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THE STATE OF THE GAME

C'est la vie:
The Cruel Demise of Baseball's Most Invisible Team

By Robert Nishihara

Until recently, I hadn't given much thought to the Montreal Expos.

Alas, Bud Selig and his merry cohorts have changed all of that. In the past few months, Expos owner Jeffrey Loria—who, in the course of his one year of running the team, managed to provide an unprecedented invisibility to the franchise by failing to secure local TV and English radio contracts last season—was essentially allowed to swap the Expos for the Florida Marlins, admittedly with some extra cash thrown the Marlins' way. Florida, of course, became available when its previous owner, John Henry, was allowed to buy the Boston Red Sox. The Expos? They will head into the 2002 season in the rather unenviable position of being owned and operated by, well, the very opponents they will play. I believe the official jargon is "limited partnership," but the reality is that all twenty-nine clubs in the MLB universe who do not play in Montreal voted to buy the franchise from Loria for $120 million and then allowed Commissioner Bud to staff the team's management. As these bizarre and, frankly, somewhat incestuous events have unfolded, the heretofore translucence that had been the Montreal Expos franchise the past few years has become increasingly opaque. And this increased visibility is not a pretty sight.

The lame-duck status that has been stamped on the team will dog the club the entire year. Adding to this depressing mix, Commissioner Bud appointed a GM with no prior GM experience (Omar Minaya) and longtime hard-ass Frank Robinson to take over as skipper. Now, in fairness to Robby, he has prior managerial experience and is accustomed to succeeding. Indeed, he was one of the most underrated players in the history of the game, and his impressive playing credentials should get him mentioned in the same breath as fellow superstars Aaron, Mays, and Mantle. Unfortunately, as a manager, he has not come close to that same level of success and has developed a reputation for being extremely tough on his players. In fact, Robinson stepped down from his post with Major League Baseball (where he was in charge of meting out fines and suspensions) to accept the job with the Expos. So how will a manager who is as old school as old school gets mix with a team full of young players who know that their franchise is just playing out the string this season before a nearly empty house? I think it'll be a long season at Olympic Stadium.

To sum up, Jeff Loria buys the Florida Marlins, former Marlins owner John Henry buys the Boston Red Sox, and the Expos become twenty-five guys set adrift on a raft in the middle of nowhere, sans oars and maps. All the while, the rest of the owners in baseball cover their eyes, ears, and mouths. If ever there were a clearer case of the inmates running the asylum, I'm not sure where that more definitive example would be found.

The irony is that a mere eight years ago the Montreal Expos were the best team in baseball. In 1994, they finished with a 74–40 record, six games ahead of perennial NL power Atlanta. The offense, led by the outfield trio of Larry Walker, Moises Alou, and Marquis Grissom, finished third in the NL in runs scored. The pitching staff boasted sixteen-game winner Ken Hill, twenty-two-year-old Pedro Martinez (in his first season as a starter), lefty Jeff Fassero (eleven wins, 2.99 ERA), and co-closers John Wetteland and Mel Rojas, who combined for forty-one saves. Even the supporting cast was solid: Cliff Floyd, who would later blossom into a star with, of all teams, the now-Loria- owned Florida Marlins, was a fourth outfielder; Jeff Shaw, who later turned into a top-notch closer with Cincinnati, pitched as a setup man; and Felipe Alou, one of the most popular and respected managers in baseball, was at the helm.

The problem, of course, was that Montreal put together this impressive team in 1994. And 1994, as we all know, was the year the players went out on strike in mid-August and did not return to the field until mid-1995. In September 1994, Commissioner Bud put the gavel down on the season and officially canceled all remaining games on the schedule, including the World Series.

Thus, the year the star-crossed Montreal Expos were most fit to be champions there was no championship to play for.

After that, the franchise seemed to throw up its hands in resignation. They let talented players leave, trading them for younger and, more important, cheaper substitutes. Pedro Martinez turned into Carl Pavano. John Wetteland became Fernando Seguignol. Ken Hill was replaced by Kirk Bullinger (who pitched exactly seven innings for the club). Marquis Grissom gone for Roberto Kelly and Tony Tarasco (who each played only one season with Montreal). Moises Alou and Larry Walker simply departed as free agents.

Prospects for success inevitably dimmed, and financial turmoil followed. Like a punctured tire, the further down the road the Expos went, the more air they lost. Such that the team finds itself in its current predicament with the former "Czar of Discipline" running the show and MLB praying that Les Expos will just go quietly into the night after this season.

So, what does the 2002 season hold in store for the tenants of le Stade Olympique?

Well, they have three-fifths of a decent starting rotation. Javier Vasquez is the real deal and a legitimate number one starter. Tony Armas Jr. and Carl Pavano are capable pitchers, though Pavano has a lengthy history of injury and is as likely to spend as much time on the DL as off of it. Outfielder Vladimir Guerrero is a star and is quickly developing into one the best hitters in the NL. Second baseman Jose Vidro is only one season removed from a huge offensive year (he hit .330 with 24 HR and 97 RBI in 2000). Shortstop Orlando Cabrera and catcher Michael Barrett are better-than-average players at their respective positions.

That, unfortunately, is the extent of the good news.

On the minus side of the ledger, the team is perilously thin. Bench strength is practically nonexistent. The bullpen is serviceable, but when the team unloaded closer Ugueth Urbina last season, they did not find a true replacement for him. Attendance is abysmal. They play in a division with two powerhouse franchises: one, a perennial favorite (Atlanta); the other, a free-spending, aggressive organization that just had a hugely successful off-season acquiring new players (New York Mets). And, after their top three starters, the Expos pitching staff is a mess. (Hint: Hideki Irabu is still on the payroll.)

Despite all of that, I hope the Expos have a great season. No, not a great season, a season for the ages! Their excellence in 2002 should ring loud and true for years. Culminating, fittingly, with Commissioner Bud trying to stumble his way through a World Series trophy presentation to the team he and his cohorts had left for dead; an image to be captured, savored, and showcased in perpetuity.

Of course, the likelihood of the Expos rising from the ashes to humiliate the higher-ups in Major League Baseball is about as remote as their continued existence past the 2002 season.

But, hey, it's been done before, albeit most recently in the movies. And if you think about it, the plot for the movie Major League isn't a whole lot different from the current situation that the Expos players face: an owner (or in the Expos' case, twenty-nine owners) who, for financial reasons, doesn't want to see the team succeed, tries to sabotage the club's chances, but the underdog roster rises to the occasion to succeed anyway.

To the best of my recollection, the "Major League" recipe for success utilized the following elements: a plucky, battle-scarred veteran catcher who comes out of retirement for a final season; a lightning-quick leadoff man who "runs like Mays but hits like shit"; a quirky, erratic pitcher with a blazing fastball but precious little control; and a Cuban-born cleanup hitter who crushes fastballs but ties himself in knots swinging at curves.

So, if you extend that recipe to the Expos, you get the following: Gary Carter back behind the plate. Brian L. Hunter, who indeed "runs like Mays but hits like shit," batting leadoff. The real "Wild Thing," Mitch Williams, slinging his blazing fastball all over the place. And Jose Canseco, stopping at yet another ballpark in an attempt to rejuvenate his career, in the cleanup spot.

On the other hand, this may be a time when life is not meant to imitate art.

Still, as baseball's most unwatched and unloved team of the past few years completes its final act, I hope that they can find enough motivation, catch a few good breaks, and harness enough good will to finish the year with some degree of success. With people finally paying a little attention to them, it would be nice to see them respond with a winning season.

And if they could somehow, miraculously, find a way to play well enough to embarrass Commissioner Bud and Jeff Loria, well, that would be a final act all the sweeter.

Here's to you, Les Expos. Magnifique finale une saison. —EFQ

 

ROBERT NISHIHARA is a lifelong baseball fan and diehard San Francisco Giants partisan who resides in San Mateo, California. He believes that baseball is bigger than any of the individuals who have tried to prove otherwise over the years, and hopes to be writing about this great game for many seasons to come.

© 2002 Robert Nishihara

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