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Montreal EXPOS
Michael Farber
March 29, 1999
They may soon be moving south, but in the standings the Expos are headed north
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March 29, 1999

Montreal Expos

They may soon be moving south, but in the standings the Expos are headed north

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By the Numbers

1998 Team Statistics (NL rank)

1998 record: 65-97 (fourth in NL East)

BATTING AVERAGE

.249 (14)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

.264 (10)

RUNS SCORED

644 (16)

ERA

4.38 (9)

HOME RUNS

147 (11)

FIELDING PCT.

.975 (16)

Montreal Manager Felipe Alou is a modern-day Sisyphus, forever destined to push the boulder almost to the top of the mountain before it comes crashing down again. The only apparent difference is that Sisyphus never received a job offer from Rupert Murdoch. Alou was practically out the door to become the Los Angeles Dodgers' skipper last winter when he decided to stay in Montreal. He was lured back not by the Expos' offer of a three-year, $6 million contract (stunning for a team so cost-conscious it's a wonder that pay phones haven't been installed in the visitors' dugout and bullpen), nor by the level of personal autonomy he enjoys with the organization (Alou has a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card) but because of an acute sense of commitment. "I had to see the crisis through to the end, one way or another," he says, referring to the likelihood the franchise will be sold and moved to a U.S. city before next season if Montreal ownership fails to generate the necessary funding for a new downtown stadium.

Even if the mountain moves, Alou is pushing the boulder in the right direction. Despite its skimpy $19 million payroll, Montreal could get back close to .500 this season, carried by the wondrous Vladimir Guerrero. The 23-year-old rightfielder is the best player you probably have never seen, impossibly long-limbed and powerful and fluid. During workouts in spring training, he would stand in the rightfield corner and unleash one-hop throws to third base, the ball hissing as it cut through the air. Not even the double whammy of playing in Siberia-by-the-St. Lawrence or speaking only a few words of English ("cutoff man" not among them) could camouflage a year in which he set six Montreal offensive records despite receiving little help in front of him and scant protection behind. "He could be the best player in the game soon," centerfielder Rondell White says. "Maybe as soon as this year."

Guerrero's supporting cast should be better, if for no other reasons than health and experience. White, who had a shot at becoming the first 30 homer-30 stolen base guy in Expos history until he broke his right ring finger in late July, is healthy again. If he isn't traded—the Yankees made a pitch for him during the off-season before they re-signed Bernie Williams—he and Guerrero will give Montreal plenty of pop in the middle of the lineup. First baseman Brad Fullmer is dangerous with a bat in his hands too; not only did he drive in 73 runs as a rookie, but he also cracked former bench coach Jim Tracy's orbital bone one day while swinging the lumber in the Coors Field lunchroom. (Alas, Fullmer is equally scary with his glove; most of Montreal's bunt defenses are designed so that he doesn't field the ball.) If wild child and underachieving third baseman Shane Andrews doesn't get off to a fast start at the plate this year, Montreal will turn to Michael Barrett, a highly regarded prospect who hit .304 after his call-up last September and whom the Expos are itching to shoehorn into the lineup somewhere.

The pitching staff is young and largely unproven. Montreal will try to get by with an all-twentysomething, all-righthanded rotation of Dustin Hermanson, Carl Pavano, Miguel Batista, Javier Vazquez and Mike Thurman. All are power pitchers and tall enough (only Batista is shorter than 6'2") to start an NBA franchise if Montreal doesn't rekindle its once passionate love affair with baseball. The most polished of the group is Hermanson, a converted reliever who held batters to a .234 average in 30 starts in '98 and has become the staff ace. "He can be a 20-game winner," Alou says. "I don't know if he can win 20 with us, but he can with someone."

An obstacle to bigger things for Hermanson is support from a feeble offense that averaged nearly 1.5 fewer runs per game man league leader Houston. Support, however, is available in the bullpen, which is anchored by dazzling closer Ugueth Urbina, who won or saved 40 of Montreal's 65 victories. Urbina will get more save opportunities this year if the Expos can find a capable setup man. Steve Kline and Anthony Telford will likely start the season sharing that role, but promising 6'5" farmhand Guillermo Mota, 25, a former shortstop in the Mets organization who allowed only 28 hits in 58 innings in the minors in '98, could replace them before long.

The Expos' season will play itself out amid the usual headlines and deadlines, the games squeezing themselves in between internecine fights among Montreal's owners and pronouncements about the stadium drive. (A recent poll in Montreal's La Presse said 54.7% of Quebecers opposed an interest-free government loan to finance construction of a new downtown ballyard.) If the off-field problems seep into the clubhouse, Alou's grip on the boulder could slip. "I don't see that happening," says White. "We've got a lot of young guys who are just happy to be in the big leagues. If there were a lot of older guys, I think it could be a problem, but almost everyone here is so focused on getting a job, they don't worry about where the team might end up. I think we'll be O.K. We certainly won't be a pushover." One way or another, Montreal will be on the move.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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