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The Montreal-San Juan Expos Still Exist, And Are Still Looking For A Home Expos Games In Puerto Rico May Snuff Out Fire Sale
The Road Show
The Montreal-San Juan Expos Still Exist, And Are Still Looking For A Home
By Dave Sheinin
February 17, 2003
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 16 -- Like the orphans they are, the Montreal Expos have been handed off to a new, loving home this spring, simply because the owner of the Florida Marlins -- who, by baseball's bizarre machinations, also owns 1/29th of the Expos -- decided he didn't want to spend his springs here anymore. Space Coast Stadium still wears the bright teal paint of the Marlins, another reminder that the Expos are always one step away from homelessness.
The sun will come out tomorrow for the Expos, however, if for no other reason than they will be let out of dingy, domed, tomb-like Stade Olympique in Montreal this season for 22 "home" games, to be played instead in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Of course, that means even more bouncing around from home to home. It's a hard-knock life, indeed.
To recap: For surviving contraction, rebuilding an organization that had been reduced to six employees by last February, finishing second in the ultra-competitive National League and posting a 83-79 record, the Expos were rewarded -- by remaining wards of the state, still owned by Major League Baseball as the relocation process crawls on.
They were told to slash $10 million from their projected 2003 payroll budget, forcing General Manager Omar Minaya to trade ace right-hander Bartolo Colon last month.
And they were informed that they essentially would be getting 22 extra road games in the form of three homestands that are being moved to San Juan.
(Thus, one trip this summer will find the Expos traveling from Montreal to Miami to Philadelphia to San Juan to Seattle to Oakland to Pittsburgh before finally returning to Montreal 25 days and 22 games later.)
"It's a joke," said right-handed pitcher Javier Vazquez when asked about the ongoing uncertainty concerning the Expos. "I can't believe it. Now we're owned by 29 other teams. We need an owner who is going to put money into the team to make us better, not make us worse. . . . [Baseball's owners] treat us like we don't exist."
Actually, it's not that baseball treats the Expos as if they don't exist. Baseball simply treats the Expos as if it doesn't want them to exist. And baseball's owners, who gave up the right to contract until 2007 in last fall's labor deal, certainly don't want to spend any more of their money on an orphan team, especially one that, more often than not, outperforms their own teams.
Although league officials still insist on a relocation timetable that could see the Expos moved to Washington by 2004, the Expos have learned the hard way never to count on things working out in their favor.
"It's the nature of the situation: We have no control over it," said Manager Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame outfielder who returns for a second year with the team. "When the schedule was made up, and they decided we should play 22 games in Puerto Rico? We'll go play them. The uncertainty of the sale of the ballclub? There's nothing we can do about it. We're still the Montreal Expos. They tell us to trim payroll? We did it."
It has come to this for the Expos: As long as the team wins its arbitration case Monday against Vazquez (the difference between Vazquez's salary figure and the team's is $1.15 million, and there remains a chance the sides could settle before the hearing), and as long as ticket sales remain strong in San Juan, Minaya probably will not have to trim anymore payroll.
If not, goodbye Michael Barrett.
"We'd like certainty," said Barrett, the Expos' marketable 26-year-old catcher and the subject of trade talks this winter. "But the question is, does certainty really exist in this game? The very nature of the job is uncertainty. So 22 extra road games isn't a big deal. It's still an honor to put on a uniform every day."
Ticket sales for the 22 games in San Juan -- spread out over three separate "home"stands -- actually have been outpacing projections. According to Minaya, the team already has sold between 4,000 and 5,000 "season" tickets to the entire 22-game package, with individual-game sales scheduled to begin this week. The team projects it will sell between 90 and 100 percent of the available tickets.
The Expos are guaranteed $7 million for moving the 22 games to San Juan, but the total revenue could climb as high as $10 million if all the games sell out and if sponsor revenue is strong. Minaya said that money would go toward payroll.
It is too late to bring back Colon, the stocky right-hander whom Minaya acquired from Cleveland last summer when the Expos were on the outskirts of the playoff race. But despite the fact everyone in baseball knew Minaya had to dump payroll, he still managed to pull of a slick deal, enlisting the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees in a three-way swap that netted veteran right-hander Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, first baseman Jeff Liefer and right-hander Rocky Biddle. In addition, the Yankees are paying almost all of Hernandez's salary.
"I would've loved to have kept Colon," Minaya said. "But we're not the only team that has to make tough decisions. As a GM, it has been a great challenge. The fact we were able to come away with El Duque, Biddle and Liefer -- and to have El Duque pitching for us for [almost] free, I'm very happy with that."
A year ago this time, Minaya had a cell phone permanently fused to his ear. Hired only 72 hours before the opening of camp, he was handed an organization that had been left bare by Jeffrey Loria, the owner who essentially swapped the Expos for the Marlins last winter and took nearly the entire organization with him to Miami. Minaya was left to piece together a scouting staff, minor league coaching staff and front-office staff almost on his own.
"When you look at our wins and losses [in 2002] relative to the payroll, the year was a success," Minaya said. "But what has been rewarding to me has been to build an organization under very difficult circumstances and short time constraints. It was a major risk to come here. It could have gone bad in those 72 hours, really bad. It could've destroyed my career. So I'm proud of what we've accomplished."
While last season served to raise Minaya's profile in the game, it also rejuvenated Robinson, who agreed only grudgingly to manage the Expos in 2002, insisting all along he only wanted to do it for one year. Then he re-upped for another year back in November, and now he is talking about doing it for another five years.
"My view has changed," Robinson said. "I want to keep managing, as long as my health is good and I enjoy it and someone wants me. Last year was a good, enjoyable experience. And I feel like the job isn't finished."
Expos Games In Puerto Rico May Snuff Out Fire Sale Pressure On Payroll Appears Relieved, Allowing Montreal To Retain Team Core
February 11, 2003
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The bullpen will be an area of focus for the Montreal Expos in spring training, but the team has already recorded a save.
With pitchers and catchers to begin reporting to Melbourne, Fla., in two days, it appears as if the 22 "home" games the Expos will play in San Juan have alleviated some of the pressure on general manager Omar Minaya to reduce payroll.
Club officials now say it is possible that the equivalent of as many as 5,000 22-game packages will be sold by the time the Expos play their "home opener" at the 20,000-seat Hiram Bithorn Stadium on April 11. In Montreal last season, the club sold fewer than the equivalent of 1,000 81-game packages. Tickets in Puerto Rico average $30 (U.S.) a game, compared with $16 (Canadian) in Montreal.
"Don't anticipate any more major moves between now and opening day," club president Tony Tavares said yesterday. "After that, just like any other team, it will come down to how long we stay in the race and how competitive we are.
"Playing in San Juan will have a significant positive impact on our revenues."
There were dire predictions that the Expos, owned and operated by a limited partnership of the 29 other franchises in Major League Baseball, would be forced into a player fire sale. Instead, working with a guaranteed base of revenue provided by the Puerto Rican organizers, the Expos added three serviceable players in a deal for workhorse starting pitcher Bartolo Colon and his $8-million (U.S.) contract.
And on the eve of spring training, the Expos still have a lineup anchored by Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro. They still have Javier Vazquez and Tony Armas at the front end of their pitching rotation, as well as apayroll in the low-$40-million range.
Improvement from within may come if shortstop Orlando Cabrera can return to his Gold Glove form after an off-season free of back pain, and if Fernando Tatis does anything at all. Said manager Frank Robinson, "I was pleased with what didn't happen, let's put it that way."
Minaya acquired veteran pitcher Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez and pitcher Rocky Biddle and outfielder Jeff Liefer for Colon as part of a three-way deal with the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. The Yankees will cover most of Hernandez's $4.1-million contract, which he agreed to yesterday. Like every GM, Minaya still wants to add depth at the back end of his starting rotation and also add veteran bench players to replace Troy O'Leary and Wilton Guerrero. Minaya is also aware that the Expos had saves from eight pitchers last year.
At some point before the start of the season, he is expected to trade catcher Michael Barrett and his $2.6-million (U.S.) contract for pitching depth.
"We should have the necessary revenue to keep the core of the team," Minaya said.
"And at the end of the day, you like to think you can be more competitive than you were the year before. But everybody else in this division went out and spent money."
They surely did. The Philadelphia Phillies, who will move into a new ballpark next season, dropped $82-million on free agents Jim Thome and David Bell, then added starting pitcher Kevin Millwood from the Atlanta Braves, whose 11-year streak of National League East titles is in jeopardy.
The Florida Marlins, in a fit of misfounded optimism, signed aging catcher Pudge Rodriguez, while the New York Mets tried to recover from last year's botched chemistry experiment by adding left-hander Tom Glavine and outfielder Cliff Floyd and ditching manager Bobby Valentine. The Braves did some cost-effective retooling by adding pitchers Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz and getting the Marlins to foot the bill for much of Mike Hampton's contract as part of a bizarre three-way trade with the Colorado Rockies.
Elsewhere, the defending NL champion San Francisco Giants exchanged one father figure and story teller for another, with Felipe Alou stepping in for Dusty Baker, who is now managing the Chicago Cubs.
The West will once again be a three-team duel involving the Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers, but it is the St. Louis Cardinals who are, arguably, the favourites to dethrone the Giants. Like their toughest competition in the NL Central, the Houston Astros, who have added Jeff Kent's bat to an already formidable middle of the lineup manned by Lance Berkman and Jeff Bagwell, St. Louis has set a goal of leaving Florida healthy.
The Expos finished second in the NL East with an 83-79 record last season, their first campaign of 80 and more wins since 1996. Not bad, considering baseball didn't name the Expos' administrative team until the eve of spring training.
The Expos still don't know where they'll be in 2004 and have moved their spring training and minor-league site north of their swanky former site in Jupiter to the Space Coast Stadium, the out-of-the-way former home of the Marlins, built in the middle of a pasture.
But Robinson believes he will be able to keep the team better focused without the threat of contraction, which means he can get to work right away on cutting down on the 139 errors made by the Expos last season, the third worst defence in the major leagues.
"This will be a more normal spring training," Robinson said. "I have a better idea about what the core of this team can do after seeing them all last season, and I think they have a better understanding of what I expect philosophically."