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Expos to Call Puerto Rico Home

Times Staff Writer

Although the players’ union has not formally signed off, the Montreal Expos will play 22 games in Puerto Rico next season, including three with the World Series champion Angels on June 3-5.

After attending an owners’ meeting in Dallas on Wednesday where the plan was officially approved, Angel Senior Vice President Kevin Uhlich said he hadn’t been aware of his club’s involvement until Tuesday, when notified by the commissioner’s office.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Hey, great.’ We were earmarked for a very tough trip and this actually makes the travel a little easier,” Uhlich said.

A 12-game, four-city trip initially had the Angels traveling from Anaheim to Baltimore to Tampa Bay to Montreal and to Florida again for a three-game interleague series with the Marlins. The three games in Puerto Rico keep them in the same geographic area.

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Since the Expos barely averaged 10,000 for home games last season and remain somewhere between elimination and relocation while being subsidized by the 29 other clubs, Commissioner Bud Selig said the opportunity to play a quarter of the team’s schedule in a “city and region renowned for its production of players and the enthusiasm of its fans” offered an opportunity that couldn’t be ignored.

Speaking by phone from Dallas, where he also announced that the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners would open the 2003 season with two games in Tokyo on March 25 and 26, Selig said that he hopes to continue “taking the game to as many places as we can, playing internationally as often as we can.... The games in Puerto Rico helps us resolve the problem in the short-term and gives us time to consider some long-term options.”

In the search for a permanent solution before the 2004 season, Selig has appointed a relocation committee. How it plays out is uncertain -- a suit filed against Selig and former Expo owner Jeffrey Loria by 14 former minority owners of the club compounds the situation -- but many in the industry think it will come down to an auction between competing cities and/or groups in Northern Virginia, Washington, Portland, Ore., and Charlotte, N.C.

As for Puerto Rico, Selig said, “Let’s see how the games go this year.”

The Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers opened the 2001 season in San Juan and drew a capacity crowd of 19,891 to Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

The Expos, with Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro among several Caribbean-area drawing cards, will play 10 April games there against the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds. They will play six more in June, including the three with the Angels, and six in September, including three with Sammy Sosa and the Chicago Cubs.

Expo President Tony Tavares said the guaranteed income in U.S. dollars from the Puerto Rico games would enable the club to avoid a fire sale, and Frank Robinson, who has signed on for a second year as Expo manager, said his players recognize they are in a unique situation and have no control over where they play and won’t be affected by having two home fields.

“It will be great to play in front of the people down there,” he said. “I spent nine years there managing in winter ball. They’re great fans, passionate about the game.”

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Although the players’ union is expected to approve the plan, a union lawyer said the players would have preferred only two trips to Puerto Rico to reduce dislocation and that certain allowances and accommodations on behalf of the Montreal players were still being negotiated. He referred to meal money in Puerto Rico, lodging there and family travel -- recognition that the Expos will be a road team for more than a fourth of their home schedule, taking on a financial burden they otherwise wouldn’t.

He added, however, that given the miserable alternative of a full season in Montreal, and the fact that the commissioner’s office permitted the situation there to deteriorate so badly, “The players accept that this is the best idea for 2003, although certainly not a long-term solution.”

In another development Wednesday, Selig said he will soon form a special task force to address new and broader marketing concepts and ideas.

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The Dodgers promoted pitchers Andrew Brown, Alfredo Gonzalez, Hong-Chih Kuo and Rick Roberts and catcher Koyie Hill to their 40-man roster Wednesday, bringing to 38 the number of roster players.


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