Future clouded for plucky Expos

Will somebody please tell this team the party's over?

The Montreal Expos, sevengames out of the National League wildcard race before Wednesday night, are long shots to make this year's playoffs.

What's more, by all indications, the team eventually will cease to exist.

Yet here it is, a gritty team that refuses to give up on the pennant race. On a recent Saturday night, they were supported by 19,373 fans who showed up to watch a game against the Florida Marlins.

Despite a recent slide, the team is playing good ball, with guts and hustle.

"When you're playing good baseball, it's easy to come to the field and play every day," says Michael Barrett, the Expos' talented young catcher. "This is a great city we live in."

The Expos are young and explosive – although slightly too inconsistent to be a playoff contender this year. They feature Vladimir Guerrero, a right fielder whose play is sublime. Their middle infielders are slick in the hole, and first base is covered by Andres Galarraga, the "big cat," who has enough gray hair to be a player-manager.

Bartolo Colon, acquired just after the All-Star break, anchors the pitching rotation. He's one of the best in the business.

The fans are not your traditional baseball junkies. Most of them say they prefer hockey, and almost all of them speak French. Between innings they buy concession-stand snacks with names like "Queues de Castor Patisserie."

But they know when to cheer, whether it's for a sacrifice fly that pushes a runner to third base, or for a laser-sharp throw from Guerrero that cuts down the go-ahead run at home plate.

"I've been a fan since the Expos first came here [as an expansion team in 1969] and played at Jarry Park," says Lois Goffman, a high school teacher from Montreal, who was at a recent game with her husband. "I've always loved the Expos, and I think this city can support them. I really hope they stay."

Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB), has other plans. Selig wants to eliminate the Expos, along with the Minnesota Twins. A local lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop the Expos from folding or moving to another city, but Selig's position is strengthened by the fact that the team is now owned by MLB. The league took over the Expos when the original owners bought the Florida Marlins (and the Marlins owners, in turn, purchased the Boston Red Sox).

Other complications could arise from a possible players' strike, if players and owners do not come to a collective-bargaining agreement soon.

The Expos were a respectable team in the 1980s and had a couple of years when attendance topped 2 million, considered a healthy figure. (This year, the team isn't likely to bring 1 million fans through the turnstiles.) In 1994, it looked as if the Expos had a shot at a championship – until that season ended in a strike.

In the '90s, the Expos produced blue-chip talent – including Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Moises Alou – only to trade it away as a cost-cutting measure. The team hit rock bottom last year, when a plan to build a new stadium fell through and the owner (who had promised he would try to save the Expos) failed to secure TV and radio contracts. The only way to tune in to the team was on French-language radio.

Those mishaps apparently led Selig to believe that baseball wouldn't work in Montreal. Thus, the current management – appointed by MLB – has the odd dual task of running the team and propagating the notion that going out of business is the best solution for Montreal's woes.

As a result, nearly every move by management is clouded by conflicts of interest. On the one hand, the league wants the Expos to fail; on the other hand, they want it to prove that a team with a low payroll can succeed. A trade this week sent recently acquired outfielder Cliff Floyd to the Red Sox – a team allegedly favored by MLB brass because it is the archrival of the free-spending New York Yankees.

Perhaps these contradictory intentions are part of why, on a recent night, everyone in the stadium seemed to be smiling except team president (and MLB appointee) Tony Tavares, who has become a prophet of doom in this city.

When asked if baseball could survive in Montreal, he flatly said, "No."

"I don't think there's a deep-pocketed owner here who's willing to take on a baseball team," Tavares added. "Also, there is no new stadium in place; those efforts have failed. I wouldn't be optimistic."

Yet to fans and players in Montreal, baseball can work here. Attendance is rising steadily as the year goes on. A sense of optimism is palpable from the bleachers to the clubhouse. On the eve of elimination, baseball has become fun here.

"It's the best city," says Orlando Cabrera, the team's excellent shortstop. "If they could get a new stadium downtown, this could be the best place to play in the majors. Players would give up money [accept lower salaries] to play here."

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