Bronx Cheers In Montreal

The Expos' new owner goes from savior to pariah in a hurry

When Jeffrey H. Loria bought the beleaguered Montreal Expos late last year, the New York art dealer was hailed as a savior. Unable to draw fans or keep star players, the team had become a perennial weak sister--and many in Major League Baseball feared it was entering its final days in Canada.

Enter Loria, who pledged to turn things around. He boosted the payroll from $16 million to $22 million and, with a lift from exciting players like outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, cobbled together a club that's challenging the leaders in the National League East. With the take-charge Loria running the show, prospects even looked bright for a new downtown stadium. "He's put up his own money and put a competitive team on the field," says Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports valuation expert. "How can you question his commitment?"

But seven months into his reign, Loria's image has been tarnished by skirmishes with his local partners and a fear sweeping fans that his true agenda is to move the team to more hospitable climes. "When Loria came in he was a god, the guy to save the team and get us a new ballpark. But it's beginning to feel like he set everybody up," says Steve Traynor, an Expos season-ticket holder and proprietor of Bourbon Street West, a Montreal sports bar. Loria and his management team aren't talking about how they've stumbled or where the team will play next season--and they declined to comment for this story. But things began going wrong soon after Loria purchased a 7.2% stake in December.

Initially, Loria, 58, laid down roughly $12 million, enough to gain control of the rudderless franchise. In a second phase, he was to have ponied up $35 million to $40 million more while new local investors poured in an equal amount. Loria said he would pay off team debts and cover projected operating deficits. There would be enough left over, he predicted, to make a major contribution toward construction of a $133 million ball park to replace dank Olympic Stadium.

Then, at an investors' meeting last month, Loria requested $50 million for a retractable roof for the park. When his partners balked, he refused to reach for his wallet, too. Now, the club chairman is said to be holding back on the remainder of his promised investment until his demands are met.

Loria bid for the Baltimore Orioles in 1993 and once owned a Triple-A team. But he may not be the cleanup hitter Expos fans hoped for. The team launched a campaign to sign up 9,000 season-ticket buyers but got only halfway. Attendance is up 60% in 2000, mostly because of better play after back-to-back seasons with 90 or more losses. But crowds are small: Montreal is 29th among 30 teams in attendance.

The biggest bungle has been Loria's failure to get the Expos on local TV and radio. For radio broadcasts, he was willing to give away English-speaking rights, but station CJAD demanded that the Expos pick up $400,000 of costs. Loria refused. Now the only way to tune in English broadcasts is to go to the Expos' Web site. Still, the media blackout could ultimately play to Loria's advantage by sending a signal to other owners. "It tells me the stone is near the bottom of the hill," says San Diego Padres President Larry Lucchino. "Something has to change."

Moving the Expos may be more difficult than reviving them in Montreal. Las Vegas, Charlotte, and Portland, Ore., all are courting major-league franchises, and Washington, D.C., has been frequently mentioned as the place to put the club. But the Orioles play just 35 miles up the road. Says Baltimore owner Peter Angelos: "Nobody who's mentally stable could defend what's being proposed there. Let's put franchises 35 miles from the Atlanta Braves and every other existing team." Welcome to the neighborhood, Jeffrey.

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