What sad sacks Expos are now

Major league baseball does nothing to improve team

The Montreal Expos have become sad sacks, a once proud and promising franchise turned into a real-life version of the Cleveland Indians from the movie, "Major League."

Remember the plot? An exotic dancer marries the ballclub's aging owner and he doesn't make it through the honeymoon. She gets control of the club and angling for a better stadium deal in a warmer climate, tries to kill fan interest by fielding the worst team possible. Instead, the misfits band together and against all odds, set off to win a division title.

In the real-life version, the showgirl is played by commissioner Bud Selig and there's no chance for a happy ending.

Tuesday night in Puerto Rico, in their final home-away-from-homestand of the season, the Expos lost 4-3 to the Chicago Cubs and slipped eight games behind in the National League wild-card race. It was the Expos' ninth loss in 10 games, but their fate was sealed even before the skid.


Hamstrung by a low payroll to start the season and already baseball's most-traveled team -- and by extension, the weariest -- Expos president Tony Tavares told his players last week that no reinforcements were on the way. He might just as well have handed out little white flags to wave.

September is the month when every team, contenders and pretenders alike, take advantage of expanded rosters and call up promising minor leaguers (at the relatively cheap cost of $50,000 each) to add depth or simply assess their progress. Just about every team, that is, except Montreal.

"We're not going to be allowed to get any callups," Tavares said, "because we're substantially over budget."

Forcing the Expos to compete with one hand tied behind their back has turned the playoffs into a sham. What makes it even more galling is that major league baseball owns the Expos.

Almost two years ago, Selig tried to rub them out -- along with the Minnesota Twins; remember "contraction"? -- and MLB wound up taking them over instead. What promised to be only a yearlong soap opera -- would the Expos relocate to Washington, D.C., northern Virginia or maybe Portland -- is now headed for a third season. And just like the Milwaukee Brewers during much of Selig's stewardship, the Expos over that stretch have been turned into patsies.

But at least they're well-traveled patsies.

To squeeze an extra $7 million or so from a local promoter, MLB dispatched the Expos to Puerto Rico for 22 games. It was tough on the ballplayers, but great for their frequent-flyer accounts. During one road trip in June, they went from Miami to Philadelphia to San Juan to Seattle to Oakland to Pittsburgh to Montreal. It's amazing they didn't keel over before this.

Tavares didn't return a phone call Tuesday and general manager Omar Minaya danced around the topic.


"What do we need?" he chuckled over the phone. "More runs. That was easy."

Told the caller meant in terms of personnel, Minaya parroted the party line.

"We're going to do the best we can," he said, "with what we have."

With few exceptions, manager Frank Robinson and his squad have been just as tightlipped.

Pitcher Javier Vasquez told ESPN recently, "I wish that somehow the guys we have could win together and show a lot of people up."

But that won't happen and it's almost too bad. Despite being off the field for almost 15 years, Robinson has done exceptional work as a manager. Aided by a handful of still-loyal, but soon-to-be-departing stars and a stout starting pitching corps, the Expos hung around longer than they had a right to. But collectively, they've hit the wall.

Montreal needs bullpen help desperately and a backup for Brian Schneider, the only catcher on the roster until Michael Barrett returns from injury. They're so thin at most positions that Robinson has gone begging for spots to rest some of his banged-up veterans.

He tried to give Jose Vidro the night off against the Cubs, but needed his aching second baseman (knee) as a pinch-hitter. Even that light duty, though, must have seemed a chore to Vidro, whose fatigue is easily measurable in his batting average this month -- .188.


As if that weren't enough to worry about, someone asked the manager whether he was concerned how the Expos' minor-league prospects expecting a September callup would take the news. It didn't take him long to answer.

"Over the winter," he said, "they'll understand the situation down here"

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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