By John Brattain/MLBTalk
Rule number one for morticians and funeral directors: it's considered bad form to bury somebody whose body is still warm, or breathing, or has a pulse.
But gosh darn it, everybody's slapping the ol' suit with the seam up the back on the Montreal Expos. People are bringing wreathes, others are dressing in black, the casket has been selected, the Ryder hearse/moving van has been rented, everything is ready.
Sadly, the Montreal Expos don't realize they're spoiling a perfectly good funeral by living.
Oh well, can't please everybody.
The final nail in the Expos coffin (that's what? Twenty two final nails now? I've lost count) has been sunk. Jeffery Loria, the only art dealer who doesn't cast a shadow or a reflection, passed on an option on a piece of land where the new stadium was supposed to go. Once again (or still) the moving vans engines are idling. Considering the price of gas you'd think they'd shut the silly things down because they're not going anywhere.
What many seem to lose sight of, is that Loria cannot sell or relocate the Montreal Expos. It's not his call, that decision resides in the National League. Loria will need 75 percent of the vote in the NL and a majority in the American League to sell/relocate into a new market.
It ain't gonna happen.
Oh, the long standing self interest of major league owners. Yes, I've heard all the dire proclamations from everybody up to and including Bud Selig and Barry Bonds. We often assume that the big-wigs in baseball speak English. Not so, they have their own language sometimes called 'business-speak' or 'baseball-speak.' We'll just shorten that term to its initials (B.S.) and learn why the Expos aren't going anywhere.
Follow the Money Silly
Let's look at the perceived 'threats' to Montreal's existence in light of baseball management's long standing 'modus operandi.'
Report: Major League Baseball is scouting relocation sites.
(runs through handy B.S. translator)
Translation: 'You guys in south Florida, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Oakland, Montreal and San Diego had best get off the pot and give your poor, impoverished team owners some public money for a new stadium.'
Report: Expansion is not an option, we're looking at relocation or dissolution of franchises.
(runs through handy B.S. translator)
Translation: 'Mr. Fehr, for the 10,000th time, the game is on the brink of financial ruin if you don't accept a salary cap. Also, if any city wants an expansion franchise, you'd best up your offer (more on this later) and again, if your team owner wants a new stadium you'd best cough up the bucks.'
The thing to keep in mind is, what we refer to as lies, owners and commissioners call: 'creating leverage,' 'bargaining positions,' 'spin,' 'public relations,' and 'business principles.'
Which is more lucrative, simply relocating 2-3 franchises OR having those regions pony up public money for new stadiums AND saving those 2-3 'scouted' relocation markets for expansion and their (probable) nine digit price tags? Bear in mind, baseball is striving for a setup of four divisions of four teams in each league (or whatever they're calling them now).
Follow the money. Baseball is trying to triple its pleasure: i) apply pressure to host communities for public dollars, ii) possibly scout for expansion locales and associated franchise fees, all the while iii) sending a 'message' to the union that franchises are in trouble.
Analyzed objectively, the least lucrative course is simply to relocate a franchise. A quick recap: i) other teams lose that region as leverage, ii) MLB risks lawsuits and iii) no new franchise expansion fees.
Considering baseball owners' long track record, which do you think is more likely? Franchise relocation/dissolution being seriously considered or rhetoric to maximize leverage?
In the business of baseball, leverage equals dollars. Teams have leverage against their host cities called 'pay up or we're gone.' The MLBPA have leverage against team owners called 'pay up or we're gone.' Agents have leverage against GM's called 'pay up or we're gone.' In all cases, this leverage tranlates into hundreds of million of dollars.
Basically, what owners, players, agents, GM's, unions release to the media, is not for public dissemination, but rather to get somebody else to swallow the bovine fecal matter. This in turn creates 'leverage,' which equals a king's ransom. If John Q. Public believes it, so much the better.
Many have written about what a great market the Washington D.C./Northern Virginia would be for a major league franchise. Ownership likes to take that little tidbit and use it to create more money via leverage. Let's ruminate how they do this. The obvious one is stadium blackmail. We need a new stadium and if we don't get it, we're off to D.C. This Washington gambit has been used successfully by Houston and Baltimore to name two. If the Expos move there, that leverage (which means nine digit dollar figures) is gone.
Consider this quote in today's Denver Post. Gabe Paul Jr. of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority said: 'This is the only big market out there ... we're the only one left.' We can argue until we're blue in the face on the validity of this statement, but if it's anywhere near true, then you can bet owners aren't going to surrender their last viable threat.
Secondly, if the D.C. market is everything they say it is, then there's no way they'll allow a franchise relocation there simply because they can charge some corporation/consortium a massive expansion fee simply to set up shop in the area. Expos relocate and *poof* -- no juicy expansion monies. As the region gets more desperate for major league baseball, the more they can charge for an expansion club. If the Expos set up shop, they get zip.
Which brings us to a third point. A quick study of another aspect of the business of baseball will bring it into focus. When you look at the player marketplace, the union and agents key of the salary of the best player at a given position. That's how salaries increase. Franchises work in the same way. If somebody was willing to pay a half billion dollars for an expansion franchise, then that would be 'market value' for a major league franchise. All other teams would key off that figure when it came time to sell theirs off. It was Bill Veeck who said: 'You don't make money running a baseball team, you make money selling it.'
Now if Jeffery Loria were simply sell to D.C./Northern Virginia (or anywhere else) interests, then it might accomplish a higher market for future franchise sales but when you consider: a) the current franchise isn't worth that much, b) there's nothing in any other city (read: a revenue generating ballpark) that would increase the value of an Expos sale, and c) there are no local T.V. deals in place there yet. All of this would make it highly unlikely that an Expos sale would increase the value of other franchises.
Do you honestly think that the 'Lords of Baseball' would:
sacrifice a handy souce of leverage for cities seeking public subsidies
give up a fat juicy expansion fee
extinguish the opportunity to pump up the value of their own franchises
just to accomodate Jeffery Loria?
Politics, Politics, Politics
There is a pecking order in baseball. Jeffery Loria is pretty much at the bottom. He's been the general partner for the Expos for months, not years or decades. Quid pro quo is standard operating procedure. If clout, favors granted, and seniority were the currency in baseball politics, Loria would be flat broke. They are also not transferable. Claude Brochu did have some favors to call in, most notably in siding with the owners in the 1994 strike, which arguably deep-sixed a World Series appearance for the Expos. Arguably the last strike hurt the Expos franchise the most.
Brochu is gone and so is the favor owed.
This point was best framed in the June 20, 2000 San Francisco Chronicle which mentioned: 'Despite speculation that rookie Expos owner Jeffrey Loria is scheming to move them to Washington, D.C., there is equally compelling speculation that commissioner Bud Selig would rather let other owners who have lost money a lot longer relocate first.'
As mentioned earlier Loria would need 75 percent support in the NL and a majority in the AL if it came to a vote. Yes, it's true that teams dislike paying revenue sharing monies to Montreal. However, very few teams actually pay revenue sharing. It's not like the other 29 major league clubs subsidize the Expos. The teams that actually do have axes to grind with other cities too. The A's have a solid young team but are having trouble drawing fans and the Minnesota Twins are owned by a billionaire. It's probable that teams providing revenue sharing are less than thrilled with pouring money over there too.
The points discussed earlier, owners would have to sacrifice:
a handy souce of leverage for cities seeking public subsidies
a fat juicy expansion fee
the opportunity to pump up the value of their own franchises
still come into play. Revenue sharing monies are a pittance compared to what is to be gained by leaving certain markets without a team.
Further, let's examine the situations of other clubs that might be candidates for relocation and compare with Montreal's situation. Take a map and a geometry compass, sink the point into Montreal and with the pencil, extend the compass to 75-100 miles outside the nearest major league city. Now draw a circle leaving anything north of Montreal as untouchable. That's the Expos market region. Now do likewise with Minnesota, Oakland and either Florida club. Who has the largest geographical region to draw from? Oakland competes with the Giants and their new stadium. Baseball management goofed by oversaturating the baseball market in Florida with two teams plus the Grapefruit League, plus the Florida State League etc. Adding to the screw up, especially for the Marlins is, they've got the Devil Rays to the north and ocean/Gulf of Mexico on the other three sides.
Something else to consider is what has happened in earlier decades. The Expos aren't the first, nor will they be the last mismanaged franchise. For a time Cleveland was run terribly, ditto the Braves, also the Rangers, Twins, A's, White Sox etc. A lot of bluster, rhetoric and rumor were bandied about, they were all but relocated if you read what was written in the press, and what happened?
Look at the history of ownership and how baseball is run. They rarely take decisive action on anything unless it makes them wealthier (wild card, three divisions, expansion), but on something difficult, they drag their heels, delay, wait, issue the odd rhetorical proclamation that's not worth the press release it's written on, and hope the situation gets resolved somehow.
If It Hurts To Say Good-Bye, Then Don't Do It
Let's have a look at the logistics of a franchise shift.
First off, you need a place to play. Washington has R.F.K. Stadium however in the current economic climate, it won't generate the revenues required. When you factor in relocation costs, possible lawsuits resulting from the move and a myriad of other things, will enough revenue be generated to keep the Expos viable until a new park in Washington D.C./Northern Virginia (or anywhere else) is ready?
A modern, revenue generating park is far off on the horizon in any region hoping to attract a team. Oh sure, maybe they make an oral commitment to a new stadium/attracting a team. Talk is cheap, steel prices are rising, so I'm sure these groups making these official/oral commitments will suffer major league sticker shock when they see the price tag. If a New Fenway is built, it might hit a billion dollars, ditto if Steinbrenner manages to get one out of New York City/state. That'll make these people 'committed' to bringing major league baseball to their region to rethink their commitment. Oakland wants a new stadium, ditto Minnesota, ditto Florida.
So, in reality, is any other region tangibly committed to building a half billion dollar retractable roof ATM all (or most) on the public dime? Any area wanting a team to relocate there is going to have to offer that, plus be willing to absorb all legal costs resulting from lawsuits, plus pony up for all relocation expenses, and be able to sleep with the mayor's wife.
Any city willing to do that yet?
Until there is, there's little chance ANY team will leave its host city. The Senators left for Texas in 1972, that was a long dime ago. The economics have changed radically within baseball since then. Baseball doesn't know the ramifications of a franchise shift under a free agency system. It's never been done. The general consensus is, that a team needs a $50 million payroll to compete. Can a team in a makeshift stadium make a go of it? Baseball doesn't like change, especially when it involves the unknown. It'll take a good deal more than what Arlington gave Bob Short for any team to leave -- even if the league did allow it.
When push somes to shove, the political process is never smooth. You've have local, state and federal government's that have to be satisfied, you've got special interest groups from labor unions wanting the work to corporate welfare protest groups who feel that public money should be used to benefit the public and not billionaire owners and millionaire players. Finding the land can be tricky especially if eminent domain is used. Lawsuits generally come up, there's also the question of infrastructure, traffic, usually enviromental groups put their two cents in (could be the last habitat of the mongolian land slug or some such thing) etc.
That takes time to sort through this maze, all the while costs go up, which brings even more lawsuits, gets the public riled up with cost overruns and on, and on, and on.
It sometimes takes over a decade to get from: 'hey, let's build a park!' to 'play ball!' Boston and Detroit tried in the sixties (Detroit finally got one -- three decades later), New Comiskey took about a decade, Toronto's franchise was contingent on having someplace other than the old Exhibition Stadium to play in down the road, so that was a decade there. Seattle had to have a tangible commitment to the Kingdome before they got a replacement for the Pilots. George Steinbrenner's second statement as a baseball owner (the first being: 'I'll stick to building ships') was: 'if I don't get a new stadium, I'm going to New Jersey.'
It's pretty easy to make proclamations that 'we'll do whatever it takes to bring major league baseball to [insert city of choice]' however when it comes pay up time, it's a struggle every step of the way. What happens until they finally get to enjoy the revenues from a new park?
Timing is Everything
Let's be realistic. Despite the rhetoric, there's no way baseball is going to relocate a franchise until after the next collective bargaining agreement is settled. Can you imagine a new region ponying up the cash to cover relocation fees, possible lawsuits and a new stadium, ground is broken for a new park and baseball shuts down for a year or two?
The political fallout would be huge, especially if that city is Washington.
A franchise might be relocated after the CBA is settled in which case there might be an economic system in place that would allow the Expos to thrive.
The owners would've won the last round of collective bargaining against the union but they got spooked. What happened is that ownership unilaterally implemented a salary cap, eliminated arbitration among other things. Under U.S. labor law, a company can impose work conditions if bargaining reaches an impasse. The MLBPA asked the National Labor Relations Board to file an injunction against the owners in court to overturn the implemented collective bargaining agreement. The injunction was granted.
That left owners two choices. One, lock the players out (since the union said they would return to work if the injunction was granted) and risk -- if the courts ruled against them -- back pay to the players, or, two, continue negotiations and reach a contract. The owners chose the latter. Both sides later found out that if had gone to court, the imposed labor contract would've remained, the legal/labor lawyers felt that an impasse had indeed occurred making ownership's CBA effectively ratified.
Now the union's interests are beginning to splinter. Why did the owners have a tough time hanging together before? Well the big market teams were foregoing a lot of profit where other teams were sacrificing more modest revenues. Well during the next CBA negotiation, the major league minimum is about $200,000 and some players will be making between $15-$20 million.
Do you think that a guy making the minimum, or even a couple of million, will view the next work stoppage the same way? I've got a guy in Kansas City who knows Jeff Montgomery quite well. Montgomery was the Royals union rep, and he's said that there are huge divisions within the union. The guys who make a couple of million a year are sick and tired of losing what money they earn, just so a select few can push the salary bar higher. As it sits now, ten players (Kevin Brown, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Shawn Green, Albert Belle, David Cone, Mo Vaughn, Ken Griffey Jr. Bernie Williams) now command 10% of MLB's total payroll. That's a huge gulf, which also means a lot of players are taking less, since just a few players consume a big amount of a team's total payroll.
This is called 'splintering interests.'
In other words, ownership might well win the round of negotiations, which means big changes in the business of baseball. Also pressuring the union will be the agents. Agents generally don't receive their full commission up front (nasty tax hit). Now, Scott Boras has Kevin Brown ($15 million), Bernie Williams ($13 million), Alex Rodriguez (likely $20 million), Greg Maddux ($12.5 million) and won't be getting paid during the next work stoppage. Do you think Boras will be content just to let all that commission just fly out the window? Ditto other player agents.
So a new economic system will likely be in place soon which will benefit Montreal.
Taking all these points into consideration says simply, that there's a lot of endgame to be played out yet. What's happening in Montreal has happened elsewhere, and no team has gone anywhere because of it. We may also see more comprehensive revenue sharing and a salary cap sooner rather than later.
Regardless of what happens, baseball will not risk any franchise shifts until the next CBA is ratified. That's their top priority.
I know there's a lot of gloom in La Belle Province, but I cannot fathom any reason why the Expos would be the team chosen to relocate. 'Montreal doesn't support baseball?' Sorry, that's too vague. Hey, if you opened a store and you stopped stocking the products that were your best sellers, lied to your consumers, didn't advertise, and stocked your shelves with cheap second rate merchandise in place of what your customers really wanted -- then whose fault is it that the business struggles? Is the marketplace not supporting the store because it's unwilling to do so? Or is it because they guy running the store is an idiot?
Baseball hasn't failed in Montreal, baseball has failed Montreal. Former commissioner Bowie Kuhn 'settled' a dispute between the Blue Jays and Expos involving broadcasting in the other's territory. Kuhn said that each could beam 18 games into the others market. Superficially it seems fair but it was far from that. Imagine being cut out of the lucrative Ontario marketplace for all but 18 games. That changed down the road, but not before it damaged the franchise financially. Expos telecasts never recovered their former following in Ontario, since it was then 'all Blue Jays, all the time' in Ontario and it took over the market. Of course the 1994 strike dealt it another blow. The 'Lords of Baseball' realize this and that gives them an excuse to stay the course.
Jeffery Loria may be a scheming, conniving weasel plotting to flip the Expos stateside for a huge profit. However when it comes to the business of baseball, he's a babe in the woods. He's dealing with the masters of scheming, weaseling, conniving businessmen. He's in for a nasty lesson. He's already learned a couple. One: owners aren't thrilled that he's set the market for lefty relievers with gimpy left arms at three million per. He's learned that dealing for pitchers whose nickname's are Upperdecki I-rob-u isn't wise. He's also come to the realization that MRI's cost a lot less than $9 million and the letters don't stand for My Righthander's Injured.
And those are the easy lessons. He's already been skinned by the Yankees and a couple of agents. He's got some bigger grafts to come off yet.
So, it's not over in Montreal, not by a long shot.
One Fan's Story
'Fans don't care about the Expos'
One fan's story.
In 1969 there was a young boy in a small town in Ontario Canada called Gananoque. We'll call him Rusty. Rusty and his brother were both rabid hockey fans but also learned the love of baseball from their father. Rusty was thrilled, as was his brother, that major league baseball had come to Canada. Now Rusty felt a part of baseball, a game which was played almost daily from late spring to early fall where he lived.
Rusty and his brother immediately adopted their new team. They didn't know how many home runs Rusty Staub had hit the previous year. They didn't know Bill Stoneman's ERA. They could care less about Coco Laboy's slugging percentage or Bobby Wine's fielding. To Rusty and his brother, they were big leaguers. That was all that mattered to them. They were their big leaguers. They became 'us.' To Rusty and his sibling, 'they,' became the teams in Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Cincinnati. It was always 'them' against 'us.'
In those early years there appeared be almost two distinct seasons. The season that the Expos played in, and the season that teams from St. Louis, New York and Cincinnati played in -- called the 'playoffs' and the 'World Series.' Back then just being 'big league' was enough and they eagerly anticipated when the season the Expos played in would return.
The two boys delighted in a lot of little things. A local gas station gave away free Expos caps with every tank of gas. The two boys' father was able to convince the manager of the station to give each boy one. They were thrilled. In retrospect they may well have been the silliest looking caps in baseball history -- lacking only a little propeller at the top. It mattered little to Rusty and his brother. They were proud to be part of their team and wore them whenever they played baseball. Rusty often played third base when he wasn't pitching and felt pride when he pretended that he was the great Coco Laboy.
Little things mean a lot to young boys. Memory fails whether it was against the Reds or the Cardinals, however there was a game where Rusty Staub hit a game winning home run at Jarry Park dutifully watched on T.V. It was these boys' 'Called Shot,' 'The Shot Heard Around the World' (or Gananoque anyway) or the Mickey Mantle bomb off Chuck Stobbs all rolled into one. 'We' had beaten 'them' in grand style in the eyes of these two boys. A trip to Montreal for a doubleheader against the Pirates was sheer heaven. Jarry Park may have been a humble stadium to more adult eyes, but to these brothers it was their 'field of dreams.'
The boys had to do some growing up. Rusty Staub had been sent away to the Mets and the realization hit that the Expos were allowed to play in that 'other season' if they were good enough. A new rumor began floating about too, another team in Canada! In Toronto no less! Both boys were excited, but still their hearts belonged to the Expos. The boys started to grow apart somewhat. Nothing major, just growing pains and sibling rivalry. They enjoyed watching the team in Toronto, but a couple of years after they began play, the Expos got to be good, very good in fact.
There were many close calls. The Expos had a great team and knew sooner or later, their time would come. In high school, these two brothers sat at opposites ends of the school library as Rick Monday cut their hearts out. They agreed on two things (which was the only two things they agreed on all year), one, Jim Fanning was an idiot for sending Steve Rogers out to pitch the ninth, and two, there was a lot of life left in this Expos team. They were able to say that with remarkable conviction. Their sentiment was based on fact, not hope.
Not long afterward, the Jays started getting it together, nature and sibling rivalry took over. Rusty was a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, his brother, the Montreal Canadiens, and year after year during the hockey season, Rusty had to endure the taunts of his brother as the Canadiens seemingly skated off with the Stanley Cup year after year, while Rusty's Leafs were beyond bad. Another Toronto-Montreal rivalry seemed as natural as breathing.
Over the years Rusty and his brother began developing a grudging respect for each other. However testosterone and immaturity kept it from being expressed. Rusty watched with silent anguish as Gary Carter left and the Expos were beset with a myriad of problems. Rusty's brother watched with interest as the Jays began putting the pieces together of a great team.
The two young men began to become brothers and friends. Rusty watched with interest in the early 1990's as the Expos decided on a complete roster rebuild, while his brother wondered if the Jays might bring a World Series north of the 49th parallel. In 1991 Rusty was severely injured in a truck accident which gave Rusty and his brother time together that they never had before, hence in 1992, separated by distance, a phone call was made just before Ruben Sierra flied out to Candy Maldanado and a Canadian team finally was going to 'The Show.' It was moment they wished to share together. Just two hours after Mike Timlin threw out Otis Nixon for a World Series championship, Rusty's brother became a father for the first time. No words were exchanged -- none were necessary.
1993 was a joyous time for the two, the Expos rebuilding efforts were bearing fruit and the Jays had reloaded. The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs both looked like cup contenders. Both hoped that they would face off for all the marbles in both sports. Sibling rivalry had become friendly jousting and plans were made to have both families together to witness both finals should they transpire. It was not to be. The Jays won a World Series against the Phillies, the Canadiens beat the Los Angeles Kings for the Stanley Cup.
Wait until next year.
The Jays struggled in 1994 and the Expos were the class of the National League. As much as it pained Rusty to see the back-to-back World Series champs spin their wheels, he still drew consolation watching a remarkable team in Quebec. The brother dissected -- for hours on end -- the great Jays' teams of the 1980's and 1990's against the 1994 Expos. Who was the better one-two punch in the late innings? Duane Ward and Tom Henke or Mel Rojas and John Wetteland? Which was the better outfield? George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield or Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker? How did both outfields compare with Warren Cromartie, Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine? The 1994 Expos weren't just good -- they were young. There was a dynasty in the making. The two siblings wondered, smugly, if the World Series trophy would ever get back to the United States.
Then baseball shut down.
Rusty, his brother, and his father were spending time at a pool hall in the spring of 1995 playing billiards and watching TSN very closely. Rumors were becoming facts -- the team was being dismantled. All they could do was grumble words that their father used to punish them for saying.
As much as it hurt, there was still hope. Both thought the Delino DeShields/Pedro Martinez trade wasn't too bad. Martinez had enjoyed a great year in the Dodgers' bullpen and Mike Lansing looked about ready. Cliff Floyd looked like he could either step into the outfield or first base. 'Willie McCovey with speed' was what the scouts called him. Wil Cordero's glove would surely catch up with his bat. Catcher Darrin Fletcher could hit, his arm wasn't the greatest but it never held the Expos back before.
Of course you know the rest of the story. For the record -- I'm 'Rusty.' The Expos mean a lot to me. I've been writing about baseball for some years now. Montreal hasn't failed baseball -- not by a long shot. Baseball has failed Montreal. Mine is one of many, many, stories. The Expos have a fan base and it has been badly abused. People wonder why women will go home to an abusive relationship and baseball wonders why Expos' fans won't return to a situation where they've been treated badly.
There is a baseball market in Montreal, make no mistake. Branch Rickey let Jackie Robinson enter organized baseball in Quebec. He knew that Montrealers were more concerned with winning ballgames than the color of the man helping them win. Like a dysfunctional relationship, passion remains, yet so does the abuser. We encourage abusers to get help so they'll stop abusing their significant other so the relationship can flourish.
The abuser is the one that has to change -- not the victim. The fans aren't abusing the team or the game. It's the other way around. Gone are: Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland, Moises Alou, Jeff Fassero, Pedro Martinez, a one time effective Ken Hill, David Segui, Cliff Floyd, Larry Walker, Dennis Martinez, Rondell White, Darrin Fletcher, Chris Widger etc. They were taken away by other owners, player agents, the MLBPA and the system they've set up. Baseball wonders why the fans don't come back?
A question to Bud Selig, Don Fehr, Scott Boras, Jeffrey Loria et al: If every time you walked into a place and you got kicked in the teeth, how long would it take for you to stop going? What would it take for you to go back?
Then don't expect Expos fans' to do it if you aren't willing to.
Montreal deserves baseball -- the bad faith was not on the part the fans, but they're the ones being blamed.
And that's plain wrong.
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