- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2000

JUPITER, Fla.

Jeff Loria wants to talk to everybody about his Montreal Expos except The Washington Times.

Loria, the art dealer who purchased the Expos during the offseason, declined a request for an interview. I can understand that, since anything to do with Washington is a sore subject for the 9,000 Expos fans who showed up in Montreal last year whenever the Expos played.

But he missed out on a big media opportunity. I have a neighbor with a shortwave radio who offered to recreate the play-by-play of Expos games on his ham radio for those Montreal fans who could pick up the signal.

That's a better radio deal than Loria's team has now. As it stands, the Expos are going into the season with no television or radio contract French or English.

There are booths in the press box at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter for the Expos' French and English broadcasts. I think the club was using them yesterday to store the building supplies they bought at Home Depot to build their new ballpark in Montreal.

Loria sat at a picnic table doing an interview with a television reporter who I'm sure didn't ask him what I would have if Loria had agreed to be interviewed something like: "You can't possibly believe this franchise is going to be successful in Montreal."

Or this: "You can't possibly believe they can get a ballpark built for $200 million in Canadian money."

Or this: "How many velvet Elvis paintings do you have in your collection?"

Speaking of Elvis, there was all sorts of karma floating around the ballpark yesterday when the Expos took the field against the Baltimore Orioles. Loria's bailout of the Expos gave the Orioles at least a temporary reprieve in their battle to keep a major league baseball franchise out of Washington. And Loria had come very close to owning the Orioles himself, getting into a bidding war with Peter Angelos in a bankruptcy hearing in New York before bailing out when the price hit $173 million. So Loria has a connection to the Orioles, past and future.

Of course, Loria's share of the Expos $75 million now, though it could be more if local ownership can't come up with its share of the funding for the franchise is a lot less than it would have cost him to buy the Orioles. And he seems to have a better team than Angelos, if not a more valuable franchise.

He had the better team on the field yesterday as Montreal beat Baltimore 6-2. But what is more worrisome for the Orioles was another shaky outing by 25-year-old right-hander Jason Johnson, who gave up four runs in three innings. That's six runs allowed over his last seven innings, a rate not acceptable for a major league pitcher let alone the projected third starter in your rotation, with Scott Erickson out of action at least until May.

It's early, but there is not much room on the Orioles this year for growth or maturity. Pitching-wise, once you get past Money Mussina, everything else needs to fall Baltimore's way for the team to compete for a playoff spot. Everyone needs to have something approaching a career year, from the starters to the bullpen.

Johnson can't afford to give up any more than four runs over nine innings this season, let alone one inning. Many more outings like yesterday's, and you go from a filling a spot in the rotation with a highly touted prospect to going to a journeyman hanging on for a shot, like a Jose Mercedes someone who couldn't even make the Expos' rotation.

Still, 3.6 million fans will come to Camden Yards this year to watch Peter Angelos' team. If one-quarter of that number come to watch Jeff Loria's team, it actually will be an increase in attendance over last year.

As futile as the Expos' future still appears, despite all the hoopla over the plans for their new ballpark, Jeff Loria finally got what he wanted, and what Bill Collins and Fred Malek desperately want a baseball team. He is in the club while Collins and Malek the two Washington area business leaders who want to bring major league baseball back to the area are not.

If the Expos do turn out to be a disaster, Loria will still be a member of the club and, given this most recent high-wire act to keep the team in Montreal, he won't have to put up with the frustrations there much longer. Then he could wind up operating much closer to the team he nearly bought almost seven years ago say like 40 or so miles away.

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