For the 43-year-old Minaya, this strange summer will also be an audition. He could have burnished his reputation by staying with the strong Mets team he helped to reconfigure over the winter, and he might have turned that into a general manager's post not stamped with an expiration date. But he feared that if he declined Selig's request to run the Expos, he would be wrecking the chances of other Latinos to become general managers.
Minaya isn't quite as big a risk taker as he fancies himself to be, though, even if years ago he did honeymoon in Montreal—in February. He is working with a safety net: He has a guaranteed job in the commissioner's office if the Expos are contracted ("That might mean going to Kinko's to drop things off," he says), and if the team moves, he'll probably stay with it. Minaya theoretically has full autonomy (although in practice he ultimately reports to the commissioner's office) and a $39 million payroll, about 10% higher than Montreal had last year. If the Expos approach 80 wins under these circumstances, his stock rises. The more intriguing question is what will happen if Montreal is contending in late July, a scenario only slightly more implausible than the Minnesota Twins' strong run in 2001. Could the Expos rent a premier starter, taking on two months of, say, an $8 million salary? Would Major League Baseball bump up the budget and rim the risk that one of its partners would lose Bud Ball I to the upstart Expos? "I kind of hope so," says Taveras, who once ran the Anaheim Angels. "Baseball does want us to operate with integrity."
Robinson has doubts that a megaplayer could be airlifted to Montreal. The inherent restraints on the Expos' general manager's job dissuaded him from pursuing it, but he was energized by the prospect of managing this thin yet undeniably talented lineup. Of course, he knew no more about the players than the casual fan does.
The brisk days of late February and early March were hell on outfielders and tricky for Robinson, too, because players wore windbreakers for workouts, and he couldn't read the names or numbers on their uniforms. When Falstaffian lefthander Scott Stewart said, "Hey, Frank," early in camp, Robinson replied, "Hey, Ssss...."
"He didn't quite get out 'Stew,' " Stewart says, "but I was kind of on the side, and he didn't get a good look. But Frank's great."
For the moment Robinson is satisfied to be on a first-initial basis with players. "I can tell who they are by their mannerisms," he said in his office last Friday, between mouthfuls of cereal, "but, as I was telling the front office this morning, I've got to focus more on names. We'll be making cuts, and I've got to understand who we're talking about." Robinson most definitely isn't auditioning, but if the Expos shift to the Washington area, there could be no finer front-office adornment for the franchise than a man who played and managed next door with the Baltimore Orioles.
There is a slim chance the Expos suddenly will become cult heroes—www.buytheexpos.poptopix.com, a website started by Penn students too sophisticated to swallow goldfish, had $2.27 million in pledges through Sunday—but the team isn't budgeting for it. "If 30,000 come every night, it'd be a great 'screw you' to people who say Montreal shouldn't have baseball," says Strickland, but the season-ticket base will be about 1,000, less than half of the total in 2001. Taveras anticipates drawing between a half million and the 642,748 the Expos attracted last year. There were five minor sponsors on board at week's end, but Claude Delorme, Montreal's executive vice president for business affairs, hopes to land a muscular financial angel such as Molson breweries. The Expos have radio deals in both English and French, but there will be no English-language TV and perhaps only five to 15 games on French-language TV. Montreal received $536,000 for media rights last year, about one one-hundredth of what the New York Yankees earned from local TV. This year the Expos' net return from media rights will be roughly zero.
To appeal to the few remaining seamheads in Siberia-on-the-St. Lawrence, the Expos will offer two turn-back-the-clock promotions (old-style uniforms and concessions prices). On other nights they will pass out bobblehead dolls of former and present Montreal stars Rusty Staub, Steve Rogers, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Guerrero. (Alas, there is no Wilfredo Cordero bobblehand doll—36 errors in 1993.) The point is, baseball in Montreal does have a history: maybe not a championship history, but a unique one as the first big league franchise outside the U.S.
In the full seasons from 1979 through '83 the Expos averaged 2.24 million fans annually in a stadium so frigid in April and late September that not even 5 for 5 qualified as hot. Fans sang Valderi, Valdera, an oompah band played in the beer garden at the entrance, and each time an opposing pitcher threw to first base, a chicken was flashed on the scoreboard. There was no happier place in baseball, including Wrigley Field. The loss of capital when Charles Bronfman sold the team in '90, the fire-sale departures of stars like Larry Walker, Moises Alou and Pedro Martinez in the mid-'90s, the badmouthing of Olympic Stadium by former Expos general partner Claude Brochu in his futile effort to secure a downtown ballpark and the dissipation of goodwill by Loria after he bought the team in '99 all figured in the demise. The one contraction never heard now in Montreal is don't, as in "Don't take away our Expos."
When Taveras arrived in Jupiter, he told reporters that if the doctor gives you six months to live, you can either celebrate or cry. The Expos choose to celebrate. So there will be no crying in Montreal baseball. For now it is one day at a time for the players, one name at a time for the manager. The orphan's life could be worse. The Expos could be working at Enron. They wear big league uniforms, make big league money and even have great expectations.