Les Vagabonds

Expos growing weary of tramping around without a real home

Posted: Tuesday, May 18, 2004

MILWAUKEE - The Montreal Expos have heard these promises before.

Honest, guys, we're going to find a home for you this summer. It's going to happen. Take it to the bank. C'mon, we're serious this time.

"It doesn't matter where we land," said Montreal catcher Brian Schneider. "Just get us somewhere. We just want an owner."

Simply put, baseball's nomads are tired of bouncing around like ping-pong balls in a lottery basket. With no hope of remaining in Montreal, the Expos were given 22 "home" games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2003, and again this season.

Operated by Major League Baseball since 2002, the Expos originally were promised a new home by the 2003 all-star break. When that didn't happen, the deadline was extended to this year's midseason affair.

This time, Commissioner Bud Selig says it's going to happen.

"I've said I want it done this summer and I hold to that," said Selig. "I want to complete this thing and get the team sold."

That's music to the ears of the Expos, who have been at a disadvantage due to brutal travel requirements as well as a tight budget that has resulted in the continuing loss of star players. The way the hired help sees it, this is no way to run a baseball team.

"The odds have been against us, both last year and this year," said first baseman Brad Wilkerson. "But this team hasn't made excuses. We have a good group of guys who go out there and play hard for nine innings. We're not going to whine."

MLB, or in essence, the other 29 owners, took over operation of the club before the 2002 season, allowing owner Jeffrey Loria to buy the Florida Marlins. That, in turn, allowed Marlins owner John Henry to put together a group to buy the Boston Red Sox.

Starting over

Omar Minaya, then assistant general manager for the New York Mets, was named to run the Expos' baseball operations on Feb. 12, 2002, one week before the scheduled start of spring training. Because Loria took most of Montreal's baseball staff with him to Florida, Minaya basically had to start from scratch in reconstructing the organization.

Bud Selig asked Frank Robinson, a Hall of Fame player and former manager then working out of the commissioner's office, to return to the dugout and lead the club on the field. Faced with that seemingly impossible task, Minaya and Robinson guided the Expos to an 83-79 record in 2002, their first winning season since 1996.

It was quite an accomplishment for a team that baseball officials tried to contract after the 2001 season. That plan was torpedoed when a new labor agreement with the players union in August 2002 took contraction off the table for the length of the four-year deal.

When it became evident no local buyer would come forward and try to keep the Expos in Montreal, a relocation committee was formed to search for a new home. Meanwhile, attendance continued to plummet for the lame-duck club, which drew 812,545 fans in 2002 - its fifth consecutive season below one million.

In an attempt to boost revenue, MLB came up with the idea of playing 22 "home" games in San Juan during the 2003 season. With many Puerto Ricans on the team, the Expos were a popular attraction there and averaged 14,222 per game, which would have worked out to 1.15 million over a full season.

But the expanded travel necessitated by playing three home stands in San Juan proved onerous. On May 25 of last season, Montreal embarked on a 25-day, 22-game odyssey that covered seven series in six cities.

The Expos first went to Florida and Philadelphia, then played "home" interleague series against Anaheim and Texas in San Juan. The scheduling nightmare required them to fly to Seattle and Oakland before finishing the journey in Pittsburgh.

Undercover work

Shortstop Orlando Cabrera found a novel way to mark each day of an odyssey that would have prompted Homer to turn back and head for home. He bought 25 pairs of underwear at the outset and threw away one pair at the end of each day.

A player has never been more excited to look in his suitcase and discover he was out of skivvies.

"I kept track of every day that way," said Cabrera, who plans to mark time in that fashion again this season when the Expos embark on a 25-day journey wrapped around the All-Star Game.

"It's something I just came up with. You try to distract yourself from all the travel."

Not surprisingly, the Expos went 8-14 over that span, ruining what had been a magnificent start (31-18) to the season. They lingered around the .500 mark for the rest of the season, barely surviving another late-season road test that including trips to Florida and Philadelphia and two more "home" series in Puerto Rico against Florida and Chicago.

The Expos won only four of those 13 games, falling out of the NL wild-card race. Making matters worse, budgetary restraints prevented them from adding depth by calling up minor leaguers in September, normally a routine practice.

Relief pitcher Chad Bentz of Juneau, currently a rookie with the Expos, was one of the players the Expos originally planned to call up last September. Bentz had to wait until spring training to make the team.

The cost would have been minimal to call up a few minor leaguers to help the Expos' cause in September. All things considered, it was a minor miracle they finished with an 83-79 record.

"That was ridiculous," said Wilkerson. "It made Major League Baseball look bad. Then again, look who owns our team - the other owners. They're not going to call anybody up to help us get to the playoffs."

MLB threat alleged

Angered by that snub, the players voted in September to reject a proposal from MLB to play another 22 games in Puerto Rico this season. But, with a $10 million guarantee in hand from promoters in San Juan, MLB officials used coercion to get the players to relent.

According to the players, MLB threatened to slash the team's $50 million payroll if they didn't agree to return to Puerto Rico. Reluctantly, the players agreed to do so after negotiating some extra travel perks.

"We wanted to stay in Montreal, but they told us they'd bust up our payroll," said Wilkerson. "Maybe we should have stood up to them."

In exchange, MLB scheduled all 22 games in Puerto Rico before the all-star break, so as not to damage any late-season playoff chances the club might have. MLB also agreed to make improvements to antiquated Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan and give each player an extra $500 a day in meal money.

As it was, the Expos' payroll still was lowered to about $41 million. Minaya traded his best pitcher, Javier Vazquez, to the New York Yankees and was unable to stop the franchise's top player, Vladimir Guerrero, from bolting to Anaheim as a free agent.

Minaya, who received first baseman Nick Johnson and two other players in the Vazquez deal, tried to bolster his offense with the acquisitions of Tony Batista and Carl Everett. Unfortunately for the Expos, Johnson and Everett, among others, went down with injuries and the team's offense disappeared.

Entering today's game, which opens the Expos' second "homestand" in San Juan, the Expos were 13-25 for the worst record in the National League and third-worst in the majors.

"The injuries have made it more difficult," said Minaya, generally considered to have done a solid job under the circumstances.

"We're trying to stay positive. That's the theme of our club. We want to maintain a positive outlook from our players. We're doing the best with what's been given us. That's the attitude I take."

Seven in the running

Meanwhile, the players eagerly await news of their future home. Seven groups remain in contention to buy the franchise, representing Washington, D.C.; Northern Virginia; Portland, Ore.; Norfolk/Hampton Roads, Va.; Las Vegas; Monterrey, Mexico; and San Juan.

Baseball's relocation committee, led by MLB president/chief operating officer Bob DuPuy and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, will present the pros and cons of each site to owners during their quarterly meeting on Wednesday and Thursday in New York.

DuPuy said no recommendation would be made to owners at that time. But, if Selig is to meet his midseason deadline, you can bet a favorite will emerge in some form at that meeting.

Barring unforeseen developments, the groups representing Washington and Northern Virginia have the best shots at winning the franchise. The Portland and Norfolk/Hampton Roads markets are marginal at best to support a major-league team, and the economies and long-term viability of Monterrey and San Juan concern baseball officials.

Because of its growth potential and geographical location, Las Vegas is the most intriguing possibility for relocation. But the gambling issue is a major obstacle and could result in consequences that baseball officials don't want to face.

If Selig won't let Pete Rose back in the game because of his gambling, how could he in good conscience put a team in Las Vegas? Eventually, one of the major professional leagues will make that bold move, but don't look for MLB to go first.

The Orioles factor

The Washington and Northern Virginia markets are troubling to Selig for another reason. Thirty minutes up Interstate 95 are the Baltimore Orioles, owned by the outspoken Peter Angelos, a lawyer who got rich by suing big corporations.

Baseball no longer has the territorial rule that prohibits relocating a franchise within 100 miles of an existing one, but that doesn't mean Selig isn't worried about the consequences.

"The commissioner has stated from the beginning that he is very concerned about relocating any team in a market that might have a negative impact on an existing franchise," said DuPuy.

"He is concerned about the viability of the Baltimore Orioles. It's not a Peter Angelos factor. It's a Baltimore Orioles factor. It's something to take into account as we weigh the value of the competing markets."

Some type of financial compensation could be made to Angelos, however, keeping the Washington and Northern Virginia bidders at the top of the list.

"I know how painful this has been (for the Expos)," said Selig. "But it's the last residue of (attempted) contraction. Now it's time to clean it up and get them a home.

"It's going to happen; believe it. They've done a magnificent job under tough circumstances, but it's time to get this club sold and we're going to do it. You can count on it."

The vagabond Expos are counting on it. They don't really care where they end up, as long as they get to call one city home.

"We've been hearing it the last two or three years, but I really think it's to the point where they've got to do something," said Wilkerson.

"We just want a fan base that roots for us and cheers for us. If they make a decision, we'll be on cloud nine. That'll probably carry us through the rest of the season."

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