Last friday the ghosts of barnstormers past came to life in Puerto Rico. The vagabond Montreal Expos packed a patchwork team and its uncertain future into two charter buses at their hotel and followed an escort of Honda Shadow police motorcycles that bisected traffic on the crowded Avenida Isla Verde en route to the Estadio Hiram Bithorn in San Juan. Inside the airy, single-decked ballpark, underneath a clamshell roof with zigzags like Bart Simpson's haircut, the Expos played before an enraptured crowd that was blind to uniforms. "They're rooting for the players of Latin descent, but all they want to see is baseball, good baseball," said catcher Brian Schneider. The enthusiasm in the ballpark was, for Montreal, a welcome antidote to the churchlike quiet of Olympic Stadium, home to 10,031 a game last year, the smallest average attendance in the National League. "You wake up and see a different land in the morning," said New York Mets reliever Graeme Lloyd, an Expo last season. "Other than that, everything else is baseball."
While the Expos, ward of Major League Baseball, cloaked their players in the feel-good garb of globalization, deep down they were after a quick buck. Their fan base in Montreal having been dissipated first by mediocre teams, then by the threat of contraction and now by the imminence of relocation, the Expos landed a sweetheart deal to play 22 games in San Juan and rake in a minimum of $7 million (roughly four to five times what they would take in for a similar number of games in Montreal). They brought to San Juan a club with 12 players from Spanish-speaking countries, the most on any big league roster, including three native sons: first baseman Wil Cordero from Mayag�ez, righthander Javier Vazquez from Ponce and second baseman Jos� Vidro from Sabana Grande.
At Hiram Bithorn, Montreal found compliant opponents in the stumbling Mets, who supplied the immensely popular second baseman Roberto Alomar (from Ponce) and scored but eight runs and made five errors while being swept in a four-game weekend series. Received so handsomely on this road trip, the Expos, 9-4 and in first place in the NL East through Monday, couldn't have felt more at home. "Sure, we'd like to be settled in our [ Montreal] apartments before the end of April," said catcher Michael Barrett, "but to see the reception the Puerto Rican players have gotten was worth the trip. We've gotten the red-carpet treatment here."
At the park the carpet on the field was Day-Glo green, to match the 1960s feel of the architecture. The 40-year-old stadium underwent $2.5 million in renovations in the past few weeks, and even so remains minor league caliber. In the weeks preceding the opening series, workers installed a temporary video scoreboard, which on Saturday night momentarily flickered and went dark during the bottom of the sixth. Because of neglect and disuse, dirt and silt had accumulated between the artificial playing surface and the asphalt foundation, causing the carpet to bunch up; groundskeepers repeatedly power-washed the field to flush out the sediment, and puddles of mud were visible along the edge of the outfield where the turf ended.
The field played hard throughout the series—Expos first baseman Jeff Liefer twice mishandled short-hop ground balls for errors in Saturday's 5-4 win—and there was a footlong semicircular tear in the warning track behind home plate. A week before the series opened, clubhouse showers only irregularly dispensed hot water, though that problem had been fixed by last weekend. "Our club has been through some difficult periods, with contraction, with relocation, and we see coming to Puerto Rico as another challenge," says Montreal general manager Omar Minaya. "I think we've put together a fun, open-minded team that's the United Nations of baseball."
Friday night's opener began with three national anthems—Canadian, Puerto Rican and U.S.—which was one more than the number of hits the Mets mustered in a 10-0 whitewash by Expos starter Tomo Ohka, the 27-year-old Japanese righthander with the deadpan demeanor. Asked how pitching abroad affected him, Ohka smiled and said through his interpreter, " Canada and the United States are foreign countries, so it didn't make a difference to me." The game provided the near-sellout crowd of 17,906 with a moment of unadulterated national pride when Vidro, playing in front of his mother, Daisy, for the first time as a pro, smashed a two-run homer into the leftfield bleachers in the bottom of the eighth, prompting long, rhythmic chants of his name. To dozens of local reporters afterward Vidro admitted that he fought back tears as he rounded second base. "I was more nervous today than in my first game in the big leagues." he said. "I felt like a rookie, the butterflies were so strong."
In a quiet corner of Montreal's tiny clubhouse on Saturday afternoon, a soft-spoken Vidro seemed weary. His mother and father, Jos�, had made an hour-and-a-half drive home immediately after the game; Vidro had spoken to them for only a few minutes, and without any off days scheduled during the 10-game homestand, he was unsure when he would have time to spend with them. "It's been kind of hard, trying to please a lot of people," he said. "There's only four or five guys from Puerto Rico playing here, and everybody wants to get our attention. The atmosphere is very special, but it's hard." Agreed Cordero, "All I've seen is the ballpark and the hotel."
On Sunday afternoon, after Vidro turned on a Mike Stanton slider for a walkoff homer on the first pitch in the bottom of the 10th, then rounded the bases to meet a mob of Expos at the plate, his mood had brightened considerably. "I wished I could have gotten to home plate faster, where all my teammates were waiting for me," he said with a smile, then quickly excused himself. "I've got to go see my parents now."
Concerned about wear and tear on the Montreal players, MLB and the players' union negotiated a series of perks that go into effect when the team is in San Juan: Meal money is doubled, to $153 daily, and family members are permitted on charter flights and buses and provided with police-escorted transportation to and from games. (About half of the players brought their families along last week.) The club was lodging at the El San Juan, a luxury hotel in upscale Isla Verde, a tourist enclave removed from the bustle of downtown. The rigors of road life aside, several Americans on a team dominated by Latinos said the series had been eye-opening. "If there were doubts [about playing in Puerto Rico], they were gone after Friday night," Schneider said. "The crowd exceeded all our expectations. It's been interesting. Now we see how the Latin players feel, when they might not understand what's being spoken around them."
For all the smiling multiculturalism, the Expos were, unmistakably, playing for the Yankee dollar. San Juan promoter and winter-league owner Antonio Mu�oz struck the deal with Montreal that guaranteed the $7 million and promised as much as $10 million if all 22 games were sellouts. Because of raises built into contracts and other salary increases bestowed on arbitration-eligible players, the Expos' Opening Day payroll ballooned from $38.7 million last season to $51.9 million this year; to bring that figure down to a level acceptable to the commissioner's office would have required a salary dump greater than that of elite righthander Bartolo Colon. Instead, thanks to the influx of money from Puerto Rico, Montreal was able to retain Vazquez, Barrett, righthander Tony Armas Jr. and shortstop Orlando Cabrera. Although Vazquez may command more than the Expos can afford when he becomes a free agent next winter, the other three, along with Vidro (under contract through 2004), would be significant starting pieces for a franchise under new ownership.