THERE WERE wild times last week at Expo U. When free-agent
rightfielder Larry Walker agreed to a four-year, $22 million
deal with the Colorado Rockies last Saturday, his signing
concluded four days in which the Montreal Expos sent four star
players -- Walker, centerfielder Marquis Grissom, starter Ken
Hill and closer John Wetteland -- on their way. They all
graduated Phi Beta Salary Kappa.
``Maybe we're graduating a lot of guys, but a lot of clubs are
flunking out,'' Montreal general manager Kevin Malone says of the
Expos' extraordinary record of developing more quality major
leaguers than just about any other team. ``Our graduation rates
are the best in the business.''
Not since Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley's aborted attempt to
sell Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi at the trading
deadline in 1976 has a team appeared to so dramatically gut
itself. Montreal had baseball's best record, 74-40, before the
strike last August, but Expo U president Claude Brochu claims the
work stoppage cost his already underendowed institution $15
million. So Malone let Walker go and traded the other three
premier players to avoid paying the $13 million in salary that he
expect- ed an arbitrator would award them. Montreal's Opening Day
payroll will be $15 million, down $3.6 million from last year's,
which was the second-lowest in the game.
At first Malone's moves had the look of a fire sale. On April 5
he traded Wetteland to the New York Yankees for Class A
outfielder Fernando Seguignol, a player to be named later and $2
million, and sent Hill to the St. Louis Cardinals for middling
lefty Bryan Eversgerd and two more Class A prospects, pitcher
Kirk Bullinger and outfielder Darond Stovall. Montrealers
expressed shock. In return for stars, a brand-conscious city had
received players with zero name recognition, most of whom were,
at best, a few years away from playing in the majors. Local wise
guys predicted that the only way Montrealers would see the new
players in the big leagues would be to buy a ticket -- a plane
ticket to northern Virginia, where an ownership group was
looking to buy and move a cash-strapped major league franchise.
Malone sighed and said he wasn't done, and the city braced for
word that Grissom had been swapped for a 14-year-old, one-legged
reliever with, naturally, excellent stuff.
Surprise. Last Thursday, Malone sent Grissom to the Atlanta
Braves for Roberto Kelly and Tony Tarasco, outfielders even
nonseamheads had heard of, plus euphonious Class A pitcher
Esteban Yan and $1.5 million to subsidize Kelly's $3.4 million
salary. ``I guess by doing those other deals first, I threw our
fans a curve,'' Malone says. He also may have handed National
League East rival Atlanta the division title, but at least the
trade could be argued on its baseball merits. Given management's
wails of poverty and the low expectations engendered by the
previous day's deals, Kelly and Tarasco for Grissom made
Montrealers feel as if Malone had picked up Manhattan from the
Braves for 24 bucks.
When the smoke cleared, what began as the Dante's Inferno of
fire sales left the Expos with only first- degree burns. As he
did in the past when Wetteland was sidelined by injury, setup
man Mel Rojas will move up to the closer's role. Kelly is a
two-time All-Star, if not the leadoff hitter Grissom is. Hill's
innings will be missed, but Malone now has some cash to shop for
a free-agent pitcher. Prospects who are expected to stick with
manager Felipe Alou's club this spring are infielder Mark
Grudzielanek, catcher Tim Laker and reliever Carlos Perez.
``We still have a good team,'' says outfielder Moises Alou, 28,
whose 372 career games make him the senior Expo in that category.
``But after kicking everybody's butt last year, it's going to be
tough in a situation where you're having your butt kicked.''
Through the cycle of construction and deconstruction -- good
scouting and development produce good players, who eventually
have to be paid good salaries and, thus, be sent away -- Expo U
teaches resilience in addition to economics. You ignore pitiful
crowds, a scandalously unappealing and ill- constructed ballpark
and constant belt-tightening, and you keep moving forward.
After the 1989 season the Expos lost free agents Mark Langston,
Pascual Perez and Bryn Smith from the rotation, plus
outfielder-shortstop Hubie Brooks, but nonetheless improved by
four games in '90. Expo U, which has had just three losing
seasons since 1978 but only one postseason appearance, has
turned out distinguished alumni at every position (box, below).
The management school has also produced fertile minds like
Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, Florida Marlin G.M.
Dave Dombrowski and Marlin scouting director Gary Hughes. The
siren song of working without fiscal handcuffs lured them to
Money has been a problem particularly since 1991, when principal
owner Charles Bronfman sold the Expos for $85 million to a group
headed by Brochu. He is committed to keeping the team in
Montreal, which is not a small city -- Montreal is about the
size of greater Boston -- but is a small baseball market.
Stories asking, ``How long can the 'Spos stay?'' are hardy
perennials in Canadian papers, and they popped up again last
month when it was reported that Brochu had talked to the
northern Virginia group that had lost out in the recent round of
major league expansion. (Montreal Gazette headline: yes,
virginia, there is a santa claude.) But Brochu told the suitors
that his club wasn't for sale.
He will practice fiscal restraint rather than gamble that a
powerhouse team could fill the stadium, double the season-ticket
base from its puny 9,220 and attract more and better television
and sponsorship deals. ``The reaction from our fans is broken
down into two categories,'' Brochu says. ``There are those who
have to balance their checkbooks and who understand what we're
doing. Then there are those I call roll-the-dicers, people who
prefer we just re-sign all these players and gamble on a
one-shot deal. Even if we took a chance, unless there were
50,000 at every game, and all the [TV and sponsorship] contracts
were signed, we'd run out of cash in June. That's not even a
The Expos, hard-liners during the strike, were desperate for new
economic ground rules. When the rules didn't change, faces had to,
and Expo U held an April commencement. ``I really think we're a
step ahead of everyone else -- like we usually are,'' Brochu says.
Montreal was six games ahead in its division when the strike
wiped out the end of the 1994 season. Expo U was a giddy place
in early August. Montreal might not get that close to the World
Series again for a long time, which is how it goes at the school
of hard knocks.