The last season of the Montreal Expos, destiny's doormats, obviously is going to be novel. Who knew that the novel would be Oliver Twist?
The Expos are, after all, wards of the state, orphans owned by the other 29 major league teams under the banner of Baseball Expos, L.P. They were abandoned on Bud Selig's doorstep by former owner Jeffrey Loria after Selig failed to eliminate Montreal and the Minnesota Twins through contraction and Loria bought the Florida Marlins, taking with him the Expos' front-office staff, manager, coaches, scouts and almost everything that wasn't nailed down. Selig brought in a salvage crew led by team president Tony Taveras, general manager Omar Minaya and manager Frank Robinson to raise a baseball team from the rubble.
Unlike little Oliver, however, the Expos won't be permitted to approach their master, Selig, in late September and ask for more; after this season they will most likely disappear or move. Still, what's being served in the clubhouse isn't gruel—it's the customary soup, fruit, juice and lunch meat—and a cursory glance leads to the surmise that this spring training camp is identical to Montreal's previous 33 in Florida. The timeless quotidian rites of Expos ball are being played out on the backfields of the Jupiter complex: Pitchers cover first base, hitters take their cuts, outfielders miss cutoff men. The bunt defense is trying to run the wheel, not reinvent it.
Bench coach Wendell Kim, a 52-year-old who has the disconcerting habit of sprinting everywhere, has organized a high-energy camp, and the 66-year-old Robinson oversees it with an occasional blunt word and an ever-present gentle hand on the shoulder. This might be Dead Team Walking, but so far the only dead thing in Montreal's camp has been the battery of David Samson's rented convertible. Samson, the former Expos executive vice president who moved to Florida with Loria, his stepfather, to run the Marlins, was stranded in the parking lot after the Montreal-Florida game on March 5. When word of Samson's predicament reached the Expos' clubhouse, out came equipment manager Mike Wallace, one of about 60 people whom Samson had fired unceremoniously from the Marlins in February. Wallace grabbed cables from his trunk and gave Samson a jump. Samson mumbled something about how he wished things had gone more smoothly. Like almost everything else about the Expos, this involved both a positive and a negative.
Still, there are dead giveaways that this spring is different, starting with the Roadster-model laptop on the desk of Expos athletic trainer Ron McClain. Under Loria's agreement with Major League Baseball, he took all the Expos' computers and files with him as intellectual property, leaving Montreal scrambling for scouting reports and injury data. (Strange that the report that induced the Expos to trade for pitcher Hideki Irabu in 1999 rates as intellectual property, but there you go.) No computers, no reports, no complaints—Minaya accepted the arrangement with a shrug of equanimity. At the bottom of baseball's food chain, reality bytes.
There were larger signs of change too, such as the cartoonishly ripped 6'4", 240-pound Jose Canseco patrolling leftfield in Jupiter. The young, cheap Expos of recent years rarely invited veteran free-agent position players to spring training, but with the supply of next years exhausted, they have been holding an open house for huddled masses yearning to hit virtually for free. In addition to Canseco, a 37-year-old who has played 13 major league games in the outfield in the past three seasons and whose best position is batter's box, Montreal has been eyeing 38-year-old Lance Johnson, the erstwhile One Dog who packed his car in Cincinnati and drove to Florida looking for work, and Felix Jose, a 36-year-old who last played in the Korean League and has had 29 at bats in the bigs since 1995. The Expos also repatriated 40-year-old first baseman Andres Galarraga, the Big Cat turned old torn. This isn't a training camp as much as an outpost of the French Foreign Legion.
The dual issues of contraction and relocation are the white noise of the Expos' spring. The players' answers to the obvious questions are well practiced: No, they don't worry about the future, because it's beyond their control, and, yes, it would be swell to keep the team together and move it to the Washington, D.C., area or somewhere else. "Baseball players have been trained not to worry about the future," pitcher Scott Strickland says. "You can't think your next pitch might be hit for a home run, and you can't think about where you'll be next year." This is true, to a point, but the Expos won't play 162 games in a vacuum.
For Vladimir Guerrero, the incandescent rightfielder, and Javier Vazquez, the best pitcher no one knows, the future will be strewn with rose petals and big contracts no matter what the commissioner or the courts decide to do with the Expos, but for players with lesser portfolios, the prospect of a shrinking baseball universe is discomfiting. In the trainer's room, the clubhouse confessional, not a day passes without at least one player musing about 2003, according to McClain. These Expos are human, after all, which should be obvious considering that they lost at least 94 games in each of the past four years. "I look at this season as one long audition," says 34-year-old utilityman Mike Mordecai. "The eyes of baseball will be on us."
Minaya mentioned "the cloud of contraction" in his first meeting with the players, but he asked them to stay in the moment, and he evoked Sept. 11 as horrible proof that we all live day-to-day. The Dominican-born Minaya, who was until recently an assistant general manager with the New York Mets, prides himself on being a glass-half-full guy, but given what awaited him with the Expos, he would have been excused for swigging straight from the bottle. Minaya was hired on Feb. 12 and had 72 hours to rebuild the infrastructure before players reported to camp. The cupboard was bare. Loria had strip-mined the Expos, leaving Minaya with only four baseball people: McClain, Triple A manager Tim Leiper, Triple A pitching coach Randy St. Claire and assistant farm director Adam Wogan.
Before he took the Montreal job, Minaya had had, by his count, six or seven interviews for vacant general managerships, some serious and others, he assumed, to fulfill a minority-recruitment obligation. "There was always a but," Minaya says. "It was always that I didn't have organizational or administrative skills. After this, I hope no one questions my administrative skills." Minaya and Robinson, a Hall of Famer who last managed in 1991 and most recently was vice president for on-field operations in the commissioner's office, recruited a first-rate coaching staff overnight, and each day Minaya seems to add a scout or administrator. He has even brought in, as a special assistant, Jim Beattie, the former Expos G.M. who washed his hands of the team last summer.