The Montreal Expos' game-winning rally last Saturday began in the seventh inning, when the leadoff batter, who had spent four seasons in Triple A, singled and the man who was signed from an independent Class A team doubled him home. After the cleanup hitter, an erstwhile fifth outfielder with the New York Mets, bounced to short for the second out, the slugger who wasn't good enough to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers crushed his 15th homer of the season. The home run helped the starter, a waiver pickup last July who worked his way into the rotation in spring training, improve his record to 8-2. The starter, however, got help from the closer, who began 1997 without a save in his pro career. To preserve the 4-3 win the closer whiffed' Florida Marlins star Gary Sheffield, whose $6.1 million salary is one third of Montreal's payroll.
These Expos are more than the sum of their exceedingly funky parts: Everyman leadoff hitter (outfielder F.P. Santangelo), the refugee from the A ball Miami Miracle (second baseman Mike Lansing), the rejuvenated cleanup man (first baseman David Segui), the slugger (leftfielder Henry Rodriguez), the starter (righthander Jeff Juden) and the novice closer (righthander Ugueth Urbina). The Expos, as resilient as they are frugal, have scouted, cherry-picked, traded for and discovered talent almost everywhere. As general manager Jim Beattie says, "We place low-risk bets."
Through Sunday this motley crew had won 12 of its last 15 games and had the fourth-best record (41-31) in the National League. The tear also brought Montreal to within two games of Florida and to within 5½ of the Atlanta Braves, who were leading the National League East. Montreal began last week by taking two of three from the Baltimore Orioles, the club with the best record in the majors, and became the first visiting team to win a series at Camden Yards this year. The Expos won the final game 1-0 when lefthander Carlos Perez pitched his third shutout and bad-field-seldom-hit reserve Sherman Obando homered. When Santangelo reached first on an infield hit in the eighth inning, American League umpire Dale Ford approached him and said, "You're not filthy dirty yet."
Said Santangelo, "Jimmy Key's pitching. I'm lucky to be on first."
"Well, I just want to tell you," Ford added, "that I haven't seen a team play harder than you guys in a long time."
Santangelo was still beaming about the conversation three days later. "That was awesome," said Santangelo, who has started at three positions and batted in five spots in the order. "It's not like you have to worry about failing here because we're not supposed to win. We're not supposed to be in playoff contention. We're not supposed to be good. We just go out and play, and I guess we keep surprising people. We also have Felipe."
Felipe is manager Felipe Alou, the Sisyphus for the 1990s who patiently pushes the boulder back up the hill each time the gravity of Expos economics sends it tumbling to the bottom. After '94, when Montreal had the best prestrike record in baseball, it lost to free agency or traded away Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Ken Hill and John Wetteland—the cleanup hitter, the leadoff man, the ace and the closer, respectively. After '96 the Expos likewise lost Moises Alou, Jeff Fassero and Mel Rojas—the cleanup hitter, the ace and the closer.
Nonetheless, since Alou took over as manager on May 22, 1992, Montreal has the third-best record in baseball, behind the Braves and the Cleveland Indians. The Expos win because they have what Alou calls a program. When asked to describe that program, he reached for a piece of paper on his desk and drew a small circle, then a much larger circle around it. "When I walked into this office the first day and opened this drawer," he says, "there were a lot of checks in here. Fines. A lot of them had Delino DeShields's signature on them. I called in DeShields [now with the St. Louis Cardinals] and told him to take his money back. I said we were going to make it easier around here by widening the circle. I don't believe you can manage in that inside circle. It's like if you put live bait in a bucket that's too small, they'll jump out. You put them in a bigger bucket, they're comfortable. That's why the circle had to be wider."
That approach allows Alou to find a place for a slow-track minor leaguer like Santangelo or to remember that Juden (a first-round pick by the Houston Astros) had been a dependable starter against the team Alou managed in Class A in 1990 or to nurture any of the other finds Beattie and his predecessors have turned up with startling regularity.
A big myth is that Montreal keeps producing homegrown talent, but the farm system went to seed after Expos scouting director Gary Hughes left in '91 for a similar position with the Marlins. While the Expos' roster has eight players who came through their system, Montreal is the only team in the majors not to have one of its draftees make its club since '93.