Friday, May 25, 2001

Montreal Expos majority owner Jeffrey Loria increased his interest in the struggling team from 24 percent to 92 percent, a move that gives him far greater freedom to seek relocation.

None of Loria’s Quebec-based partners responded to a February cash call to pump more money into the unprofitable club. Because of that refusal to respond, earlier this month Loria diluted the shares of the other investors, a move permitted under the operating agreement from Loria’s 1999 purchase of majority control.

Another pending cash call also likely will go unheeded, allowing Loria 100 percent control perhaps within a few weeks.

Loria had been seeking to boost his equity in the team since last summer, and the move all but ends months of nasty infighting within the ownership group. The New York art dealer attempted unsuccessfully last summer to buy out the Quebec partners.

Now that Loria has, for all practical purposes, total control of the Expos, the question is what he will do. When Loria purchased the club, he promised to stop its ugly history of player fire sales and pursue a new stadium.

While payroll has increased marginally, Loria allowed the option on the downtown Montreal site for the team’s planned new stadium to expire last summer. The site remains vacant, but the pursuit of a new stadium deemed critical for the franchise’s survival is virtually nonexistent.

Loria also has been more downbeat in recent months on the viability of baseball in Canada’s second-largest city, where the weak Canadian dollar and disaffected fan base have made fielding competitive teams nearly impossible.

Commissioner Bud Selig has softened his stance against franchise moves considerably and has even hinted he would like to eliminate some franchises. The Expos would be a prime candidate, but many baseball insiders do not consider it likely.

Expos officials insist the club’s daily operations have not changed.

“This is business as usual. Jeffrey is already the managing partner, the point man for Major League Baseball,” said David Samson, executive vice president and Loria’s stepson. “We made a cash call to fund the operation of the team for 2001, and the only one to step forward was Jeffrey Loria. All of the partners had the chance to maintain their interest, and only Jeffrey chose to do that.”

Because it falls within the terms of Loria’s original purchase agreement, the equity transfer is not subject to another review by Major League Baseball, Samson said.

The Expos have struggled mightily in cold, cavernous Olympic Stadium since the players’ strike of 1994-95, posting just one winning season and continuing to lag at the turnstiles.

This season has been particularly bad, with eight crowds of fewer than 5,500. The Expos’ average home attendance, excluding an Opening Day turnout of 45,183, is 8,058 by far the lowest in the majors. The club lost more than $20 million (U.S.) last year, and a loss of at least that much appears certain again.

Samson declined to comment whether Loria was considering applying for relocation.

“We’ve seen this move coming for some time,” said Fred Malek, leader of a District-based group seeking to return baseball to Washington. “[Loria] is clearly in control now, but I think he already was in control.”

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