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Ownership of the Montreal Expos will change hands shortly. Charles Bronfman, the Expos' chairman of the board and principal owner, made that clear Monday night during a visit to Pilot Field.

But Bronfman also said there's a minimal possibility the team will relocate to Buffalo, Denver or any other city seeking a National League expansion franchise.

"There's no secret we hope to sell, but that we prefer it to be a local group," Bronfman said.

Bronfman then indicated he's more determined than hopeful the Expos will remain in his native city. The Montreal media has reported that Bronfman has unsuccessfully sought a local buyer. But as for out-of-town interests entering negotiations, Bronfman said, "We hope it doesn't come to that."

Financially, the Expos have been a moderately successful franchise since receiving a National League expansion club in 1969. Team attendance bottomed out at 646,704 in 1976 and reached a high of 2,320,651 in 1983. But Montreal hasn't drawn two million since that season. The Expos totaled 1,783,533 fans last season, and this year, fielding another contending team, are on a similar pace.

For Bronfman, co-chairman of The Seagram Company, Ltd., and chairman of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Ltd., overseeing multiple and diverse businesses has become an excessive burden.

"If baseball's not your primary business, or the adjunct to your primary business, the emotion takes its toll on an owner," Bronfman said. "I don't know anyone who has stayed in it as long as we have. We've had wonderful experiences in baseball. I think we brought a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people and have had a lot of thrills."

Told he had made the Expos' sale sound complete, Bronfman said, "It's going to be."

Bronfman visited Buffalo in honor of John McHale, who was presented The Sporting News Pioneer Award before Monday's National Old Timers Baseball Classic. McHale was president of the Expos from their first season, 1969, through 1986. He still serves the team in an advisory role.

McHale said Bronfman's disenchantment with the Expos is genuine.

"I know he has frustrations not only with the draw, but he doesn't like what's happening with the lack of business restraint shown by other owners," McHale said.

"It's so much more expensive to operate in Montreal. We operate with the dollar at 85 percent (of U.S. par), and it was 72 percent for some time."

McHale also said the franchise has been hurt by the transience of its fan base.

"There has been quite a change in the makeup of the city," McHale said. "A lot of English-speaking ticket-buyers have left. I think a lot of people who were coming to games, whether of French or English culture, are 10 or 15 years older now. And the young people aren't as interested. Many of the young people who have attended colleges and universities have gone West. I think that's part of it."

"You couldn't have a more ideal ownership than the Expos have had."

Bronfman hedged on whether baseball can survive in Montreal with new leadership.

"You'll have to ask the new owner," he said.

Bronfman and other Expo officials, including McHale, met with Buffalo Bison officials, including team president Robert E. Rich Jr., in Pilot Field's owner's box.

Rich said he was proud to have a National League owner of Bronfman's stature visit Pilot Field, particularly with expansion pending. However, Rich said "we have not" discussed the possibility of the Expos moving to Buffalo.

"We just kicked some tires," Rich said.

Both McHale and Bronfman spoke well of Buffalo's bid for a National League expansion team. The NL plans to announce the sites of its two new teams by the end of September, 1991.

"I've been out of it day to day, so I don't have that accurate a feeling," McHale said. "But there's a thought the primary consideration for new franchises, assuming other things are equal or close to equal, is quality of ownership. And I think you have that here (in Buffalo)."

Typical of NL owners, Bronfman was less candid. "I'm not on the (NL) expansion committee," he said. "Obviously this is a very nice set-up, and Obviously it could be a major league ballpark."

But it's a ballpark that, despite the disadvantages of operating a team in Montreal, probably will not become the new home of the Expos.

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