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Expos Getting Used to Life in the State of Flux

The flight to Puerto Rico from the United States is a shuttle compared to the flight to Japan. The distance issue compounded security concerns amid the war in Iraq, prompting cancellation of the season-opening series between the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners that had been scheduled in Tokyo for Tuesday and Wednesday. The Montreal Expos, however, are still scheduled to play the first of 22 regular-season games in San Juan on April 11, which is one of the few things that the Expos know for sure.

Although baseball’s relocation committee hopes to decide by the All-Star break what place the Expos will call home in 2004, there are no guarantees.

The committee is looking for a stadium commitment from government officials in Washington; Portland, Ore., or the northern Virginia area, and that may be an unreasonable expectation given the current economics and environment.

Although the 29 other owners may be reluctant to subsidize the Expos for another year, and the players’ union may be reluctant to disrupt the home life of the Montreal players by approving another schedule that includes 22 games in Puerto Rico, people close to the process think there is a strong possibility that the team could be saddled with another year in Montreal.

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At that point, by the end of the 2004 season, there will be only two years left on the new, four-year bargaining agreement that bans the folding of teams through the life of the contract, and some owners might be willing to leave the Expos in Montreal, wait out those two years, then kill the team once and for all.

On the prospect of remaining in the dreary setting of Olympic Stadium through 2004, catcher Mike Barrett said, “I’m just preparing mentally that they’re still not going to have an answer for us for a while. I mean, this has been a hot topic for five years already, so I’m preparing for the worst-case scenario that nothing is going to change.”

The well-chronicled Montreal story is one of baseball’s saddest. Bad ownership by more than one owner over the years, a terrible stadium, poor direction from more than one commissioner and several other factors have crippled baseball in a city with a strong tradition in the sport. The Expos have been forced to sell off more talented players in the last dozen years than the other clubs combined. Now they are caught in what one person close to the club calls a “squeeze from the top and bottom.”

With the commissioner’s office providing the financial direction, the Expos have a limited payroll at the top and virtually no resources to spend on scouting in Latin America at the bottom, which, as the person close to the club said, “has been the Expos’ hallmark.” Just about every time the club has been forced to move a talented player, “It’s been able to plug in a young Hispanic player or a young player out of a system that’s allowed it to survive. The fact that the Expos have virtually had to give up their Latin America presence won’t necessarily impact the club this year or next because it has a solid core in place, but it will have a damaging result down the line.”

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It’s a shame. Amid last year’s contraction threat and the smallest attendance in baseball, the Expos still found a way to win four more games than they lost and finish second in the National League East, although a distant 19 games behind the Atlanta Braves. Forced to operate with a $42-million payroll this year, General Manager Omar Minaya had to trade his ace, Bartolo Colon, who was a threat to leave as a free agent at the end of the year. He got pitchers Orlando Hernandez and Rocky Biddle, among others, in the three-way deal, but neither has the 20-win capability that Colon took to the Chicago White Sox.

Still, the Expos can’t be dismissed in the East, and Manager Frank Robinson, at 67, said he agreed to come back for a second year (after having agreed to leave his position as baseball’s discipline czar for what was thought to be one year at the helm of a folded or relocated team) because “I think the job was only half done and I wanted to come back and try to finish it.”

Robinson said that if the Expos can avoid giving away games, if his players can stay focused on the field and not get caught up in all of the issues swirling around them, “we can play with anybody.” But, he added, “We have to be allowed to keep the core together. If we’re forced to give up one or two players, it will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to compete.”

The old-school Robinson, a Hall of Fame outfielder who gave no quarter on the field, banged heads with several of his players last year, but he acknowledges making some adjustments.

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“I didn’t give up my philosophy because I know how the game has to be played,” Robinson said, “but I’m able to bend, listen, communicate. I’m not trying to win every fight.” Nor is he willing to say this will be his last year. Now, he said, 27 years after becoming baseball’s first African American manager, “I’m willing to manage for four or five more years.”

Of course, Robinson may feel differently after the Expos open the season with a draining 19-game road trip, including 10 games in Puerto Rico.

Tony Tavares, the former Angel president who now oversees the Expos on behalf of the commissioner, was asked about the security concerns in San Juan and said, “They’re no different there than they are in Montreal or anywhere else now. It’s a different world. We’re at ... a heightened state of alert, for the foreseeable future.”

Ah, back to the future, back to catcher Barrett, who said:

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“We don’t know what’s going to happen or what to expect. We’re constantly trying to keep things in a positive perspective. At times that can be frustrating and tough. But with what we got through last year, with the talk of contraction, with the talk of a strike, with not knowing who our manager was going to be two weeks before the season, I think this season will be a cakewalk.”

Talking Points

Although locked into a $42-million payroll, with no understanding of where they will be playing next season and no English radio deal and few sponsors in Montreal this year, Tavares said the Expos are still trying to sign their franchise player, right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, to a multiyear deal.

“We’re trying to have discussions without interfering with his performance on the field,” Tavares said. “We’re going to be pretty quiet about this. We’re not going to be talking about him every day in the paper, other than to say we have a preference to sign him.”

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Guerrero, eligible for free agency at the end of the season, is an important property beyond his superstar talent. It’s simple. A prospective new owner is more inclined to be attracted to the Expos with Guerrero locked in for several years than with a gaping hole where he used to play. At the same time, if the Expos are out of the race by July or August and have not reached a deal with Guerrero, they probably will try to trade him rather than getting only compensatory draft picks if he leaves as a free agent.

Of course, getting equivalent talent for Guerrero is as formidable a challenge as the Expos trying to sign him.

“People talk about Alex Rodriguez,” Robinson said, “but Vlady may be the most complete young player there is, and it’s scary. I don’t think he’s even scratched the surface yet.”

Arizona Greenbacks

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The Diamondbacks continue to be locked into their veteran core. It’s hard to knock success -- managing general partner Jerry Colangelo’s approach has produced three division titles and a World Series championship in five years -- but at some point the bills are going to come due. The Diamondbacks may lead baseball in cash calls, and a year ago ownership gave up half-interest in the team to lure $160 million from four new investors.

Now, the Diamondbacks have signed Luis Gonzalez to a three-year, $30-million extension that will pay him $11.5 million in 2006, when he turns 39, and they continue to work on a two-year, $36-million extension for Randy Johnson, who will be 42 in 2005.

No one would dispute the possibility that Johnson may still be baseball’s most dominating pitcher at 52, let alone 42, but Gonzalez is coming off a season in which his home run total dropped from 57 to 28. Of course, 57 may have been an aberration considering that 28 is more in line with his four-year Arizona average of 34 home runs and 117 runs batted in.

The point is that the Diamondbacks are trying desperately to keep the piper at bay -- chronologically and financially. Next year they will start to take a big hit from the nearly $170 million in salary that their core group has been willing to defer to keep the team together, and their hope of reducing next year’s payroll to $85 million from about $95 million may be unrealistic since they will already owe more than $65 million to 10 players if Johnson signs the extension for $16 million or more.

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Import Business

San Diego Padre General Manager Kevin Towers will be going to Japan in May to scout shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who will be giving Miguel Tejada competition in next year’s free-agent pool. Owner John Moores is finally expected to loosen his team’s financial reins when they move into Petco Park next season, and Towers also saved $5 million in the deal that sent Bubba Trammell and pitching prospect Mark Phillips to the New York Yankees for Rondell White, who replaces the injured Phil Nevin.

Phillips, however, is a 21-year-old power left-hander whom the Padres gave $2.2 million to sign three years ago, the type of pitching prospect on which Towers is trying to build, but the GM said, “Potentially, there are some very good [free-agent] names out there that would impact this organization over the next few years a lot more than Mark Phillips would, or Bubba. I just felt I would have had a hard time looking at $5 million [in the form of Trammell] sitting on our bench.”


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