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June 6th, 2001 Zach Dundas | Sports
 

Où Sont les Expos?

     
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Last Thursday, many Portland baseball fans found themselves as blushing and eager as a husband-hungry debutante after a glass of champagne.

It was Dollar Beer Night at PGE Park, and everyone was tipsy--the sort of night when people make bold, passionate pleas to the objects of their desire.

And there he was, the handsome man from Major League Baseball, up in the luxury boxes, sitting alongside Vera Katz and other local dignitaries. Lacking an invite (I'm sure it was lost in the mail), I never found out what Prince Charming (a.k.a. Corey Busch) thought of Portland's Triple-A finery: Timber Jim's guest appearance, the fitness nuts cycling in place on the MAC deck, a cover band called Colonel Knowledge.

There was no question, though, that big-league lusters knew he was there and viewed his visit as a chance to prove that Portland is charming, pretty, super-popular and red-hot for major-league lovin'.

"I HAVE MORE FRIENDS THAN THE EXPOS HAVE FANS," declared a sign brandished by one vocal young man sitting on the first-base line. To many of the 6,637 marinating in rich, summer-ish heat, the question of big-league ball in Portland really could look that simple.

After all, wouldn't the Expos kill for a crowd like this at the Stade Olympique, where the retractable roof does not retract and the AstroTurf looks like it was salvaged from the back of Bill Clinton's truck?

Never mind that Oregon legislation promising $150 million towards a ballpark is apparently entombed in Senate Ways and Means. (Ways and means? Since when do baseball fans stop to consider ways and means?)

In the dreamy minds of many Portland baseball fans, the time to say bienvenue to les Expos seems at hand. The Oregon Baseball Campaign, the group pushing the ballpark bill, deftly spun Busch's visit into something of a pep rally for its efforts. That left Portland Family Entertainment, owner of the Beavers, playing host to a contingent of fans who'd like to see their first-year Triple-A team vanish sooner rather than later.

As the Beavers whupped Edmonton, I sat down with PFE general partner Mark Gardiner. A few years back, after the San Francisco Giants had been punted all over the Bay Area by voters reluctant to fund a new stadium, Gardiner set up financing for PacBell Park, the first privately funded MLB ballyard built in 35 years. Given this experience--not to mention his own interest in the Beavers--it's hardly surprising that Gardiner struck an unemotional chord regarding big-league fever.

"I come from the realist wing of Portland major-league backers," he said. "Portland has good long-term potential as a baseball market, but it takes years to do those projects."

Gardiner says that PFE stands to benefit financially from any major-league move to Portland, regardless of the timing. Whether or not the company was involved as an owner, a relocating franchise would have to buy out its territorial rights under arbitrated terms. The most recent Triple-A buyout, in Phoenix, went for $7.5 million.

Asked about the mysterious views of one Paul Allen--the rich-as-Croesus owner of the Blazers, the Seahawks and a formative $9 billion sports cable project--Gardiner says Allen's ultimate impact may have more to do with hockey than baseball.

"If Paul Allen decided he wanted to have a baseball team, I'd assume people would think that's a good thing," he said. "The real factor in this discussion that Paul Allen has control over is the NHL. He can basically make the decision as to whether that league will come to Portland. And if the NHL does come, Major League Baseball will have to wait for years. We're not ready to support three major-league teams. Even if the fan support is there, the corporate support just doesn't exist."

Meanwhile, there are those who will tell you that major-league ball is just what Portland needs to really Arrive. And to hear the Montreal Gazette tell it, the Expos all but have the moving vans reserved and pointed West. And so the speculation, argument, counterargument and naked lust for another city's ballclub goes on.

As does real life. By the weekend, Busch was gone--and so was Beavers ace Jeremy Powell, outta here to play for big yen in Japan. The Beavers were in Utah, losing. In Montreal, the Expos fired popular manager Felipe Alou, one of baseball's geniuses--just another in a long line of moves undermining the club's link to the city.

In Portland, the ball is over, and no one has proposed to us yet.


Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has said that all options for solving the Expos' terminal condition are on the table, including shuttering the club in a contraction plan.




Some analysts believe, however, that contraction would leave MLB open to a lawsuit that might jeopardize its sweetheart exemption from U.S. antitrust laws.




On the night of Busch's visit, the Portland Beavers dismantled the Edmonton Trappers, their sixth win in seven Pacific Coast League outings. Beavers beat Trappers? Call it eco-historical payback.
 
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