The decline and fall of the Montreal Expos. In 1969, the Montreal Expos played their first game. Thirty-two years later, the team that once boasted baseball's best farm system is nearly dead. In this book, former Expos president Claude Brochu gets to the bottom of the Expos' story. From his successful marketing career at Seagram's, Claude Brochu was thrust into the role of Expos president in 1986. Back then, the Expos were a team with terrific potential. But as the years went by, attendance began to slide. Whenever owner Charles Bronfman attended a game he would shake his head, discouraged: "Why don't they come? What do we have to do?" The answer field a winning team seemed so simple, yet so elusive. And then, after 21 years, Bronfman decided to sell the team. He entrusted the sale to Brochu, who took up the gauntlet: "I made it a personal challenge. Businessmen are often portrayed as cold, emotionless people, who make decisions only on the eventual possibility of making a lot of money. But that's not it at all. What fascinated me, what motivated me, was keeping the Expos in Montreal, in the hands of Quebecers. One of them being me. "
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My Turn at Bat
The Sad Saga of the Montreal Expos
By Claude Brochu, Daniel Poulin, Mario Bolduc, Stephanie Myles, Dallas Harrison
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2002 ECW Press
All rights reserved.
Charles Bronfman's Decision
The lobby of Nashville's Opryland Hotel was a nonstop, colourful whirlwind of activity. Men and women from across America, many of them in blue jeans, cowboy boots on their feet, A casual atmosphere, even if the assets these individuals represented added up to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Their common passion? Baseball.
Major League Baseball owners arrived at the Opryland Hotel with their entire staffs: general managers, field managers, scouts, coaches, trainers.... All had one goal: to take advantage of this week in Nashville to start or continue trade talks, close deals, and improve their teams not only for the upcoming season but also for the longer term.
Over the course of the previous season, each club's scouts evaluated every player in the major and minor leagues and determined the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing teams. They endeavoured to find young, talented, but still-unknown players. Their efforts covered more than 600 major-league players and several thousand minor leaguers.
No surprise, then, the lobby on that December day resembled a public market—a market where the future of each of the 26 major league teams (in 1989) was being shaped.
The general managers run the show at the winter meetings, sending their people to put out feelers with the other teams. When talks appear to be heading somewhere, once they get past the bluffing stage and the empty promises, representatives from both clubs find themselves in one or the other team's suite. There trades take shape, are refined, get complicated. The general managers and their advisors examine the offers, counter them, all based on the evaluation work that took place during the just-completed season.
Finally, in the wee hours, when an agreement is reached, the media are convened. All week long, reporters from across the United States and Canada have had their collective ear to the ground for the latest news, the juiciest rumours, which they report back to those reading their hometown newspapers and watching the major television networks. In the press conferences, some of those rumours become realities.
At the end of the winter meetings, the National and American Leagues can be transformed. When the experts head home for the holidays, many are convinced they've improved their teams. But they will have to wait for the upcoming season to find out if the trades and agreements concluded that week will bear fruit. Wait to find out if the Christmas presents they gave to themselves truly are gifts.
These weren't my first winter meetings. But the 1989 edition in Nashville will forever remain etched in my memory I'd been president of the Montreal Expos since 1986. I was the big boss—after Charles Bronfman, obviously, the majority owner of the ball club.
Born in Quebec City, the son of a military man, I'd always been adaptable to very different universes. During my elementary and high school years, I changed schools nine times—and it certainly wasn't because of my grades. Quite the opposite; my father's career took my family to several countries. As a result, I spent my childhood all over Canada and in Europe.
At first, after earning a bachelor's degree in history at the University of Ottawa, I wanted to follow in my father's army footsteps. But after a few years as an officer in the Royal 22nd Regiment, I realized I wasn't cut out for military life. I changed directions again. I went to McMaster University in Hamilton, where I earned my MBA.
I'd found my path: business—more specifically, marketing. I cut my teeth at Avon and Cosmair. Then I went to Seagrams, where I quickly climbed the ladder to become executive vice president of marketing for Canada.
But my passion was baseball. As a child, I played on local clubs. Later I closely followed the creation of the Montreal Expos. I attended the team's games, first at Jarry Park, then at Olympic Stadium. While at Seagrams, I often devoted my vacations to baseball. At my own expense, I travelled to the Expos' spring-training camp in West Palm Beach, Florida.
By 1986, I was running the ball club.
I adored the winter meetings. I loved rubbing shoulders with the owners of the other clubs; being part of this select group of businesspeople was both fascinating and amusing. It takes a certain amount of detachment to be able to move about a group made up of sometimes-megalomaniacal multimillionaires.
Happily, my boss, Charles Bronfman, even though he was wealthier than any of the other owners, had nothing of the arrogance and self-importance some of them displayed. At the Opryland Hotel, Bronfman occupied a relatively modest room by their standards. The Expos' owner didn't always accompany me to the winter meetings. But that year he was there.
One night he summoned me to his room. He wanted to talk to me. In a few minutes, we'd join our staff for dinner. He poured me a Chivas Regal; he himself sipped a Seagrams VO, naturally.
Bronfman and I had known each other for several years. Since my arrival at Seagrams, we'd gotten along well—and not just during business hours. On the tennis courts, particularly. It wasn't rare, on weekends, to find us playing doubles together.
But baseball—Bronfman's great passion—helped to make us closer. In May 1968, thanks to the efforts of Mayor Jean Drapeau and Executive Committee vice president Gerry Snyder, Montreal was awarded a Major League Baseball franchise, along with San Diego. In August of that year, Bronfman handed a cheque for $1 million to National League president Warren Giles, the first instalment of the $10 million fee required by the league. John McHale was named president of the team.
When McHale decided to retire in 1986, Bronfman asked me, after a tennis game, to suggest replacements. Even though McHale had done an excellent job heading up the Expos, Bronfman wanted the new president to better understand, and better attract, the francophone public. The ideal candidate should therefore be francophone and bilingual, know the game, and demonstrate leadership. Most of all, he needed to have Bronfman's complete trust. I suggested some names, but Bronfman wasn't convinced.
Several weeks later—once again on the tennis court—we had a breakthrough. Bronfman had often told his wife, Andrea, how difficult it was to find a replacement for McHale. Finally, she'd replied, "The ideal candidate? You play tennis with him! No need to look any further...." Her thoughts on the subject had incited Bronfman to take a closer look at his tennis partner. He realized his wife was right; I'd make a good president. We knew each other well, respected each other. I loved baseball and had proven my leadership ability at Seagrams.
When Bronfman officially offered me the job, I was stunned. At that point, my career path was already mapped out. I liked my job, my responsibilities. I saw myself, over the years, continuing to rise through the company's ranks. I'd never imagined Bronfman would call on me to run the Expos.
After the initial shock wore off, I thought over the proposal. Bronfman's confidence in me pleased me greatly, but the pressure was tremendous. Yet what sports fan hasn't dreamed of running a professional team? It was an incredible opportunity I had no intention of passing up. I was 41 years old. I decided to dive right in.
Three years later, in Bronfman's room at the Opryland Hotel, I could assess the road travelled since October 1, 1986. The three years as president had been stimulating for me but frustrating on several levels.
Since 1983, when the Expos attracted more than 2,320,000 fans, annual attendance had always been below 2,000,000. In 1989, only 1,783,533 fans went through the Olympic Stadium turnstiles. And there was no indication the situation would improve in the coming years.
Bronfman was an Expos fan, the most avid of them all. He rarely missed a home game; he often stayed up until the wee hours listening to the broadcasts from the West Coast.
Over the past few seasons, when Bronfman attended a game, the first question he'd ask me was this: "How many are there tonight?"
And I'd answer 10,000, 15,000, 25,000.... Since the beginning of the 1980s, crowds in excess of 30,000 had become increasingly rare.
Bronfman would shake his head, discouraged. "But why don't they come? What do we have to do?"
Field a winning team was the answer from the media and the armchair managers.
In 1989, Expos' management took that advice to heart and acquired lefthander Mark Langston from the Seattle Mariners, following the recommendation of general manager Dave Dombrowski. On May 28, in his first start in an Expos uniform, Langston impressed everyone. Here, finally, was the pitcher we'd long been waiting for! The one who'd lead the Expos to a championship.
As expected, the club slowly rose in the standings. In fourth place in May, two games behind the leaders, the Expos found themselves atop the division a month later. And at the all-star break. They remained there until the beginning of August.
That's when Langston crumbled, at Shea Stadium in New York against the Mets. Unable to muster up a performance he considered worthy of his talent, he elected to take himself out of a game the Expos were leading 2-1. Tim Burke replaced him, but the bullpen couldn't hold the lead. The Expos lost 3-2.
They were swept by the Mets and fell out of the division lead. Another sweep followed in another three-game series, this one against the Chicago Cubs.
After Langston's "performance," team morale dropped through the floor. Bronfman and I both knew the team wouldn't recover. The Expos finished the season in fourth place.
To get Langston, we had to give up good players—among them, Randy Johnson. Today Johnson is one of the premier pitchers in the game, one every manager dreams of having on his team. Pitchers Brian Holman and Gene Harris were also part of the trade. Three players, then, far too much, according to Bronfman, who'd have preferred to give up only two pitchers to the Mariners.
It was a bad deal, one that would greatly affect Bronfman, Dombrowski, and me. Witnessing the decline of the ball club in the ensuing weeks was trying for us, especially after we'd paid such a heavy price for the chance to participate in a World Series.
But when I met with Bronfman in his Nashville hotel room, the end-of-summer depression was already a thing of the past. I was ready to roll up my sleeves and get back to work. Bronfman, however, wasn't nearly as enthusiastic. He turned to me and said, "Claude, I want to sell the ball club"
"I can't believe it," I replied.
"I don't have the strength to fight anymore. I'm not having fun. I'm tired...."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was certain my boss would get over the difficult season we'd just lived through. One shouldn't rush things, base such a decision purely on the emotion of the moment.
But the Expos' owner was determined. I clearly saw I wouldn't be able to change his mind. For Bronfman, the Expos weren't just a business; they were a true passion. There's no doubt the $10 million he invested in 1968 would have brought a better return elsewhere. The decision to get involved in this adventure was, above all, an emotional one. So was the decision to get out of it.
The poor results of the previous season weren't the only factor for Bronfman. Baseball had always been an integral part of his life. He knew it as a sport, of course, but also as a business. He counted several owners among his close friends. After 21 years of heading up the Expos, he now was one of the elder statesmen in the game.
But over the years, the management of professional baseball had changed. Prestigious owners such as Walter O'Malley, Horace Stoneham, Philip Wrigley, Bob Carpenter, and John Galbraith—true baseball lovers—had slowly but surely been replaced by corporations interested more in a return on their investment than in the game itself. It was now a business like any other.
And then there were the players, whose behaviour toward the owners was reprehensible at times. Everyone, it seemed, was concerned only with personal financial interests, the players as much as anyone else.
Bronfman was uncomfortable in that environment. The club's collapse the previous year, his inability to attract fans, the working climate, all had visibly exhausted him.
"Sell?" I asked. "But to whom?"
"I don't know, but I want you to handle it. I want you to find buyers...."
"It would be more normal if it were you...."
"I don't see who has the means, in Quebec, to acquire the team."
"In my opinion, I think you could get $75 million," I said.
"Really?" Bronfman replied, surprised. "I thought $50 million would be more realistic...."
Regardless of the price, we were convinced buyers would hardly be beating down the door. I knew Bronfman had already tried to convince Paul Desmarais of Power Corporation to become his partner in the Expos. But Desmarais had refused.
"What if you called upon the services of a financial institution to make sure the transaction is handled properly?" Bronfman then suggested.
I thought it was an excellent idea. But there was something else to take care of first: my future with the organization. I could either leave once my work was done or stay with the team. I didn't hesitate. Bronfman was looking back, but I was thinking of the future. For more than 20 years, the team had been part of the lives of Quebecers, of Montrealers in particular. Bronfman's departure was the perfect opportunity for francophone Quebecers to get more involved with the organization. I wanted to be part of the group that would make it happen.
Bronfman was right: other than Power Corporation, no Quebec company by itself could afford to take over. But a consortium of Quebec and Canadian companies might be able to manage it. We had to find an original formula, a working framework that would ensure the development of the team while still respecting the requirements set out by Major League Baseball.
That night at dinner, sitting with my management team, my mind was elsewhere. I was aware Bronfman's departure would mean the end of an era, the end of a management style. And I knew only too well the mandate entrusted to me wasn't a simple one. If I couldn't find buyers within the prescribed time frame, Bronfman would have no other alternative but to offer the club to American interests who would probably want to move it to a U.S. city. I absolutely had to succeed, or it would be the end of baseball in Montreal.
I made it a personal challenge. Those in business are often portrayed as cold, emotionless people who make decisions based only on the eventual possibility of making a lot of money. Soap, cars, whatever—as long as it sells. But, at least for me, that wasn't it at all. Of course, I knew that the team could be profitable and that I could come out a winner, but that financial aspect was secondary. What fascinated me, what motivated me, was to keep the Expos in Montreal, in the hands of Quebecers—one of those Quebecers being me.CHAPTER 2
The First Steps
The sale of a professional baseball club is hardly a typical financial transaction. Even though Charles Bronfman owned the Expos, he couldn't divest himself of the club however he thought best. The deal first had to be submitted to Major League Baseball's Ownership Committee, which would ensure it conformed to industry norms. Of course, the committee takes into account the stability and solvency of the new owner. But every detail of the sale is also carefully examined. If any aspect or condition of the transaction doesn't meet with the committee's approval, modifications must be made.
In other words, the process of selling a team is closely supervised by Major League Baseball executives, who refuse to cave in to outside pressures. The buyer's eagerness to close a deal with a crafty seller has no impact whatsoever on their decision.
As soon as he was advised of Bronfman's decision, Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and chairman of the Ownership Committee, explained his conditions. A fat cigar in his mouth, extremely sure of himself, Reinsdorf was the embodiment of the image most people have of a Major League Baseball executive. And he was an executive who exercised obvious influence over the other owners.
Excerpted from My Turn at Bat by Claude Brochu, Daniel Poulin, Mario Bolduc, Stephanie Myles, Dallas Harrison. Copyright © 2002 ECW Press. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
|Chapter 1||Charles Bronfman's Decision||21|
|Chapter 2||The First Steps||29|
|Chapter 3||Ten Dollars, "Just in Case You Need It..."||43|
|Chapter 4||"Are You Comfotable with This?"||51|
|Chapter 5||A Top-Rank Team||57|
|Chapter 6||The Stadium Has Its Say||69|
|Chapter 7||The Trade||75|
|Chapter 8||Painful Days Ahead||83|
|Chapter 9||Selling the Team?||91|
|Chapter 10||The Canadiens and the Alouettes||105|
|Chapter 11||First Meeting with Bernard Landry||111|
|Chapter 12||The Baltimore Example||121|
|Chapter 13||The Departure of Pedro Martinez||129|
|Chapter 14||Opening Arguments||139|
|Chapter 15||A Meeting at the Bunker||155|
|Chapter 16||Good-Bye, Felipe?||163|
|Chapter 17||I Open the Door||173|
|Chapter 18||The Keystone Kops in Action||179|
|Chapter 19||Public Enemy Number One||191|
|Chapter 20||The Return of Bernard Landry ... and Jeffrey Loria||199|
|Chapter 21||Loria's Demands||207|
|Chapter 22||The Press Conference||213|
|Chapter 23||The Quagmire||217|