Expos fate in MLB's hands

from SLAM! sports

From the visitor's dugout at the SkyDome, before his team's game Sunday against the Toronto Blue Jays, Montreal Expos vice-president and general manager Jim Beattie looked like a man who knows the writing is on the wall. With the Expos ownership saga still ongoing, after the off-season failed to produce a white knight or even a successful plan to keep the team in Montreal, the interminable wait has taken its toll on the field and at the boxoffice.

Despite doubling his team's payroll, locking up franchise-player Vladimir Guerrero and manager Felipe Alou with long-term deals and resigning Dustin Hermanson, Beattie has been powerless to control the Expos' off-field woes that have been a constant distraction for the players. With attendance at Olympic Stadium at an all-time low the Expos have gotten off to a 20-33 start, identical to their record of a year ago when less than a million people saw the Expos finish 41 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.

"We did such a good job the last couple of years we didn't have to worry about it," joked Beattie about the migration of Expos talent to other major-league rosters. "The things that we'd been doing after the '97 season, we realized we needed to do certain things, we needed to take some steps back to give this franchise a chance to succeed. We knew we were going to have a very young club, we're building our payroll, I mean we're the only club in baseball that doubled our payroll this year - we went from $8 to $16 million. We're going to continue to grow that payroll next year and one place or the other, whether it's in Montreal or someplace else, we're going to be better off, because we're going to have a new stadium, we're going to have an ownership that's able to put together a payroll that keeps us competitive."

If the Expos can't turn things around on the field and draw the fans back quickly to show Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig that baseball can be a hit in Montreal then nothing Beattie does will make any difference. Without the fan support no plans to build a new stadium to replace the cavernous and antiquated Big O will see the light of day.

"I think going in we all realized it was going to be tough this way and hopefully there will be some sort of resolution here in the next couple of weeks, I think people are just waiting for that shoe to drop and find out where it all stands," said a frustrated Beattie before his charges got shellacked 9-2 in the rubber-match of a three-game inter-league series against their Canadian brethren at the Dome.

Beattie said the Expos' ownership group will present its proposal for funding for a new stadium, originally priced at $175 million but scaled down considerably in recent weeks, designed to keep the Expos in Montreal at the latest round of ownership meetings starting Wednesday.

"It's a Catch-22 situation right now," admitted Beattie. "You just need to point to places like Cleveland where they had only 5,000 people a night, before they got their new stadium and put their club together. You know 5,000 in Cleveland in an 80,000-seat stadium was pretty bad. Things can change, these things go in cycles and I feel confident that with a new stadium we'd do much better. With a stadium located downtown and the situation that we're in I think we could be a very nice fit for Montreal."

Yeah, but does anybody care what happens to the club? Expos' principal owner Claude Brochu has made his intentions clear that he wants to move the team to a more financially lucrative U.S. city, possibly to Washington, northern Virginia or Charlotte, N.C., and without an investor with deep-pockets it looks like the team's days in Montreal are numbered. The majors worst home attendance at 8,891 per contest is not going to convince would-be investors that the Expos can ever garner the ticket revenue needed to be competitive in the free-agent market. "We hear about it all the time," said Beattie about the lack of fan support. "As far as what we try to get our players to feel is that they need to just concentrate on what's going on the field. They can't affect anything that's going on outside of the field. If there's only 2,000 or 15,000 they still need to go out there and play the game and do the best job they can. I think they're starting to come to grips with that a little bit, I think it was a distraction at the beginning of the year."

Some Expos players, like Hermanson, have openly criticized Montrealers' lack of loyalty to the team, prompting recriminations from Alou, who turned down a lucrative deal with the Dodgers to stay and try to make things work in Montreal.

"Felipe has been the soul of the club for so long. All of the things that he brings to the Expos, to the city of Montreal are all very important. You can't discount any part of that," said Beattie. "It was important for us to keep him, from a baseball perspective, to help this young club continue to develop and grow and be a better club in two to three years."

Beattie, who inherited an Expos' team from former GM Kevin Malone in 1995 that fashioned a major-league best 70-40 record in the strike-shortened '94 season, admits it will be impossible to remain in Montreal without the revenue generated from a new stadium. Beattie had a baptism by fire in his first year as GM, as the Expos went 66-78 in '95 after losing franchise players Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and John Wetteland to free agency. In fact Beattie's tenure has been significant more for it's losses than it's gains. A plethora of talented players, such as Jeff Fassero, Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Pedro Martinez, Henry Rodriguez, Darrin Fletcher, Mike Lanzing and David Segui, have slipped through Beattie's grasp as the Expos cost-conscious owners handcuffed the GM with the majors smallest payroll.

Despite a budget that is about the size of Dodger Kevin Brown's annual salary, Beattie has managed to keep the Expos afloat with some good draft picks, like Barrett, and some shrewd trading, like the one that brought Hermanson to Montreal in the same deal that sent Floyd to the Florida Marlins. However Beattie can only squeeze so much juice from the lemon that is the Expos current ownership under Brochu.

"What's going on right now is that MLB is taking a look at the package that our ownership has put together, with respect to financing for our new stadium and the plans for building the new stadium, what those look like, and then trying to decide whether those are feasible to keep the ballclub in Montreal and enable us to have a competitive club."

To a group of greedy baseball owners, who would like to put an end to the revenue-sharing bailouts that have kept the Expos in the black, the only feasible option is to move the club to an American city. For Beattie who was born in Hampton, Virginia, but calls the posh Westmount suburb of Montreal home, his loyalties may be as divided as the Expos ownership.

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