A few hours before his team's season opener Montreal Expo manager Felipe Alou stood alone inside the visiting clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, transfixed by the game on television in which former Expo reliever John Wetteland was closing out a Yankee victory in New York. "This winter we lost Wetteland, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker, and it's only a matter of time until we lose Wil Cordero and Cliff Floyd and Moises Alou as well," said Felipe Alou, pondering the past and future exodus of Montreal's best players. "This Pirate series is an example of all the things that are wrong with this business. Poor teams like Montreal and Pittsburgh develop prospects until they become superstars. Then we wait for the next wave to take them away with the tide."
Not so coincidentally, Pirate manager Jim Leyland had similar thoughts that afternoon. "I got to thinking during lunch about Doug Drabek and Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Grissom and Wetteland and the rest," Leyland said. "That's a World Series team right there. But you can't whine and pout about who's gone."
This year Leyland is running a virtual day-care center, shepherding eight rookies, including four who hadn't played in a game above Double A until this season. No Pirate starting pitcher is older than 27, and closer Dan Miceli, who is 24, had just two career saves entering this year. Jon Lieber, Pittsburgh's starter in the opener, began last season at Double A Carolina and didn't even draw the Opening Day assignment there. He allowed six runs in five innings in a 6-2 loss to Montreal.
"Sure, contending for a pennant is a lot to ask of a bunch of guys who were in the minors last year, but this is small-market baseball," Lieber said. "It's a great chance for all of us to show we belong up here."
What's worse, last year even the starting lineup that was up there hit a total of just 45 homers. "We're the Rocky Balboas of the National League," says Pirate leftfielder Al Martin, who chipped in nine dingers in 1994. "We're going to get pounded some nights, but hopefully we'll fight to the end just like Rocky."
The Expos' roster includes six rookies and is the youngest in the majors, with an average age of 25. "I feel like the one senior on a team full of underclassmen," says Montreal catcher Darrin Fletcher, who is 28. "I miss all the guys we've lost, but the minute we start hanging our heads, we'll look back up and be 30 games below .500."
"We have a lot of pissed-off people in this clubhouse, and I'm one of them," said Alou's son Moises, the rightfielder. "I've already thought about leaving next year, but when our guys take the field, we still act like we're supposed to beat everybody." Sure enough, the cut-rate Expos swept the short series with the bargain-basement Pirates.
The best Pittsburgh could say is that it appears that the sale of the Pirates is imminent and the club will remain in the Steel City. The asking price might have come down a bit during the fifth inning of the opener, when little-market baseball began to resemble Little League baseball. With two runners on, Montreal's Roberto Kelly hit a 45-foot ground ball and, thanks to a pair of Pirate errors, wound up circling the bases. The crowd responded by bombarding the field with thousands of little plastic tubes containing Pirate flags that had been distributed before the game. It was like waving the flag of surrender on the 1995 season after just five innings.
When the game was over, Leyland scoured the two teams' rosters on his desk and read names like Aude, Brumfield, Eversgerd, Grudzielanek and Loaiza. "With all these new kids here you realize that it's been a long time since the strike began," Leyland said. "A long winter. A long spring...."
A longer summer.