Twenty-five years ago, when Olympic Stadium in Montreal was the giddiest ballpark in the majors, Expos rallies were accompanied by fans singing, "Val-di-ri, val-di-ra," the refrain from The Happy Wanderer. No longer happy, the Expos are now professional wanderers who will again play 22 games in San Juan. That makes 103 road games, so much travel these guys should stay at a bedouin-and-breakfast. The Expos—les Expos in Montreal, los Expos in Puerto Rico—play only three of their first 26 games in Canada, a schedule that could put the team in a deep hole. General manager Omar Minaya believes that if his players return home in early May with a .500 record, they will challenge in the National League East. If not...well, this could be a daunting year in any language.
Unfortunately the Expos travel like a carsick toddler. They were officially 31-50 on the road last year (plus 13-9 in Puerto Rico). The players remain convinced that a 25-game Montreal to Florida to Philadelphia to San Juan to Seattle to Oakland to Pittsburgh to Montreal trip last May and June—the most ill-planned excursion since Napoleon got a hankering to see Moscow—ultimately undermined them. "We were better than the Marlins last year," says reliever Joey Eischen, pointing out that the Expos were tied with four teams for the NL wild card on Aug. 28. "We were supposed to battle them to the end, but we had no wind left in our sails because of our schedule. Twenty-two extra road games beats you down."
Manager Frank Robinson ordered a tougher spring training conditioning program to help prevent fatigue over the long haul. But while the Expos may be in better shape physically, the fact remains that they operate under different rules than the other 29 major league teams. For instance, Montreal was not allowed a handful of September call-ups who might have bolstered a fading team because Major League Baseball, which owns the Expos, wouldn't spring for the $150,000 or so it would have cost to expand the roster. Despite operating with one hand tied behind his back, Minaya has been creative in engineering trades for righthander Bartolo Colon and outfielder Cliff Floyd in 2002 and nearly landing Juan Gonzalez last year. His payroll remains at roughly $40 million—one of the lowest in the league.
Still, the Expos, 83-79 in each of the past two seasons, have muddled through, though they may not be so resourceful this year. Over the winter they lost All-Star rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who signed with the Angels as a free agent, and faced with a possible $10 million arbitration settlement with No. 1 starter Javier Vazquez, they traded him to the Yankees. But they received first baseman Nick Johnson in the deal with New York and signed rightfielder Carl Everett and third baseman Tony Batista as free agents. Given Montreal's reputation in baseball as Siberia on the St. Lawrence, the signings were surprising. ( Montreal last signed a marquee free agent 20 years ago, a 42-year-old Pete Rose.) "We had to do some selling to Everett," Minaya said, "but he played against us [with the Rangers] in Puerto Rico last year and liked how we went about things."
In a city that has embraced baseball mavericks such as Bill Lee, Pascual Perez and Oil Can Boyd, the ebullient Everett should be a cult hero by June if he's on a 100-RBI pace. (He had 92 in splitting last season between the Rangers and the White Sox.) Batista hit 26 home runs and drove in 99 runs for the Orioles last season but struck out 102 times and drew only 28 walks in 631 at bats. The three newcomers, along with superb second baseman Jose Vidro and shortstop Orlando Cabrera, will have to produce consistently to compensate for the loss of Guerrero.
Righthander Livan Hernandez is the ace of the staff. If righty Tony Armas Jr., who is out until May while recovering from shoulder surgery, is healthy and if righthander Zach Day matures, the Expos could mix it up with the division heavyweights. However, the rotation is so thin and the farm system so bare after years of ditching prospects because of fears that the team would be sold or contracted, one significant injury could bury them. But then the Expos are used to life on the precipice.
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