Last Swing In Montreal The majors' orphan team, the Expos, is playing out the string in Canada under a puppet regime and facing an uncertain future

March 18, 2002
March 18, 2002

Table of Contents
March 18, 2002

Si Adventure

Last Swing In Montreal The majors' orphan team, the Expos, is playing out the string in Canada under a puppet regime and facing an uncertain future

The last season of the Montreal Expos, destiny's doormats,
obviously is going to be novel. Who knew that the novel would be
Oliver Twist?

This is an article from the March 18, 2002 issue Original Layout

The Expos are, after all, wards of the state, orphans owned by
the other 29 major league teams under the banner of Baseball
Expos, LP. They were abandoned on Bud Selig's doorstep by former
owner Jeffrey Loria after Selig failed to eliminate Montreal and
the Minnesota Twins through contraction and Loria bought the
Florida Marlins, taking with him the Expos' front-office staff,
manager, coaches, scouts and almost everything that wasn't
nailed down. Selig brought in a salvage crew led by team
president Tony Taveras, general manager Omar Minaya and manager
Frank Robinson to raise a baseball team from the rubble.

Unlike little Oliver, however, the Expos won't be permitted to
approach their master, Selig, in late September and ask for
more; after this season they will most likely disappear or move.
Still, what's being served in the clubhouse isn't gruel--it's
the customary soup, fruit, juice and lunch meat--and a cursory
glance leads to the surmise that this spring training camp is
identical to Montreal's previous 33 in Florida. The timeless
quotidian rites of Expos ball are being played out on the
backfields of the Jupiter complex: Pitchers cover first base,
hitters take their cuts, outfielders miss cutoff men. The bunt
defense is trying to run the wheel, not reinvent it.

Bench coach Wendell Kim, a 52-year-old who has the disconcerting
habit of sprinting everywhere, has organized a high-energy camp,
and the 66-year-old Robinson oversees it with an occasional
blunt word and an ever-present gentle hand on the shoulder. This
might be Dead Team Walking, but so far the only dead thing in
Montreal's camp has been the battery of David Samson's rented
convertible. Samson, the former Expos executive vice president
who moved to Florida with Loria, his stepfather, to run the
Marlins, was stranded in the parking lot after the
Montreal-Florida game on March 5. When word of Samson's
predicament reached the Expos' clubhouse, out came equipment
manager Mike Wallace, one of about 60 people whom Samson had
fired unceremoniously from the Marlins in February. Wallace
grabbed cables from his trunk and gave Samson a jump. Samson
mumbled something about how he wished things had gone more
smoothly. Like almost everything else about the Expos, this
involved both a positive and a negative.

Still, there are dead giveaways that this spring is different,
starting with the Roadster-model laptop on the desk of Expos
athletic trainer Ron McClain. Under Loria's agreement with Major
League Baseball, he took all the Expos' computers and files with
him as intellectual property, leaving Montreal scrambling for
scouting reports and injury data. (Strange that the report that
induced the Expos to trade for pitcher Hideki Irabu in 1999 rates
as intellectual property, but there you go.) No computers, no
reports, no complaints--Minaya accepted the arrangement with a
shrug of equanimity. At the bottom of baseball's food chain,
reality bytes.

There were larger signs of change too, such as the cartoonishly
ripped 6'4", 240-pound Jose Canseco patrolling leftfield in
Jupiter. The young, cheap Expos of recent years rarely invited
veteran free-agent position players to spring training, but with
the supply of next years exhausted, they have been holding an
open house for huddled masses yearning to hit virtually for
free. In addition to Canseco, a 37-year-old who has played 13
major league games in the outfield in the past three seasons and
whose best position is batter's box, Montreal has been eyeing
38-year-old Lance Johnson, the erstwhile One Dog who packed his
car in Cincinnati and drove to Florida looking for work, and
Felix Jose, a 36-year-old who last played in the Korean League
and has had 29 at bats in the bigs since 1995. The Expos also
repatriated 40-year-old first baseman Andres Galarraga, the Big
Cat turned old tom. This isn't a training camp as much as an
outpost of the French Foreign Legion.

The dual issues of contraction and relocation are the white noise
of the Expos' spring. The players' answers to the obvious
questions are well practiced: No, they don't worry about the
future, because it's beyond their control, and, yes, it would be
swell to keep the team together and move it to the Washington,
D.C., area or somewhere else. "Baseball players have been trained
not to worry about the future," pitcher Scott Strickland says.
"You can't think your next pitch might be hit for a home run, and
you can't think about where you'll be next year." This is true,
to a point, but the Expos won't play 162 games in a vacuum.

For Vladimir Guerrero, the incandescent rightfielder, and Javier
Vazquez, the best pitcher no one knows, the future will be
strewn with rose petals and big contracts no matter what the
commissioner or the courts decide to do with the Expos, but for
players with lesser portfolios, the prospect of a shrinking
baseball universe is discomfiting. In the trainer's room, the
clubhouse confessional, not a day passes without at least one
player musing about 2003, according to McClain. These Expos are
human, after all, which should be obvious considering that they
lost at least 94 games in each of the past four years. "I look
at this season as one long audition," says 34-year-old
utilityman Mike Mordecai. "The eyes of baseball will be on us."

Minaya mentioned "the cloud of contraction" in his first meeting
with the players, but he asked them to stay in the moment, and he
evoked Sept. 11 as horrible proof that we all live day-to-day.
The Dominican-born Minaya, who was until recently an assistant
general manager with the New York Mets, prides himself on being a
glass-half-full guy, but given what awaited him with the Expos,
he would have been excused for swigging straight from the bottle.
Minaya was hired on Feb. 12 and had 72 hours to rebuild the
infrastructure before players reported to camp. The cupboard was
bare. Loria had strip-mined the Expos, leaving Minaya with only
four baseball people: McClain, Triple A manager Tim Leiper,
Triple A pitching coach Randy St. Claire and assistant farm
director Adam Wogan.

Before he took the Montreal job, Minaya had had, by his count,
six or seven interviews for vacant general managerships, some
serious and others, he assumed, to fulfill a
minority-recruitment obligation. "There was always a but,"
Minaya says. "It was always that I didn't have organizational or
administrative skills. After this, I hope no one questions my
administrative skills." Minaya and Robinson, a Hall of Famer who
last managed in 1991 and most recently was vice president for
on-field operations in the commissioner's office, recruited a
first-rate coaching staff overnight, and each day Minaya seems
to add a scout or administrator. He has even brought in, as a
special assistant, Jim Beattie, the former Expos G.M. who washed
his hands of the team last summer.

For the 43-year-old Minaya, this strange summer will also be an
audition. He could have burnished his reputation by staying with
the strong Mets team he helped to reconfigure over the winter,
and he might have turned that into a general manager's post not
stamped with an expiration date. But he feared that if he
declined Selig's request to run the Expos, he would be wrecking
the chances of other Latinos to become general managers.

Minaya isn't quite as big a risk taker as he fancies himself to
be, though, even if years ago he did honeymoon in Montreal--in
February. He is working with a safety net: He has a guaranteed
job in the commissioner's office if the Expos are contracted
("That might mean going to Kinko's to drop things off," he
says), and if the team moves, he'll probably stay with it.
Minaya theoretically has full autonomy (although in practice he
ultimately reports to the commissioner's office) and a $39
million payroll, about 10% higher than Montreal had last year.
If the Expos approach 80 wins under these circumstances, his
stock rises. The more intriguing question is what will happen if
Montreal is contending in late July, a scenario only slightly
more implausible than the Minnesota Twins' strong run in 2001.
Could the Expos rent a premier starter, taking on two months of,
say, an $8 million salary? Would Major League Baseball bump up
the budget and run the risk that one of its partners would lose
Bud Ball I to the upstart Expos? "I kind of hope so," says
Taveras, who once ran the Anaheim Angels. "Baseball does want us
to operate with integrity."

Robinson has doubts that a megaplayer could be airlifted to
Montreal. The inherent restraints on the Expos' general
manager's job dissuaded him from pursuing it, but he was
energized by the prospect of managing this thin yet undeniably
talented lineup. Of course, he knew no more about the players
than the casual fan does.

The brisk days of late February and early March were hell on
outfielders and tricky for Robinson, too, because players wore
windbreakers for workouts, and he couldn't read the names or
numbers on their uniforms. When Falstaffian lefthander Scott
Stewart said, "Hey, Frank," early in camp, Robinson replied,
"Hey, Ssss...."

"He didn't quite get out 'Stew,'" Stewart says, "but I was kind
of on the side, and he didn't get a good look. But Frank's

For the moment Robinson is satisfied to be on a first-initial
basis with players. "I can tell who they are by their
mannerisms," he said in his office last Friday, between
mouthfuls of cereal, "but, as I was telling the front office
this morning, I've got to focus more on names. We'll be making
cuts, and I've got to understand who we're talking about."
Robinson most definitely isn't auditioning, but if the Expos
shift to the Washington area, there could be no finer
front-office adornment for the franchise than a man who played
and managed next door with the Baltimore Orioles.

There is a slim chance the Expos suddenly will become cult, a website started by Penn
students too sophisticated to swallow goldfish, had $2.27
million in pledges through Sunday--but the team isn't budgeting
for it. "If 30,000 come every night, it'd be a great 'screw you'
to people who say Montreal shouldn't have baseball," says
Strickland, but the season-ticket base will be about 1,000, less
than half of the total in 2001. Taveras anticipates drawing
between a half million and the 642,748 the Expos attracted last
year. There were five minor sponsors on board at week's end, but
Claude Delorme, Montreal's executive vice president for business
affairs, hopes to land a muscular financial angel such as Molson
breweries. The Expos have radio deals in both English and
French, but there will be no English-language TV and perhaps
only five to 15 games on French-language TV. Montreal received
$536,000 for media rights last year, about one one-hundredth of
what the New York Yankees earned from local TV. This year the
Expos' net return from media rights will be roughly zero.

To appeal to the few remaining seamheads in Siberia-on-the-St.
Lawrence, the Expos will offer two turn-back-the-clock promotions
(old-style uniforms and concessions prices). On other nights they
will pass out bobblehead dolls of former and present Montreal
stars Rusty Staub, Steve Rogers, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim
Raines and Guerrero. (Alas, there is no Wilfredo Cordero
bobblehand doll--36 errors in 1993.) The point is, baseball in
Montreal does have a history: maybe not a championship history,
but a unique one as the first big league franchise outside the

In the full seasons from 1979 through '83 the Expos averaged
2.24 million fans annually in a stadium so frigid in April and
late September that not even 5 for 5 qualified as hot. Fans sang
Valderi, Valdera, an oompah band played in the beer garden at
the entrance, and each time an opposing pitcher threw to first
base, a chicken was flashed on the scoreboard. There was no
happier place in baseball, including Wrigley Field. The loss of
capital when Charles Bronfman sold the team in '90, the
fire-sale departures of stars like Larry Walker, Moises Alou and
Pedro Martinez in the mid-'90s, the badmouthing of Olympic
Stadium by former Expos general partner Claude Brochu in his
futile effort to secure a downtown ballpark and the dissipation
of goodwill by Loria after he bought the team in '99 all figured
in the demise. The one contraction never heard now in Montreal
is don't, as in "Don't take away our Expos."

When Taveras arrived in Jupiter, he told reporters that if the
doctor gives you six months to live, you can either celebrate or
cry. The Expos choose to celebrate. So there will be no crying
in Montreal baseball. For now it is one day at a time for the
players, one name at a time for the manager. The orphan's life
could be worse. The Expos could be working at Enron. They wear
big league uniforms, make big league money and even have great

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Survivalists Guerrero (left) and fan Chris Zobin have the same goal this season: keeping the Expos alive.COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN J. CARRERA/AP [See caption above]THREE COLOR PHOTOS: RONALD C. MODRA Montreal exports Over the years the Expos have unloaded star material like lefty Randy Johnson, Walker (below, right) and Carter.THREE COLOR PHOTOS: BOB ROSATO Old and eager Well-worn players trying to make the Montreal roster this spring include Galarraga (left), Jose (72) and Canseco.
In the early 1980s the Expos averaged 2.24 million fans. There
was no happier place in baseball.
The team has been holding an open house for huddled masses
yearning to hit virtually for free.