My Turn at Bat

by Claude R. Brochu

Published by ECW Press

250 pages, 2002


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The Plight of the Expos

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan

 

As of this writing, it looks like the Montreal Expos will return to Olympic Stadium for one more year. After that, their fate is very much up in the air. Will the powers that be find a way to keep the team in Montreal? Or will they depart across the southern border to Washington, D.C.? Or perhaps Charlotte. Peut-être, they'll split the season with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Or maybe they're headed to sunny San Juan, where they will play several of their "home games" during the 2003 season.

How did it come to this, that a city with such a long history of baseball is facing a future without it? In this age of finger pointing, fans want to know: who's to blame?

One name that constantly pops up is Claude Brochu, the former managing partner of the Expos. Depending on whom you ask, he is either "public enemy number one" or just a victim of circumstance. In My Turn at Bat, Brochu gives his spin on the whole sorry story and of his trials and tribulations in trying to shore up support for the team that brought major league ball to Montreal in 1969.

Those with a good sense of history will recall that it was there that Jackie Robinson got his start as a member of the Montreal Royals, a farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ironically, the Expos may soon follow the same path as their Dodger ancestors, who abandoned the borough of Brooklyn for the greener pastures of Los Angeles.

Brochu was hired by Expos owner (and Seagram's mogul) Charles Bronfman to serve as top administrator of the team in 1986. When John McHale, the Expos' president, announced his retirement, Bronfman chose Brochu to fill the slot because, as the author writes, he "wanted the new president to better understand, and better attract, the francophone public." Some would tell you that this is the crux of the problem; certain circles believe that the French community eschews baseball because it is an "Anglo" sport.

In 1989, Bronfman decided to sell the Expos and set Brochu to find a suitable buyer. "Why not me?" thought Claude, who put together, with great difficulty, a consortium of Quebecois businessmen for whom the bottom-line overrode the game on the field. Constant in-fighting among the group foreshadowed the disasters that lay ahead.

For several years, the Expos were among the best teams in the game. But they had an uncanny knack for finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1991, a concrete beam on the roof of Olympic Stadium collapsed, sending the team on the road to finish out the schedule. Three years later, the Expos had the top record in the game ... until a strike killed the regular season and denied them a chance to strut their stuff in a possible post-season berth.

When play resumed in mid-1995, the Expos were in a hole. One of the biggest problems for Canadian teams has been that the money came in as the coin of the realm, but went out as American bucks. Brochu fought a losing battle to keep the team as cohesive a unit as possible, but as players' salaries began to get out of hand, he was forced to parcel them out to other teams. Under his stewardship, the Expos bid adieu to all-stars and potential Hall of Famers such as Randy Johnson (who recently won his fourth consecutive Cy Young Award, emblematic as the best pitcher in his league); Pedro Martinez; Canada's own Larry Walker; Moises Alou, nephew of the team's best manager, Felipe; John Wetteland and Marquis Grissom, among others. In the language of the fans, this is known as a "fire sale," getting rid of players before they become too expensive and/or free agents. Many believe that Brochu's own salary included incentives to keep the payroll low.

Brochu was raked over the coals for allowing the once-proud club to become the laughing stock of professional sports. Until Jeffrey Loria, the carpetbagging art dealer from New York, came along and bought the team, Brochu was undoubtedly the most unpopular figure among Expos fans.

To hear him tell it, Brochu did the best he could against impossible obstacles. He was met at every turn with indifference at best or outright hostility at worst. He was surrounded by "Keystone Kops," his term for the businessmen and politicians who lacked the vision to look at the big picture, not just a quick fix. He writes of constant battles and broken promises from business and civic leaders, at both the local and provincial levels, whom one would think would express at least some interest in helping to support the team.

However you view Brochu, the book is a fascinating look at the machinations behind the scenes at a major league ball club. Other than newspaper accounts of trades, free agent signings and salary battles, the business side of baseball gets very little attention, although this has changed over the last few years, thanks to the aftermath of the 1994 strike. Fans probably wish for those simpler days, when the only figures they had to worry about were batting averages and strikeouts.

This is not the first use of My Turn at Bat as the name of a baseball book. The late Ted Williams, one of the all-time greats in the game, used it for his autobiography. With all the hard lessons he learned during his tenure as Expos' chief, Brochu might have considered paraphrasing one of the many offerings about Mickey Mantle and called his book The Education of a Baseball Businessman. | December 2002

 

Ron Kaplan, a freelance writer from Montclair, New Jersey, has previously written about baseball literature for January Magazine.