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Sunday, May 25, 2003
Updated: May 27, 8:27 AM ET
Deck stacked against Expos

By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com

The Expos reached Memorial Day with a better record than the Yankees, turning this traditional pole entrenched with one of the five best records in the game. And they have done it despite losing Tony Armas and Orlando Hernandez, as well as varied injuries to Brad Wilkerson and Jose Vidro.

"What Frank Robinson and his staff have done is remarkable," general manager Omar Minaya said.

Robinson
Robinson

There is no question that the Expos have a great deal of talent. Vladimir Guerrero is a star. Vidro and Orlando Cabrera are one of the best middle infield combinations, Wilkerson a premier young hitter. Javier Vazquez fronts a solid young starting staff, and Robinson has nicely pieced the bullpen.

But ...

"Now things get tough," said Minaya, who has spent the last couple of weeks scouting for the amateur draft.

Now the bungled contraction that left all these talented players as wards of the commissioner's office begins to become dicey. The Saturday night before the end of this recent homestand drew 33,236 for $5 night -- and nearly 15,000 tickets were sold between 6-7:30 p.m. for $5 seats, $1 hot dogs and a Wil Cordero walkoff home run. But as entertaining and competitive as this team might be, even those new to this baseball with subtitles realizes that Major League Baseball's cocoon of conflicts is not about to allow this team to seriously contend.

"Depth," said Minaya, "is a problem, which is natural with our payroll and some of the stars we currently have. Now we have to have everyone chip in." Because on Memorial Day, les Expos begin a stretch from hell in which they play four games in the lonely confines of Florida, then on to Philadelphia for three games, to San Juan for six with Texas and Anaheim, then a nice flight from San Juan to Seattle, on to Oakland, on to Pittsburgh, then finally back to their Montreal hotel rooms.

Minaya sounded down this week, which is unusual for someone who is an optimist by nature. He and Robinson know that given a couple of veteran additions they can compete. But Minaya also knows that even if there is a deal in place to purchase the Expos this fall, the odds are they will be operating out of the same Quebec-Puerto Rico demographics in 2004, controlled by Wal-Mart and other owners who don't want to put another penny into them.

Vladimir Guerrero
Vladimir Guerrero will be a free agent at season's end.

Consider Minaya's conflict. He knows he cannot add payroll. But if this ridiculous 22-game, 25-day safari does indeed wear them down and the Expos are, say, five to seven games behind the other leading wild-card contenders after the All-Star Break, what is he to do? Does he sit on Vladimir Guerrero and hope there is an owner in place to try to save him? Not likely. So if the Dodgers came along and offered five good young players for Guerrero, should Minaya take them or take the two draft choices?

Guerrero, Fernando Tatis and Cordero are free agents at the end of the season. Other than Jose Vidro ($7.5 million), none of the star players are signed (Livan has a club vesting option for $6 million), and the projected arbitration numbers are: Vazquez ($10 million), El Duque ($4.75 million), Armas ($4 million), Cabrera ($4.75 million), Michael Barrett ($4.1 million), Tomo Ohka ($2.6 million). Does this mean that at the end of the season Minaya will have to trade Vazquez like he did Bartolo Colon, and then try to field another competitive team without its best player and pitcher?

All the maneuvering that was done in the winter of 2001-2002 has left baseball in this web of conflicts. The John Henry-Tom Werner ownership in Boston is very popular, but the $700 million price tag leaves them in a very tight financial situation. To get Jeff Loria out of Montreal, Bud Selig gave him the Florida franchise, which is turning into a disaster -- not to mention leaving baseball with a dangerous lawsuit by Loria's former partners -- and this dreadful conflict.

Bob DuPuy hopes to have some resolution on the Montreal dilemma at the All-Star break, but acknowledges the odds are the Expos cannot be moved for the 2004 season, while some owners privately worry that there is no one with enough capital in the Northern Virginia-Washington area to be able to immediately avoid Peter Angelos' nightmare, which is that the area will go from one potentially glorious franchise (the Orioles, albeit run down under Angelos' watch) to two mediocre ones.

Meanwhile, the strength of the Expos emphasizes how bad MLB's operation of the franchise really is. By refusing to add $5-8 million in payroll, the owners essentially are saying that they are trying not to win. If Minaya believes that trading Guerrero is the best thing for the long-term viability of the franchise, what would George Steinbrenner say if he were traded to the Orioles, or even the Red Sox? Wouldn't Peter Magowan and John Moores howl if he were to go to L.A.?

It is dangerous because the Expos are good. If baseball cared about true competitiveness and the integrity of the sport, Minaya should be allowed to get some veteran help for Robinson and the staff. But we know that isn't going to happen, although the Saturday Night Live-esque thought of Selig presenting himself with the trophy after the Expos won the World Series is delicious, albeit a more likely scenario than Selig presenting himself with the trophy after a Brewer world championship.

This is hardly all Selig's doing; baseball is still unraveling from one of the worst decisions ever made -- the 1993 and '98 expansions which inflated every level of payroll and left teams like the Expos and Marlins without a place to move.

At Memorial Day, the pitiful attendance figures in a number of cities points out the drifting of the business. Put it this way: San Diego had won 14 games by May 25, and they were outdrawing 13 teams, including the Phillies. Cleveland is under 20,000 a game, although that was expected. But Pittsburgh (17,906), Milwaukee (16,682) and Detroit (15,336) parlayed taxpayers dollars into new ballparks that now are sparsely attended. The White Sox are barely averaging a third of their 47,098 capacity, better only than the Tigers, Marlins, Devil Rays and Expos. And without a turnaround in this two-week road trip that begins in Toronto and ends up in Arizona and Los Angeles, Chicago could be faced with more than Jerry Manuel's fate, i.e. a dismantling to build for the future.

The White Sox may infuriate Jerry Reinsdorf, but at least they are his problem. The Marlins are a more complex problem that lead back to Selig. But the Expos are baseball's problem, and no matter how hard they work to get them out of this mess, the longer it drags on, the more potentially embarrassing it becomes.

If they weren't good, no one would care. But they are good, good enough to challenge for a wild card. So what does it say about Major League Baseball if it essentially says that the other owners will not allow the Expos to try to win?

It has been good for the Boston franchise that Selig arranged the John Henry partnership with Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner, but the rest of the tri-cornered deal is a disaster, with Florida a mess and the Expos a conflicted nightmare that will continue to haunt Bud Selig.