WHOA, CANADA

The province of Quebec is rich with cultural assets and Gallic charm. So why doesn't anybody want to play for the Expos or the Nordiques?
March 05, 1990

On his first night in Montreal, Terry Francona walked south from his hotel to Ste.-Catherine Street. He was 22, a promising outfielder and an Expo. "I was looking for a hamburger," says Francona, who hails from New Brighton, Pa., and now plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, "but all the signs I saw were for 'Smoked Meat.' Later on I learned how great smoked meat is, but that first night all I wanted was some American food. I remember thinking, I'm not going to like this place."

Welcome to Montreal, the dark side of the moon. Or so you'd think if the sports pages were all you read.

If someone were to say the word "Montreal" to you, it would very likely bring to mind Gallic charm and Continental flair, a little bit of Europe just an hour by air from New York City. You might envision a city with splendid restaurants and a renowned symphony, or conjure up the image of vibrant Crescent Street and a town that knows how to play. Perhaps you would see a place that is clean and safe, at least by the standards of many large U.S. cities. You certainly would think of Montreal as a bilingual city, the hub of a Canadian province in which French is the first language for four of every five people.

You probably also have a moderate sense of adventure, are not mortally offended by customs procedures, understand that the quality of life is not solely determined by a tax rate and do not assume that foreign is better or worse—just different. You are, in other words, not a major league baseball player.

Major leaguers are many things—rich and famous being two—but their sense of curiosity about matters other than, say, a new batting stance or the split-fingered fastball tends to be limited. Expecting them to adapt to an alien culture, cold weather and higher taxes might be too much to expect. "You know what the whole thing might come down to?" says Ken Singleton, an Expo announcer who played three seasons in Montreal. "From the first day they go to school, Americans are taught that the United States is the best country in the world. The greatest, no question. So playing in Canada—even though it's still the major leagues—is subconsciously viewed as somehow inferior."

The Expos were ravaged in the off-season by the defection of four free agents. Pitchers Mark Langston, Pascual Perez and Bryn Smith packed up and left, commanding a total of $27.7 million for 11 seasons from their new clubs, the California Angels, the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, respectively. Hubie Brooks, who has been Montreal's most consistent run-producer over most of the past five seasons, signed a three-year, $6 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

As a result, the Expos have been forced to look for replacements, and the pickings haven't been good. They have tried to plug the holes in the pitching staff by signing the volatile, oft-injured Oil Can Boyd, by giving a minor league contract to 37-year-old Joaquin Andujar—who spent the winter throwing in the Senior Professional Baseball League—and paying $660,000 to keep Zane Smith in Montreal for 1990. Smith's record last season was 1-13.

The story is an old one—Montreal has traditionally been uncompetitive in the free-agent market—but the number of prominent players who have recently jumped has shaken the franchise. The mass exodus from a team that led the National League East for 42 straight days in 1989 emitted signals that would wipe the grin off the face of the most optimistic chamber of commerce official.

Three hours up the Trans-Canada Highway, the city of Quebec, Montreal's provincial cousin and home of the NHL's Nordiques, has an even worse predicament. You can live your entire life in English in Montreal, where 433,000 people in a metropolitan area of 2.9 million list English as their mother tongue and where many francophones speak it well. Not so in the city of Quebec, where the English-speaking community makes up less than 2% of the population. You can survive in English, but you can't thrive. Indeed, the city of Quebec is as foreign to many Canadians as it is to Americans.

For NHL players, a hitch with the Nordiques is deemed more a prison sentence than a professional opportunity. In a poll of Whaler players that appeared in The Hartford Courant, 14 of 19 said that Quebec was the city to which they would least like to be traded. The survey was taken in December, when Blues goaltender Greg Millen was balking at his trade from St. Louis to the Nordiques. Millen waited 12 days before finally reporting, and his resistance opened old Quebec wounds. The normally reserved Michel Goulet, a Nordique forward, told reporters, "It makes me sick how the city of Quebec and the Nordiques are perceived around the league. I could understand a guy not wanting to be traded to a last-place team [the Nordiques have by far the worst record in the NHL], but this was also happening in the mid-1980s, when we were one of the best teams in the league."

Millen's hesitation reinforced the notion that Quebec is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to play there. "It presents a challenge for us, not a problem," says Marcel Aubut, a Nordique owner and the team governor. "This is a different culture, a different style of city, and we have to present ourselves, show people this isn't a terrible place."

The Montreal Canadiens have largely averted the ill effects of cultural bias—that franchise is a revered institution in Canada and is something of a mecca to hockey players. And even the image problem in the city of Quebec does not appreciably affect the way the Nordiques do business—because free agency in the NHL is limited. To a player traded to the Nordiques against his wishes, one can say only two things: tough and bon voyage.

But it's different in baseball. For the Expos, the low regard that players around the league have for Montreal has forced the team to adopt a philosophy based heavily on scouting and development, on growing its own. "In general, guys who were groomed in this organization like it and stay here," says general manager Dave Dombrowski. "Guys with us from day one like the organization and the city. But when you get a four-or five-year player [on the brink of free agency] and bring him in, he usually doesn't have the time to develop affection for the club or the city."

"We have to have an approach and stick with it," says Expo president Claude Brochu. "We have to tie up our four- and five-year players and keep them off the market. And we have to stay out of the free-agent market ourselves. We also have to realize we can never bring in someone who doesn't want to be here."

The club has swerved wildly from its guidelines at times. The most recent—and costly—example was Langston, Montreal's 1989-model lease-a-lefty. After making the playoffs only once in two decades of existence (in the asterisk strike year of 1981), the championship-starved Expos gambled last May and traded three promising young pitchers to the Seattle Mariners for Langston, although Montreal had no guarantee he would stay more than four months. Expo officials thought they were close to making a long-term deal with Langston in August, before the team went on a skid and collapsed in the standings. Langston eventually accepted a five-year, $16 million deal with the Angels (the Expos offered a three-year, $9 million contract before dropping out of the bidding). As a thank-you note, Langston asked for a no-trade clause from the Angels, specifically so he couldn't be returned to Siberia on the St. Lawrence.

This city has inspired the songs of Leonard Cohen, the novels of Mordecai Richler and the no-trade clause. If a player has the latter, you can bet Montreal will be in it.

The Phillies' Dickie Thon was headed to Montreal from San Diego last season before he exercised his veto. Thon, a shortstop, was instead traded to Philadelphia, where he batted .271 with 15 home runs and 60 RBIs, production Montreal desperately needed from its middle infield late in the season. The Expos were similarly stymied from acquiring potential pennant-winning help in 1982, when pitcher Dick Tidrow, then with the Chicago Cubs, refused to waive a no-trade clause to Montreal.

Even young talent has, on occasion, shown an aversion to joining the Expos. The club selected Pete Incaviglia, who had starred at Oklahoma State, in the first round of the June draft in 1985, but negotiations grew acrimonious. Says Bill Stoneman, Montreal's vice-president for baseball operations, "When Bucky Woy [Incaviglia's agent] brought up the Canada thing, I remember thinking, Now they're throwing everything at us." The Expos were only able to sign Incaviglia with the condition that he be immediately traded to the Texas Rangers.

At the beginning of the last decade, after painstakingly building the team from the talent in their farm system, the Expos were the self-proclaimed team of the '80s (a boast that would backfire and come to mean the number of wins in a season for this underachieving franchise). Even then, free agents didn't exactly flock to Montreal. Ross Grimsley (the only 20-game winner in Expo history), Dave Cash, Pete Rose and Elias Sosa were the only free agents with any name value to sign with Montreal. "We had a good club without free agents then," says Expo deputy chairman John McHale. "We looked like winners, and we dealt on a very personal basis with the players. [Jeff] Reardon, [Scott] Sanderson, [Bill] Gullickson, [Gary] Carter—these guys weren't looking to get out of Montreal."

Nor is every current Expo looking for the exit. "Most of our guys like playing for the team," says Montreal third baseman Tim Wallach, a nine-year veteran. "A lot of players have a bad view of the city before they get there. When they come, they realize it's not that bad. I wouldn't want to be traded unless I was going to be traded home [to Southern California]. I know where I am, and it's where I want to be."

"I had a lot of fun playing with Montreal," says the L.A.-bound Brooks. "My decision was strictly business." Nevertheless, Brooks's contract with the Dodgers stipulates that he can't be traded without his consent to 13 of 14 American League cities or to one National League city—you guessed it, Montreal.

There's no question that Montreal is different from cities in the U.S. Not a day goes by without something happening to remind an American that he is not at home. Most signs are, by law, in French only; the five-dollar bill is blue and the fifty is pink; you can't make a right turn on red; the centerfielder is the "centre fielder." "Complaints from the wives have filtered back to us," says Stoneman. "They don't like the bilingual labels on the cans. There are some different brands. Now it's Aylmer's soup instead of Campbell's."

Bryn Smith's wife, Patti, said last summer that she would often make the hour-long drive across the border to Plattsburgh, N.Y., to pick up "important staples, like Doritos." Bryn noted that people often use gravy on french fries and serve soft drinks without ice but said, "We can live without ketchup on our french fries and Coke without ice to play on a team like this." (To which Don MacPherson, columnist for the Montreal Gazette, replied: "But then, pitchers in the National League have to be able to sacrifice.") Four months later, Smith signed with the Cardinals.

In the city of Quebec, the cultural quandary is more pronounced. Consider the plight of Heather Cirella, wife of Nordique defenseman Joe Cirella (both are from Ontario). Heather is having a bad week. The dry cleaner has ruined some clothes, but she doesn't speak enough French, and the cleaner doesn't speak enough English for them to agree on reparation. She was involved in a minor traffic accident, and when a policeman arrived on the scene, only the other driver could give her side of the story because the officer spoke no English.

"It isn't horrible, it isn't hell, it isn't impossible, but it's not super easy, not life as you're used to living it," says Heather, who had earned her teaching certificate and had lined up a job in New Jersey before Joe was traded by the Devils last June. "It's culture shock. Your life is a little less complete. I can't work and can't study because the university [Laval] is French. There isn't a broad range of English movies in the theaters. We used to go twice a week in New Jersey; now Joe and I go once a month. We can't get an English paper delivered to our door, so it's tough to follow news about the team. The announcements in the arena are in French only. I can't speak the language, so I'm not involved in charity functions, I'm not as immersed in the community. The Nordique organization has been great, but I can't take an interpreter with me to the grocery or the cleaners.

"Quebec is a beautiful city," says Heather. "It's charming, quaint. There are things I like. When I first came here, I looked at it as an adventure, almost like a vacation. Then it dawns on you: It's not a vacation. It's your life."

Tony Hrkac, who joined the Nordiques in the Millen trade with the Blues, says his chief regret is that he was a C student in French at his Thunder Bay, Ont., grammar school. "Who would have thought you'd actually need the language?" says Hrkac in the Nordiques' dressing room, cradling his book French in 10 Minutes a Day. When the non-French-speaking players on the Nordiques arrive at work, life gets a bit easier: English is the language of practices and the dressing room. The team spends some $60,000 a year on what it calls "integration," trying to make the players feel comfortable in the city, briefing them on how to find bilingual doctors, lawyers, plumbers. Aubut says that only two players, John Ogrodnick and Brad Maxwell, have asked to be traded specifically because they could not adapt to the city—and both were granted their wish. Aubut claims that several players, such as Clint Malarchuk, Dale Hunter and David Shaw, were saddened by being traded. "You never hear that other side," he says.

The Expos, too, have had their share of enlightened transplants. For every Wayne Twitchell, a pitcher who made the Dr. Strangeloveian pronouncement in 1979 that melting snow from the Laurentian Mountains had tainted the water supply and caused his upset stomachs, there is a Rusty Staub. The most popular player in the history of the franchise, Staub cemented his celebrity by learning some French. Both Staub and Gary Carter, another well-liked Expo, were caring and clever—or calculating—enough to sprinkle French into their speech whenever they made public appearances. For every David Palmer, a pitcher who burned a two-dollar bill while leading some teammates in a sarcastic rendition of O Canada on their return from the final road trip of the 1985 season, there is a Chris Speier. Speier, a former Expo shortstop, and his wife, Aleta, enrolled their children in a French school; in 1983, when their daughter, Erika, sang her rendition of O Canada, it was in front of thousands before an Expo game at Olympic Stadium—and in French.

"I was absolutely delighted when the Expos took me in the expansion draft [in 1968]," says Stoneman, who pitched two no-hitters and became one of the franchise's first stars. "It was a chance to go to Europe without going to Europe. I think a lot of guys felt that way then. About a dozen families stayed that whole winter. We stayed here because we wanted to stay here."

No more. Since Speier left in 1984, not one player has made Montreal his year-round home. Montreal, of course, is not the only cold-weather city that experiences a population drop around Oct. 1. Dombrowski recalls the annual player migration south from his days in the White Sox front office. "The difference," he says, "is that a lot of players settled in Chicago after their careers. They became a part of the community."

The only American who played for the Expos and still lives in Canada is Stoneman, who married a Montrealer. Says Singleton, who now lives in the Baltimore area in the off-season, "I lived in Montreal two winters after I was traded to the Orioles. But that second winter I was talking to Rich Dauer and Rudy May in California. They were watching the same football game I was—only they were sitting outside watching and I was sitting inside freezing. That's when I decided to move."

The weather is still a sticking point, even though Olympic Stadium finally received its dome for the start of the 1987 season, a mere 10 years late. Those brutal and brittle games in April and September became part of local lore, beginning with the light snowfall on the morning of the Expos' inaugural home opener, in 1969, at old Jarry Park. Charles Bronfman, the team's principal owner and board chairman, called McHale at 6 a.m. to apprise him of that fact. Bronfman: "John, it's snowing." McHale: "Yes, Charles. What would you like me to do about it?" The Expos even had a game snowed out in the 1981 playoffs, memorable in Montreal for Rick Monday's heartbreaking home run in the ninth inning to win the series for the Dodgers—and for NBC announcer Bryant Gumbel's elbow-length, fur-lined gloves.

But the weather is a relatively minor concern. The primary reason that players look to play elsewhere is—surprise—money. The tax gap between the U.S. and Canada affects not only the Expos and Nordiques but also the Toronto Blue Jays, the Canadiens and the five other NHL teams based in Canada.

Hockey players on Canadian teams are paid in Canadian dollars. Taking into account the exchange rate—the American dollar is worth about 19% more than the Canadian dollar—and Canada's high income taxes, a player earning $500,000 in Canada might be 25% "poorer" than a player earning $500,000 in the U.S. Since 1968, an NHL player traded south of the border must be paid the same salary in the currency of his choice, which means a Nordique turned North Star is 19% ahead just on the exchange rate. How quickly can you pack?

When Millen balked at being traded from St. Louis to Quebec, he was less concerned about cultural hurdles than he was about the exchange rate. Millen, a native of Ontario, insisted that his reluctance had little to do with Quebec: "My reaction was to Canada in general," he said.

"Financially, all players prefer the States," says Canadiens goaltender Brian Hayward. "Some players sign contracts over and above what they'd be getting from an American team, but that's only veterans. General managers refuse to acknowledge the difference in U.S. and Canadian funds unless they're sitting across the table from a veteran. A young guy who gets $120,000 in Washington gets $120,000 in Montreal."

Baseball players in Canada are paid in U.S. dollars, so they're unaffected by the exchange rate. And the Canadian tax bite hurts less than most think—although you would never know it from all the squawking by players. The issue is as much one of perception as it is one of taxes. Sharpen your pencils, class. Quiz to follow.

O.K., in the U.S., the marginal tax rate—the percentage paid on the highest dollar of taxable income—is never more than 33% (and much high-level income is taxed at 28%). In Quebec, combined federal and provincial taxes make up a marginal tax rate of 50%. That's a gap of around 20 points, which means an Expo or Blue Jay pays an extra one fifth of his income in tax, right?

Wrong. For one thing, when state taxes, significant burdens in states like New York and California, are factored in, that gap drops to perhaps 15%. More important, only about 40% of an American player's salary in Canada is taxed at the higher Canadian rate, a figure based on the number of days a player actually spends in Canada during a season. So now the gap is down to perhaps 6%, depending on the salary and the player's state of residence. If a player were traded from the San Francisco Giants to the Expos, his increase in taxes might be no more severe than that of a player traded from the Houston Astros (who play in Texas, which has no state income tax) to the New York Mets (where a player would pay both state and city income taxes). You never hear any moaning and groaning from players about being traded across state lines.

With the 6% gap, it might cost a player earning $1 million an extra $60,000 a year in taxes to play in Montreal—or it might not cost him anything: The Expos have given seven players "tax equalization clauses," make-good money of anywhere from 2% to 7.6% of their salaries.

The Expos, like the Nordiques and the Canadiens, go out of their way to help their players adapt to their environment. The Expos help find them housing in English-speaking enclaves, offer French lessons and organize outings for the wives when the team is on the road. And four years ago Montreal hired Price Waterhouse to aid players with their taxes. "I thought my tax burden was like 10 percent, but they showed me it was really two, three, four percent," says Wallach, who has a tax-equalization clause in his contract.

Mike Bronstetter, a tax partner with Price Waterhouse in Montreal, is the man who leads the players through the labyrinth of tax codes. "It all depends on what's important to you," says Bronstetter. "If you're going to take the attitude that one extra dollar is bad news, there's nothing we can do about it. Some people would say a nickel is important. It's their nickel, and it's hard to argue with that. I know other people who would say, 'Sixty grand on a million—I won't get concerned.' It's a question of personal philosophy, the style of life you want."

"From a quality-of-living standpoint, I prefer to stay in Canada," says the Canadiens' Hayward, a native of Ontario. "My wife, Angela, is expecting our first child in March. The other day, she was in the hospital from 9 a.m. to 6:30 for tests, mostly for our own peace of mind. They just ran our medical credit card through the machine, and it didn't cost us anything. Socialized medicine. I tell you, we've used that medical card more in the past three months than any other card we have."

Credit cards and helpful accountants are all well and good, but the Expos will still open the 1990 season with an undermanned pitching staff and low expectations. What's more, the team's 1989 attendance of 1.78 million, sixth-highest in club history, ranked only 20th among the 26 major league teams. "One reason some players don't like it here," said Brooks before departing, "is that there's no promotion. At least not what it is in U.S. cities. Ride in from the airport in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Cincinnati, and depending on the season, you can see signs of the football, baseball, basketball team. You can feel their presence. That doesn't happen in Montreal."

Says Wallach, "When you're in first place for 42 days and your crowds are 25,000, it's disappointing. It was different in the early 1980s, but now we're getting used to it being this way."

Bronfman, frustrated by the Expos' lack of success both financially and on the field, has said he will listen to offers for the team, although he says he would be willing to sell only if the prospective buyers were committed to keeping the Expos in Montreal. Brochu concedes that the Expos have not developed baseball at the grass roots level in Quebec and that they can do a better selling job. However, he does not envision any long-term problems for the franchise. When asked if Montreal will have the Expos in the year 2000, he said, "Absolutely. That's not even a concern."

"The thing that would turn it around here," says Singleton, "would be for the team to win the World Series. The media, especially the American League media, would see the city, spotlight it, find out what it's like. They'd go down to Crescent Street [a hopping, club-crammed thoroughfare] and see one of the great streets in the world. It doesn't get any better than that."

Considering that French has done quite nicely in Quebec for more than 450 years and is unlikely to be abandoned, that government officials in Canada are not unduly worried about the tax woes of American relief pitchers earning $2 million a year and that even the greenhouse effect won't soon change Montreal into a San Diego, maybe a World Series is the only cosmic relief there is for the dark side of the moon.

ILLUSTRATIONBARRY BLITTConfronted by French, U.S. athletes say Quebec is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to play there. ILLUSTRATIONBARRY BLITTTo NHL players, a hitch with the Nordiques is more a prison sentence than a professional opportunity. ILLUSTRATIONBARRY BLITTThe Expos swerved wildly from their guidelines when they acquired Langston, their lease-a-lefty for 1989. ILLUSTRATIONBARRY BLITTCanada's tax bite hurts less than most think—but you would never know it from all the squawking by players. ILLUSTRATIONBARRY BLITT

Michael Farber is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Montreal for the past 11 years; he is currently a writer for the Montreal "Gazette."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)