A winter of discontent

Baseball: Sold in an off-season that included possible relocation, supposed elimination and then revival, the Montreal Expos and a hastily assembled staff will be happy to just play ball.

February 17, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. - The Montreal Expos open spring training at Roger Dean Stadium today with a full roster of players and, with any luck, enough coaches to put them through their early workouts.

Manager Frank Robinson has had about a week to piece together a coaching staff, which was still under construction late yesterday. Rookie general manager Omar Minaya spent his second day on site furiously working the phones to find enough scouts and player development people to get the franchise back up and running after former owner Jeffrey Loria took much of the staff with him to the Florida Marlins.

Oh well, maybe they'll have all the bugs ironed out by the time the Expos get to Washington.

Nobody has time to think about that right now, or the possibility that the Expos will simply cease to be a major-league franchise after this season. Contraction and relocation are off the table for the moment, even if the Expos remain on the bubble.

"We're not going to be focused on the political stuff or the off-field stuff," Robinson said. "If you worry about what's going to happen to the ballclub, or why attendance isn't good, then you can't play baseball."

Robinson will have his hands full just getting to know a team that he had little reason to think about a few weeks ago. Minaya is so busy he hasn't even been able to spend a minute celebrating his historic arrival at a management level once out of reach of minority candidates.

"I've had GMs call and say they don't know how we're going to do it," Minaya said. "One of them said, `We've had three to five months to get ready for spring training. You've got to do it in two days.'

"I think it's a great challenge."

The players have been filtering into camp for several days. Some worked out informally in a morning drizzle yesterday, most of them still a little befuddled by the strange turn of events that temporarily left them without a front office - and likely without a fan base when they return to Montreal to start the regular season.

"It's been frustrating - all the uncertainty that's going around the team," said pitcher Javier Vasquez, a budding young star who won 16 games for a last-place team in 2001. "Finally, you know what's going to happen this year. Hopefully, we'll be able to put all that aside and work hard to have a good season."

Finalizing the coaching staff would be a big step in that direction. The Expos plan to announce their new staff today, though Minaya said yesterday that one member still was not in place.

Some of the hirings were hard to keep secret. Hitting coach Tom McCraw, who was on Robinson's staff in San Francisco in the early 1980s and with the Orioles from 1988 to '91, walked into the clubhouse yesterday afternoon and blew the surprise. Dick Pole will be the pitching coach.

Robinson knows that he's got some catching up to do, but he didn't waste any time throwing down the gauntlet. He dismissed the diminished expectations wrought by last year's 68-win season and predicted the Expos will be in the hunt for the National League East title.

After all, he took a team with far less talent into the final weekend of the 1989 season with a chance to win the tough American League East. The Orioles' "Why Not?" season remains the highlight of Robinson's managerial career, and he's confident that something similar can happen in Montreal.

"I definitely think so," he said. "There's more talent here, so we shouldn't have to battle through as many things. We have some outstanding players here. The shortstop [Orlando Cabrera] drove in 96 runs last year. The first baseman [Lee Stevens] drove in 95. The stud [Vladimir Guerrero] drove in a few [108], too.

"We'll hit. We'll hit and run. We'll use the suicide squeeze and we'll steal bases. We're going to have some fun here."

It might take more than that to get disenchanted Montreal baseball fans to return to Olympic Stadium. The Expos drew just 609,473 fans last year, and that was before the intense speculation that the club will soon move to the nation's capital or some other promising locale.

Robinson insists that baseball is Job One, but he knows that he and his new team also will have to do quite a selling job to get fans to overlook the strong possibility that the Expos will be gone by 2003.

"No doubt about that," he said. "We want them to come out to the ballpark. We'll start by reaching out to them. If we put together a good ballclub, we're hopeful they'll come out there."

Veteran catcher Randy Knorr doesn't like the odds.

"They [the fans] are so disappointed in baseball right now," he said. "I just hope you can get somebody to come to the games. You can't blame them. Every time they fell in love with a player, he'd get traded away. The fans are just bitterly disappointed. They're saying, `Hey, I can watch hockey.' "

There are more questions than answers about Major League Baseball's plan to operate the team in 2002:

Do the Expos continue to focus on player development, or do they just focus on this season?

"I'm going to run the team on the assumption that it's going to be around in 2003," Minaya said. "Our goal is to make the club better than it was last year."

But can he act freely to improve the team, or would a major trade approved by MLB-designated club president Tony Tavarez raise suspicion that the commissioner's office might be manipulating the pennant races?

There are conflicting accounts about the possibility of a conflict of interest. Minaya said he has complete authority over the makeup of the team, but Robinson promised that none of the Expos' cornerstone players would be moved this season.

"A lot of people are going to want some of these players," Robinson said, "but the nucleus of this team will be here all year ... no matter what."

The only thing that's certain is that Robinson and Minaya are flying by the seats of their pants.

"We don't know what's going to happen," Minaya said. "I'm not going to look that far ahead. I've got to put a staff together."

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