Expos followed, but not in Montreal

Possibly bound for D.C., these lame ducks splash onto scene, lead NL East

April 30, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

MONTREAL - The weather is still winter-brisk in this extremely northern baseball suburb of Washington, which is one of the many reasons fans have been slow to warm up to the young and exciting Montreal Expos.

The Canadiens are in the NHL playoffs for the first time in four years.

School doesn't let out for another month.

And, if you really want to get technical about it, there's also that thing about Major League Baseball's closing the franchise for lack of interest or moving it to some more economically attractive location in the next year or so.

New manager Frank Robinson, who has been charged with keeping the Expos competitive until who knows what happens to the franchise, looks into the empty stands at Olympic Stadium and summons up the only words he can find to describe the feeling.

"It's odd," he said.

It is most certainly odd, in light of the terrific early performance of the Expos, who have spent the past 10 days in first place in the National League East. Odd, but not unexpected.

They were riding the crest of a six-game winning streak when the St. Louis Cardinals - a pretty good draw in most cities - arrived in town for the weekend, but the Expos drew only 24,613 for the three-game series.

This is a team with several attractive young stars, yet the Expos attract only a small core of loyal-to-the-end fans who either (a) are holding out faint hope that the franchise's predicted shift to Washington or Northern Virginia isn't "inevitable," as high-ranking Major League Baseball official Robert DuPuy said recently, or (b) just want to see a few more games before the Expos abandon their home of 33 years.

"It's 30 years of baseball down the drain," said Andre Pariseau, 59, who arrived at Olympic Stadium on Saturday morning wearing a pin-studded Expos cap that clearly dated to the team's better days.

Pariseau, accompanied by his brother and his niece, Melany (who served as interpreter), disputed the myth that French-speaking Canadians don't care about baseball.

"It really hurts," he said. "This team and this stadium are in my heart."

Expos fans have had their hearts broken more than once since Major League Baseball awarded Montreal an expansion franchise for the 1969 season. In fact, they have been disappointed so many times that you can spur a lively debate (in French or English) over just what was the greatest heartbreak in Expos history.

Maybe it was the dramatic home run by Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Rick Monday in the 1981 NL Championship Series that kept the Expos from advancing to the World Series.

Maybe it was the players' strike of 1994 that prematurely ended a season in which the Expos had the best record in the majors and seemed destined to prove that a small-market team could win baseball's ultimate prize.

Maybe it was more recent. This might not be an issue if an effort by the Expos and local government officials had succeeded in funding a new downtown stadium in the late 1990s. The site was selected and architectural plans were drawn up twice, but the project fell apart and, with it, any realistic hope of keeping the team in Montreal.

Since then, the fans have become fatalistic, viewing the purchase of a controlling interest in the club by New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria in 1999 as a ploy to hasten relocation and the recent sale back to baseball's central office - for the purpose of relocation or contraction - as proof that the fix was in from the start.

It was against this backdrop that Robinson and a front office headed by club president Tony Tavares and general manager Omar Minaya took over management of the club for the commissioner's office on Feb. 12.

No one expected much. Certainly no one expected the Expos to be playing .600 ball (15-10) heading into May.

"I knew we had good talent - young talent - but the chemistry had to be put together," said Minaya, one of the rising young stars of baseball management. "I thought the team had the talent to play the way it has, but as far as the fundamental things, I thought it was going to take a little longer."

Robinson didn't know what to expect, but he knew what he wanted to use as a model for the 2002 Expos - the 1989 Orioles club that came out of nowhere to contend for the American League East title until the final weekend of the regular season.

The on-field similarities would only become more apparent as the Expos took advantage of soft starts by the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies to rush to the front of the standings in mid-April. They have played the same kind of can-do baseball that the '89 Orioles mastered under Robinson, playing everyone so tough that Saturday's 5-0 loss to the Cardinals was the first time all season that the Expos had lost by more than two runs.

"This season reminds me in a lot of ways of that year," Robinson said.

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