There were wild times last week at Expo U. When free-agent rightfielder Larry Walker agreed to a four-year, $22 million deal with the Colorado Rockies last Saturday, his signing concluded four days in which the Montreal Expos sent four star players—Walker, centerfielder Marquis Grissom, starter Ken Hill and closer John Wetteland—on their way. They all graduated Phi Beta Salary Kappa.
"Maybe we're graduating a lot of guys, but a lot of clubs are flunking out," Montreal general manager Kevin Malone says of the Expos' extraordinary record of developing more quality major leaguers than just about any other team. "Our graduation rates are the best in the business."
Not since Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley's aborted attempt to sell Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi at the trading deadline in 1976 has a team appeared to so dramatically gut itself. Montreal had baseball's best record, 74-40, before the strike last August, but Expo U president Claude Brochu claims the work stoppage cost his already underendowed institution $15 million. So Malone let Walker go and traded the other three premier players to avoid paying the $13 million in salary that he expected an arbitrator would award them. Montreal's Opening Day payroll will be $15 million, down $3.6 million from last year's, which was the second-lowest in the game.
At first Malone's moves had the look of a fire sale. On April 5 he traded Wetteland to the New York Yankees for Class A outfielder Fernando Seguignol, a player to be named later and $2 million, and sent Hill to the St. Louis Cardinals for middling lefty Bryan Eversgerd and two more Class A prospects, pitcher Kirk Bullinger and outfielder Darond Stovall. Montrealers expressed shock. In return for stars, a brand-conscious city had received players with zero name recognition, most of whom were, at best, a few years away from playing in the majors. Local wise guys predicted that the only way Montrealers would see the new players in the big leagues would be to buy a ticket—a plane ticket to northern Virginia, where an ownership group was looking to buy and move a cash-strapped major league franchise. Malone sighed and said he wasn't done, and the city braced for word that Grissom had been swapped for a 14-year-old, one-legged reliever with, naturally, excellent stuff.
Surprise. Last Thursday, Malone sent Grissom to the Atlanta Braves for Roberto Kelly and Tony Tarasco, outfielders even nonseamheads had heard of, plus euphonious Class A pitcher Esteban Yan and $1.5 million to subsidize Kelly's $3.4 million salary. "I guess by doing those other deals first, I threw our fans a curve," Malone says. He also may have handed National League East rival Atlanta the division title, but at least the trade could be argued on its baseball merits. Given management's wails of poverty and the low expectations engendered by the previous day's deals, Kelly and Tarasco for Grissom made Montrealers feel as if Malone had picked up Manhattan from the Braves for 24 bucks.
When the smoke cleared, what began as the Dante's Inferno of fire sales left the Expos with only first-degree burns. As he did in the past when Wetteland was sidelined by injury, setup man Mel Rojas will move up to the closer's role. Kelly is a two-time All-Star, if not the leadoff hitter Grissom is. Hill's innings will be missed, but Malone now has some cash to shop for a free-agent pitcher. Prospects who are expected to stick with manager Felipe Alou's club this spring are infielder Mark Grudzielanek, catcher Tim Laker and reliever Carlos Perez.
"We still have a good team," says outfielder Moises Alou, 28, whose 372 career games make him the senior Expo in that category. "But after kicking everybody's butt last year, it's going to be tough in a situation where you're having your butt kicked."
Through the cycle of construction and deconstruction—good scouting and development produce good players, who eventually have to be paid good salaries and, thus, be sent away—Expo U teaches resilience in addition to economics. You ignore pitiful crowds, a scandalously unappealing and ill-constructed ballpark and constant belt-tightening, and you keep moving forward.
After the 1989 season the Expos lost free agents Mark Langston, Pascual Perez and Bryn Smith from the rotation, plus outfielder-shortstop Hubie Brooks, but nonetheless improved by four games in '90. Expo U, which has had just three losing seasons since 1978 but only one postseason appearance, has turned out distinguished alumni at every position (box, below). The management school has also produced fertile minds like Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, Florida Marlin G.M. Dave Dombrowski and Marlin scouting director Gary Hughes. The siren song of working without fiscal handcuffs lured them to big-revenue clubs.
Money has been a problem particularly since 1991, when principal owner Charles Bronfman sold the Expos for $85 million to a group headed by Brochu. He is committed to keeping the team in Montreal, which is not a small city—Montreal is about the size of greater Boston—but is a small baseball market. Stories asking, "How long can the 'Spos stay?" are hardy perennials in Canadian papers, and they popped up again last month when it was reported that Brochu had talked to the northern Virginia group that had lost out in the recent round of major league expansion. ( Montreal Gazette headline: YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUDE.) But Brochu told the suitors that his club wasn't for sale.