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Actual slogan in the Expos' we-need-a-new-ballpark campaign: Imagine the show. Actual quote from Montreal general manager Jim Beattie: "We're not trying to win." Imagine that.
Forget the National League East. What the Expos are trying to capture is the public's interest, not to mention some of its cash. If by July the club has sold close to its goal of at least 12,000 personal seat licenses for a new ballpark, Montreal expects in 2001 to be playing in a downtown, 35,000-seat bandbox and to have a payroll in the range of $35 millionat least triple its meager 1998 total of $10 million. If the Expos do not sell enough PSLs by midsummer (only 4,000 had been purchased by mid-March) the team will be put up for sale and probably moved.
Le Parc Idéal, as the brochures promoting the stadium gush, would cost $176 million, with $56 million coming from PSLs and $28 million from naming rights. Government and private funds would provide the rest. Because the stadium would be built across from the Molson Centre, the two-year-old home of the Montreal Canadiens, the Expos believe a rival brewery, Labatt's, would be a natural sponsor. Then they could call the place Labatt Rack, and could taxi relievers to the mound in a Labattmobile.
"Montreal is a city of festivals all summer long: music, jazz, art, theater," Beattie says. "It's a late-night city. People go out to eat at 10 o'clock. We see baseball fitting perfectly in that 7-to-10 window when people can walk over to the ballpark and see the Expos."
The club has commissioned a smorgasbord of ballpark renderings to use as sales toolsbalsa architectural models, computer-enhanced photos and artists' sketchesa campaign that will cost $1 million-plus, more than Montreal will pay all but two of its players, lefthander Carlos Perez and outfielder Rondell White.
Forgive those in uniform, however, if they can't imagine such a rosy future. In its 30th year, this team has yet to win its first full-season title. Dismayed by another off-season of watching management cast off his best (read: expensive) players, manager Felipe Alou played hard-to-get with the media all winter, reasoning that that was better than answering the same old questions. Shortstop Mark Grudzielanek opted for openness, unimpressed by Beattie's claim that "we're already going down the path to having a competitive team ready for 2001."
"I don't want to wait around for 2001 for a winning team," the 27-year-old Grudzielanek says. "The next three to five years should be my best, and I feel I have a lot to contribute to a championship team. I can't believe this franchise calls itself a major league organization with a payroll of $10 millionand we're supposed to play teams with $50 million payrolls?"
Grudzielanek is one of only 10 players from last year's Opening Day roster still in the organization. The 36-man spring training squadwhich includes no one whose big league career predates the Clinton Administrationhas spent fewer days in the majors (26 years, 28 days) than the Baltimore DH platoon of Harold Baines and Joe Carter.
In what has become an annual ritual, Montreal is grooming a group of young talents, including sensational rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero, 22, second baseman Orlando Cabrera, 23 and righthander Carl Pavano, 22, who was obtained in the trade that sent National League Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez to the Red Sox. One American League scout called Pavano "the best pitching prospect in all the minor leagues" last season.
"When I traded Pedro, my goal was to find the best young starting pitcher with less than one year of major league service," Beattie says. "[Indians righthander] Jaret Wright wasn't available. He pitched too well in the postseason."
Guerrero, Cabrera and Pavano, however, face the same uncertain future as did every other Expos star from Larry Walker to John Wetteland to Martinez: Where will they be after five years of big league service? White is the only Montreal player under contract beyond this year. Beattie intends to sign his top young players to long-term dealsthat's the early '90s Cleveland blueprint that Milwaukee and Pittsburgh also have adoptedbut without the green light for the ballpark, "we're doing it not quite as aggressively as the others." Uh\!huh.
Grudzielanak would seem to be one of those building blocks. He was an All-Star in 1996 and tied a league record last year for doubles by a shortstop (54). Yet his take on committing to a future in Montreal suggests the Expos have as much selling to do in their own clubhouse as outside of it. Says Grudzielanek, "It's stupid for me to say I want to be here. I want to win.
by Tom Verducci
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