom line: Montreal would have to build a new stadium to keep the Expos.

Whether in Montreal or San Juan, the Expos don't play to much of a home crowd. In May, a reporter counted 2,443 fans by hand in Puerto Rico. (Andres Leighton - AP)

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"My government's answer remains the same," the premier responded. "We will not make the funds available. That's final."

The Expos were in a death spiral, but how it happened was a matter of debate. Montreal's main problems seemed to be caused by Major League Baseball itself. A strike shortened the 1981 season, interrupting what could have been five straight seasons of at least 2 million fans. The Expos recovered, but then came the strike of 1994. The club was 34 games above .500 and leading the National League East by six games when play ended on Aug. 12. By the following year Montreal faced a severe financial crisis and began to unload players.

"Montreal, basically, after the strike in '94, abandoned baseball," said Robert A. DuPuy, baseball's president and chief operating officer. "They turned their back on baseball."

Mitch Melnick, the sports director at Team 990, the Expos' flagship English-language station, disagreed. "The fan base was destroyed as the product was destroyed," said Melnick. "I guess this is Major League Baseball's way of wishing the problems would go away: Blame the customer."

Rejected by the local government, Brochu sought out alternatives. He opened secret negotiations with Virginia telecommunications executive William L. Collins III, who since the early 1990s had been trying to bring a team to Northern Virginia.

Brochu had explored several markets, including Portland, Ore., Las Vegas and Charlotte. "Washington always was to me in a class by itself," he said. "The economics, the demographics, the wealth of the area, the population, productivity, disposable income, the number of companies and firms that would be potential supporters -- it was just so far superior to any other location, by a long shot."

A source involved in the discussions said Brochu and Collins reached "an agreement in principle" to move the club to Northern Virginia. But Brochu called the talks "very, very preliminary," mostly because Selig stood in the way.

"I felt the team should have been moved and I told the commissioner that," said Brochu, at the time a member of the Executive Council, the commissioner's cabinet of owner advisers. "I always heard, 'Well, he's thinking it over, he'll review it, he'll know in two more months or six more months.' There was really no decision."

Selig said he wanted to preserve baseball's 31-year streak of not moving teams. He also wanted to address the game's economic problems before considering relocation. "Moving, in this system, what is that going to do?" he said.

Rebuffed from moving and at war with his fellow owners, Brochu stepped down. The search for his successor revealed a lot about the withered state of the franchise.

One of the team's main sponsors, a Mercedes-Benz dealer named Sam Eltes, located one. Eltes' sister-in-law from his first marriage had a son who worked as the financial adviser to Loria, a baseball-loving international art dealer in New York.

Loria had helped bid up the price at a sweaty 1993 bankruptcy auction for the Baltimore Orioles, only to lose to Baltimore attorney Angelos. He had owned the Class AAA Oklahoma City 89ers for four seasons.

Loria was not a typical major league owner. He had made millions dealing in 20th-century sculpture, painting and works on paper. He worked out of an unmarked private office on East 72nd Street in Manhattan. He had written two books: "Collecting Original Art," a primer on collecting with a foreword by his mentor, the late actor Vincent Price, and "What's It All About, Charlie Brown?" a psychological deconstruction of the "Peanuts" comic strip.

"My books! My records! My pool table! My Van Gogh! Sob!" muses Snoopy on the cover of Loria's book as his doghouse goes up in flames.

Action, Contraction

Loria's purchase coincided with preparations for civil war inside the national pastime.

The collective bargaining agreement between owners and players was about to expire. Selig was a veteran of the previous eight negotiations, each of which resulted in a work stoppage and, mostly, defeat for the owners. Selig began to lay the groundwork for battle.

In January 2000, the owners voted to give him full authority to address baseball's economic problems.

Then, in July, Major League Baseball released what it called a landmark report. A "Blue Ribbon Panel" concluded that baseball was no longer fair for teams in small broadcast markets, which could not generate enough revenue to compete.

Exhibit A was the Montreal Expos. The report showed that the team generated less revenue over its entire season than the New York Yankees took in during a six-game homestand.

Don Fehr, executive director of the players' union, called the report "the opening round" of the labor negotiations. Selig had also ramped up baseball's lobbying on Capitol Hill. He hired Baker & Hostetler LLP, the powerhouse Washington law firm. Selig knew that Washington could make or break the negotiations. In the event of a work stoppage, Congress inevitably would use the antitrust exemption as the hook to hold hearings and tear into the commissioner.

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