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Millen's hesitation reinforced the notion that Quebec is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to play there. "It presents a challenge for us, not a problem," says Marcel Aubut, a Nordique owner and the team governor. "This is a different culture, a different style of city, and we have to present ourselves, show people this isn't a terrible place."
The Montreal Canadiens have largely averted the ill effects of cultural bias—that franchise is a revered institution in Canada and is something of a mecca to hockey players. And even the image problem in the city of Quebec does not appreciably affect the way the Nordiques do business—because free agency in the NHL is limited. To a player traded to the Nordiques against his wishes, one can say only two things: tough and bon voyage.
But it's different in baseball. For the Expos, the low regard that players around the league have for Montreal has forced the team to adopt a philosophy based heavily on scouting and development, on growing its own. "In general, guys who were groomed in this organization like it and stay here," says general manager Dave Dombrowski. "Guys with us from day one like the organization and the city. But when you get a four-or five-year player [on the brink of free agency] and bring him in, he usually doesn't have the time to develop affection for the club or the city."
"We have to have an approach and stick with it," says Expo president Claude Brochu. "We have to tie up our four- and five-year players and keep them off the market. And we have to stay out of the free-agent market ourselves. We also have to realize we can never bring in someone who doesn't want to be here."
The club has swerved wildly from its guidelines at times. The most recent—and costly—example was Langston, Montreal's 1989-model lease-a-lefty. After making the playoffs only once in two decades of existence (in the asterisk strike year of 1981), the championship-starved Expos gambled last May and traded three promising young pitchers to the Seattle Mariners for Langston, although Montreal had no guarantee he would stay more than four months. Expo officials thought they were close to making a long-term deal with Langston in August, before the team went on a skid and collapsed in the standings. Langston eventually accepted a five-year, $16 million deal with the Angels (the Expos offered a three-year, $9 million contract before dropping out of the bidding). As a thank-you note, Langston asked for a no-trade clause from the Angels, specifically so he couldn't be returned to Siberia on the St. Lawrence.
This city has inspired the songs of Leonard Cohen, the novels of Mordecai Richler and the no-trade clause. If a player has the latter, you can bet Montreal will be in it.
The Phillies' Dickie Thon was headed to Montreal from San Diego last season before he exercised his veto. Thon, a shortstop, was instead traded to Philadelphia, where he batted .271 with 15 home runs and 60 RBIs, production Montreal desperately needed from its middle infield late in the season. The Expos were similarly stymied from acquiring potential pennant-winning help in 1982, when pitcher Dick Tidrow, then with the Chicago Cubs, refused to waive a no-trade clause to Montreal.
Even young talent has, on occasion, shown an aversion to joining the Expos. The club selected Pete Incaviglia, who had starred at Oklahoma State, in the first round of the June draft in 1985, but negotiations grew acrimonious. Says Bill Stoneman, Montreal's vice-president for baseball operations, "When Bucky Woy [Incaviglia's agent] brought up the Canada thing, I remember thinking, Now they're throwing everything at us." The Expos were only able to sign Incaviglia with the condition that he be immediately traded to the Texas Rangers.
At the beginning of the last decade, after painstakingly building the team from the talent in their farm system, the Expos were the self-proclaimed team of the '80s (a boast that would backfire and come to mean the number of wins in a season for this underachieving franchise). Even then, free agents didn't exactly flock to Montreal. Ross Grimsley (the only 20-game winner in Expo history), Dave Cash, Pete Rose and Elias Sosa were the only free agents with any name value to sign with Montreal. "We had a good club without free agents then," says Expo deputy chairman John McHale. "We looked like winners, and we dealt on a very personal basis with the players. [Jeff] Reardon, [Scott] Sanderson, [Bill] Gullickson, [Gary] Carter—these guys weren't looking to get out of Montreal."
Nor is every current Expo looking for the exit. "Most of our guys like playing for the team," says Montreal third baseman Tim Wallach, a nine-year veteran. "A lot of players have a bad view of the city before they get there. When they come, they realize it's not that bad. I wouldn't want to be traded unless I was going to be traded home [to Southern California]. I know where I am, and it's where I want to be."