A few hours before his team's season opener Montreal Expo
manager Felipe Alou stood alone inside the visiting clubhouse at
Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, transfixed by the game on
television in which former Expo reliever John Wetteland was
closing out a Yankee victory in New York. ``This winter we lost
Wetteland, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker, and it's only a
matter of time until we lose Wil Cordero and Cliff Floyd and
Moises Alou as well,'' said Felipe Alou, pondering the past and
future exodus of Montreal's best players. ``This Pirate series is
an example of all the things that are wrong with this business.
Poor teams like Montreal and Pittsburgh develop prospects until
they become superstars. Then we wait for the next wave to take
them away with the tide.''

Not so coincidentally, Pirate manager Jim Leyland had similar
thoughts that afternoon. ``I got to thinking during lunch about
Doug Drabek and Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Grissom and
Wetteland and the rest,'' Leyland said. ``That's a World Series
team right there. But you can't whine and pout about who's gone.''

This year Leyland is running a virtual day-care center,
shepherding eight rookies, including four who hadn't played in a
game above Double A until this season. No Pirate starting pitcher
is older than 27, and closer Dan Miceli, who is 24, had just two
career saves entering this year. Jon Lieber, Pittsburgh's starter
in the opener, began last season at Double A Carolina and didn't
even draw the Opening Day assignment there. He allowed six runs in
five innings in a 6-2 loss to Montreal.

``Sure, contending for a pennant is a lot to ask of a bunch of
guys who were in the minors last year, but this is small-market
baseball,'' Lieber said. ``It's a great chance for all of us to
show we belong up here.''

What's worse, last year even the starting lineup that was up there
hit a total of just 45 homers. ``We're the Rocky Balboas of the
National League,'' says Pirate leftfielder Al Martin, who chipped
in nine dingers in 1994. ``We're going to get pounded some nights,
but hopefully we'll fight to the end just like Rocky.''

The Expos' roster includes six rookies and is the youngest in the
majors, with an average age of 25. ``I feel like the one senior on
a team full of underclassmen,'' says Montreal catcher Darrin
Fletcher, who is 28. ``I miss all the guys we've lost, but the
minute we start hanging our heads, we'll look back up and be 30
games below .500.''

``We have a lot of pissed-off people in this clubhouse, and I'm
one of them,'' said Alou's son Moises, the rightfielder. ``I've
already thought about leaving next year, but when our guys take
the field, we still act like we're supposed to beat everybody.''
Sure enough, the cut-rate Expos swept the short series with the
bargain-basement Pirates.

The best Pittsburgh could say is that it appears that the sale of
the Pirates is imminent and the club will remain in the Steel
City. The asking price might have come down a bit during the fifth
inning of the opener, when little-market baseball began to
resemble Little League baseball. With two runners on, Montreal's
Roberto Kelly hit a 45-foot ground ball and, thanks to a pair of
Pirate errors, wound up circling the bases. The crowd responded by
bombarding the field with thousands of little plastic tubes
containing Pirate flags that had been distributed before the game.
It was like waving the flag of surrender on the 1995 season after
just five innings.

When the game was over, Leyland scoured the two teams' rosters on
his desk and read names like Aude, Brumfield, Eversgerd,
Grudzielanek and Loaiza. ``With all these new kids here you
realize that it's been a long time since the strike began,''
Leyland said. ``A long winter. A long spring. . . .''

A longer summer.

COLOR PHOTO:PHOTO BY JONATHAN DANIEL Clubbed by a Cub As baseball returned, so did the good ol' break-up-the-double- play slide, as performed here by Chicago's Brian McRae, who has just taken out Montreal's Mark Grudzielanek (page 26). [T of C] COLOR PHOTO:DAVID LIAM KYLEA comedy of errors in the opener ended with Kelly beating two Bucs to the plate for a round-tripper. [Roberto Kelly sliding into home plate surrounded by two Pittsburgh Pirates players]

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