Overlooked: Expos' sad state

'94 work stoppage started slide

team's record 65-94 after home loss last night

Baseball

September 30, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The euphoria in Washington over the likely return of Major League Baseball is such that it hardly bothers anyone that the Montreal Expos team they're inheriting has been languishing in last place all season.

The Expos, who have been owned by Major League Baseball's other 29 teams for the past three years, lost their final home game last night, giving them a 65-94 record with three road games left in the season.

Their best player is second baseman Jose Vidro, a three-time All-Star, but he's been hobbled with a knee injury, leaving a pretty unheralded roster.

Their top pitcher, Livan Hernandez, has 11 wins. One of their leading hitters is outfielder Endy Chavez. And their top run producer has been former Oriole Tony Batista, with 32 home runs and 110 RBIs.

Now, if the Expos had moved to Washington 10 years ago, that would have been much different. In 1994, Montreal had the best record in baseball, at 74-40, when a work stoppage wiped out the remainder of the season, including the World Series.

Baseball never quite recovered in Montreal. The team started selling off parts, saying goodbye to stars such as Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland and Pedro Martinez.

In 2001, commissioner Bud Selig threatened to contract the Expos and the Minnesota Twins, but that fell through, so MLB bought the Montreal franchise for $120 million, and the Expos actually rose to second place in the National League East the following year.

But once again, it was too good to last. After last season, the Expos lost one of the game's superstars, Vladimir Guerrero, to free agency and traded their top starting pitcher, Javier Vazquez, to the New York Yankees.

Then in July, they sent another one of their best players, shortstop Orlando Cabrera, to the Boston Red Sox in a four-team deal. So the team preparing to come to Washington is a skeleton of its former self.

After 36 seasons in Montreal, Canada's first major league franchise is anxious to move to a place where the revenue streams should flow. But it's hard to imagine this team having immediate success next season.

Omar Minaya, the general manager who has run the club on MLB's shoestring budget the past three years, is reportedly heading back to the New York Mets as their head of baseball operations.

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, the former Oriole who has managed the Expos for the past three seasons, said he'd like to return, but that could be up to the team's new owners.

This team's ability to improve quickly could hinge on how quickly MLB turns things over to a new ownership group. For now, MLB will continue running the club through the offseason, and Expos president Tony Tavares told The Washington Times he didn't think a sale would be complete until sometime between February and June.

So, uncertainty could hang over everything the Expos do this offseason. Their payroll was $37 million this year, compared with $55 million for the Orioles. Surely, revenues will increase dramatically playing 81 games in Washington, compared with 59 in Montreal and 22 in Puerto Rico, as the Expos have done the past two years.

But Tavares still doesn't know how much his budget will grow.

Asked yesterday when he thought MLB would be able to turn over the reins to a new owner, Selig said, "I hope pretty soon."

Going downhill

Since the strike-shortened season of 1994 - when Montreal had the best record in baseball at 74-40 - the Expos have finished higher than fourth place in the NL East only twice.

Year W-L Pct. GB Pos.

1995 66-78 .458 24 5th

1996 88-74 .543 8 2nd

1997 78-84 .481 23 4th

1998 65-97 .401 41 4th

1999 68-94 .420 35 4th

2000 67-95 .414 28 4th

2001 68-94 .420 20 5th

2002 83-79 .512 19 2nd

2003 83-79 .512 18 4th

2004 65-94 .409 29 5th

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