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Tuesday, September 9, 2003
Expos playing with pride, dignity while facing even more injustice

By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com

Sept. 9

Javier Vazquez was driving across the mountains from Ponce to San Juan on Tuesday, a trip he makes daily when the Expos are playing a night game at their home away from the home that is baseball's answer to a trailer park. On this one week home-away-from-homestand, it works, because it enables him to be at home with his wife Kamille, who gave birth to their daughter Kamilla three weeks ago.

Javier Vazquez
Javier Vazquez had a career-best 3.24 ERA last year for the Expos.

It is, of course, one of the only things that works when you're an Expo. "We all just wish there could be an end to the uncertainty," said Vazquez, who at 27 has become one of the most respected players in the game as well as a leader in the Players Association. "If this has to go on for another year, we all wish we could just play in one city. But it's not going to happen (as Frank Robinson and Major League Baseball explained to the players). We just wish that we could live a normal baseball life, with a home when we're home. But it's not going to happen."

Monday, Major League Baseball implored the Expos players to agree to another season split between Montreal and San Juan. The players don't want to agree, but they were told that if they do, there will be more revenue and they have a better chance to keep the club together. That, of course, is a threat: Vote against it, and the owners will torch the roster.

In Vazquez's case, there is the chance that his vagabond days may be over. He is a fifth-year arbitration-eligible player with a likely offseason price tag somewhere between $9 million and $10 million, as was Bartolo Colon last winter before he was exiled to a World Series contender for Rocky Biddle. Vladimir Guerrero will be gone, to free agency. The only veteran signed for 2004 is Jose Vidro, and with Orlando Cabrera (projected arbitration number of $4.8 million) also eligible, MLB might force bound-and-gagged GM Omar Minaya to shed more costs.

After all, this team, owned by the other 29 owners, doesn't even have a third catcher. "We weren't allowed to have September callups," Vazquez said. And yet, because of the pride of the players and Robinson, they remained at .500 and seven games behind wild-card leader Florida after losing two out of three in a hard-fought weekend series with the Marlins. "It's hard," said Vazquez, "to imagine what we've had to try to overcome. But there are great guys on this club who really enjoy playing with one another. We've tried to prove people wrong and show that we can overcome anything (including the prolonged loss of Guerrero), but when there isn't help, it's difficult. Especially with the schedule."

This week, instead of playing the Cubs on Monday, when both teams were off, they'll play Thursday afternoon, then fly back to Montreal to play the Mets on Friday, back-to-back home games with a 4½-hour flight and customs. Of course, that Florida-Philly-San Juan-Seattle-Oakland-Pittsburgh-Montreal trip in June was real fair.

It's been six years of ownership, the (Jeffrey) Loria thing, contraction, baseball owning us with no one in Montreal knowing what was happening, now this business of playing in two cities. We'd just like some stability, and some respect.
Javier Vazquez

Because he is 27 and possibly going out into the trade market, Vazquez may be free of the trailer park baseball has created. It is likely that he -- more than Colon, Kevin Millwood, Hall of Famer Greg Maddux or Andy Pettitte -- will be the most sought-after pitcher this winter.

After all, in the last six seasons, Vazquez has four more quality starts than Pettitte. The fact he has 31 fewer wins is clearly a function of his team, and the parking lot turf on which he's pitched. This year, for instance, his 12-10 record masks his workhorse performance: first in pitches thrown (in the majors), first in the NL in innings pitched, second in games started, strikeouts, total batters faced, third in strikeout/walk ratio, strikeouts per nine innings and two quality starts behind leader Kevin Brown. In three of his 10 losses, the Expos haven't scored more than three runs, and in six of them they've scored a total of four runs.

But Vazquez doesn't complain about runs or usage. He just wishes the Montreal Expos were equal, if separate.

Because he's been with the Expos longer than anyone but Guerrero, Vazquez and his family have a place to live in Montreal, where they rent Ugueth Urbina's old place. "Most of the guys stay in hotels in April, May and June, then try to get apartments for the summer months when we were in Montreal a lot," he said. Nice.

"It's been six years of ownership, the (Jeffrey) Loria thing, contraction, baseball owning us with no one in Montreal knowing what was happening, now this business of playing in two cities," Vazquez said. "We'd just like some stability, and some respect."

The two-year anniversary of Sept. 11 is a reminder of the second-class indignities the Expos have come to expect. They were in Florida when the attack occurred, on a Tuesday. Originally, Bud Selig was going to have games resume on the following Friday (until NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue changed his mind and decided not to play the following Sunday). So on Thursday morning, Selig told them they would have to fly to New York and play a weekend series in Shea Stadium. Vazquez, as the Expos' player representative, held a players meeting, where they voted to refuse to play in New York at the risk of forfeiture.

"It was unbelievable," Vazquez said. "But there was no way we were going to play in New York." MLB then decided to have them play in Ottawa, so while the Expos prepared to fly there, the Mets were boarding a bus bound for the Canadian capital when Selig changed his mind.

"They looked at us and said, 'they're the Expos,' " Vazquez said. Yeah. The trailer-park kids can play in New York 83 hours after the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

In a season filled with more good than bad, the plight of the vagabond Expos is a not just a plight, but a blight on the game. The ownership issue is an embarrassing conflict, one that Selig hasn't been able to resolve after the initial suggestion that it would be a one-year proposition. Now, after Robinson and the players put a scare into the other owners' investments for most of the season, they are not allowed to add a third catcher or give Robinson the kind of depth that might allow him to steal a one-run game, or three.

"I wish that somehow the guys we have could win together and show a lot of people up," Vazquez said. But it's like playing with eight men out in the field, and no matter what he and his teammates try to accomplish, they know their owners are doing everything in their power to insure they do not succeed.

Vazquez, Guerrero, Vidro, Livan Hernandez, Brad Wilkerson, Wil Cordero and company really gave their bosses a scare, didn't they? The Trailer Park Kids may be the most heroic team of 2003, and when and if Vlad and Vazquez and Cabrera move on to real teams, they may never look at another group of teammates with as much respect as they can the 2004 Expos.

News and notes
  • The third annual late-season slide for Ichiro Suzuki is partly an adjustment factor, as the American season is a month longer. But it raises a legitimate issue that has been much-discussed in Seattle: wouldn't he be a far better offensive player if he were more selective and worried less about hit totals. Those who wish he would be more selective think it would raise his on-base percentage in the leadoff position, and, more important, get him more hitters' counts which would in turn increase his power and production numbers.

  • One scout on Guillermo Mota: "With him and Eric Gagne, it's like three innings a night of the best fastball-changeup combination in the big leagues. Mota isn't far from Gagne at this point. If they ever make it into the postseason, they will be very, very dangerous."

    Marte
    Marte

  • Meanwhile, one AL scout adds, "getting Scott Sullivan in front of Damaso Marte -- the most underrated reliever in the American League -- and Tom Gordon gives the White Sox potentially the best bullpen of any American league playoff team, if they make it in." GM Ken Williams got Marte in April, 2002 for Matt Guerrier. Then since the end of last season added Colon, Esteban Loaiza, Gordon, Sullivan and Scott Schoeneweis, a pitching staff that could win everything.

  • Royals GM Allard Baird says he hopes to bring back Carlos Beltran for his final arbitration-eligible season in Kansas City. "I think we can make it work," Baird said. "It won't be easy (the arbitration number may approach $11 million), but I hope it can. I think with the salary and the one-year remaining, it will be difficult to get two good young players who can step right in, and what Beltran brings to this team is too important to lose as we try to develop our young pitching."

  • Josh Beckett is now 5-3, 2.27 with a 24-66 BB/K ratio since the All-Star break, grabbing the mantle of the Marlins' No. 1 starter. "Want a good bet to win 20 games next season?" asks one GM. "It's Beckett. That may not be a good home park in which to play, but it's a great place to develop young pitchers and a home-field advantage."

  • Dodgers GM Dan Evans on the criticism he's taken for not revealing, or doing something about, Shawn Green's shoulder injury: "Were we supposed to tell our opponents that he was hurt, so they could exploit it? Shouldn't he be a hero for always wanting to play and not complain, no matter how he feels? We have tried to add offense, and have (Jeromy Burnitz, Robin Ventura), but this wasn't a situation that was easy to resolve."

  • Virtually his entire team has fallen down around him, and Garret Anderson keeps playing better and better and better. ... Is there a more consistent star in the American League?

  • When Sammy Sosa was ejected by another thin-skinned umpiring outburst last week, Bobby Valentine and the Baseball Tonight crew prepared a piece on check swings, the most-argued call in the sport. Well, it turns out, there is no written definition -- not in the rule book, not in the umpires' manuel -- of a check swing anywhere. So all those arguments you see? It's simply, umpires' arbitrary decisions.

  • The hard-working people trying to put together the team to get the U.S. into the Olympics were sure happy to get the word that the Yankees don't want to contribute their players. Mr. Olympics, huh?

  • Another encouraging sign for the Devil Rays: B.J. Upton led their entire organization, majors and minors, in walks. That manager Lou Piniella didn't get to bring in a lot of their young players in September may be a distressing sign to those who hope he can get a $30 million payroll next season.

  • If the Twins do not finish first, considering their attendance is down and their payroll for next season is already at $50 million (presuming they offer arbitration to A.J. Pierzynski, Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, Johan Santana and J.C. Romero), there are those in the area who worry that ownership will demand they slash back to the $40-million level.

  • There are two very interesting Korean players coming to the U.S. next season, both of whom worked out with the Marlins this spring training. Samsung Lions first baseman Seung-Yeop Lee, 27, had 50 homers and 125 RBI through Sept. 5, after winning the home run title and MVP awards each of the previous four seasons. Hyundai Unicorns outfielder Jong-Soo Shim, 28, is also coming, and had 45 homers and 122 RBI as of the Sept. 5. In spring training, then-Marlins manager Jeff Torborg said he thought both could help the club, and said, "there's no question in my mind that Shim would start for us. I love Lee, but we have another Lee (Derrek Lee) who's already a star."