Play Ball--Even If No One Loves You

Can the Expos, living on borrowed time, really compete?

Normally, big-league managers arriving for spring training are quick to suit up. Yet a week into workouts at the Montreal Expos' training complex in Jupiter, Fla., there was Frank Robinson rummaging through a footlocker in search of a cap that fit. Being behind schedule is no biggie at Expos' camp this spring, though. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig didn't even get around to officially announcing that there would be an Expos team until Feb. 12.

These are strange times for the Expos, arguably the most unloved of Major League Baseball's 30 teams. The woeful franchise was the undisputed champ of fan apathy last year, pulling in a paltry 7,648 spectators per game to dreary Olympic Stadium. Add that to a decade of eroding sponsor and community support, and it's no surprise that Montreal was a prime target for Selig & Co. as they plotted to shut down two franchises during the off-season.

The Expos survived that scare for now (table). But it became the first major-league team ever to lose an owner and gain 30. In an unprecedented switcheroo, MLB bought the club for $120 million, a maneuver that freed former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria and his partners to acquire the Florida Marlins. For MLB, the arrangement makes sense. It buys Selig six more months to lay the groundwork for contraction or, possibly, pick new owners who will move the franchise to Washington, D.C.

But to some, a big-league club owned collectively by the lords of baseball is as shady as hitting a homer with a corked bat. "Suppose you had a tight pennant race in the National Leaguewith one of two contenders playing the Expos. In that final game, you might have all kinds of reasons to be suspicious, without anyone committing a single dishonest act. It's asking for trouble," says Marvin Miller, former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn.

"I understand the potential for conflict here," Selig says. "I want to preserve the independence of the Expos franchise." He insists MLB officials will be strictly hands-off. To prove it, he tapped three highly regarded execs to run the team: Robinson, a Hall of Fame player and veteran manager; General Manager Omar Minaya, an ex-New York Mets assistant GM and the first Hispanic to be a big-league GM; and President Tony Tavares, ex-head of Walt Disney Co.'s Anaheim Sports subsidiary, who until last year ran the Anaheim Angels.

"All three of us have reputations for being opinionated, sticking to our guns, and [being] maybe a little bit difficult," says Tavares of the Expos hastily assembled front office. "Maybe that's why we got selected."

Even with strong execs running the show, though, the Expos will be tethered to their MLB overseers. For example, the player payroll of some $37 million--about the same as the team spent on player salaries last year--was mandated by Selig. The Expos can't exceed it without MLB's say-so.

But what if the Expos are in a pennant race come September? While other GMs are appealing to their owners to ante up for star players, Minaya could be making his case to Selig. "I don't buy the theory that the club will be permitted to run without people from outside touching it," says Miller. Maybe so, but it's a theory that will only be tested if there's a miracle in Montreal.

By Mark Hyman in Jupiter, Fla.

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