- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

PHILADELPHIA — Before the Expos left Montreal on Aug.19 for a nine-game road trip, some fans asked manager Frank Robinson if they would ever see their team again.

"I told them, 'I hope so,'" Robinson said.

It would really be unfair if Robinson didn't get a chance to at least finish what have been perhaps the most unusual conditions a manager has ever had to field a team under, taking over a team owned by all 29 major league owners that was targeted to be shut down at the end of the season.

Then again, uncertainty has been the only life the Montreal Expos have known for the past four years, so why should last night be any different?

All of baseball was operating yesterday under the conditions that the Expos' players have existed under since the franchise was on the brink of being sold and relocated in 1998. Because of today's deadline for a strike by the players in their labor dispute with management, anyone who took the field in Major League Baseball was wondering if this would be the last game he would play for the 2002 season, or perhaps longer.

For Expos players, it would be much longer like in forever.

This franchise, as it existed last night in Philadelphia for the final game of a three-game series against the Phillies, is bound for extinction, either through contraction supposedly the choice of major league owners or relocation, the preference of the players' union and, of course, every baseball fan in the Washington area. Even if an agreement is reached before today's deadline passes this afternoon, Montreal baseball is on borrowed time. If the end was not last night, then it will surely come Sept.29, when the Expos play their last game of the season against the Cincinnati Reds at Olympic Stadium.

There appears to be little chance that the owners will let the Expos operate again in Montreal next year under MLB ownership. Owners are not pleased with having to compete with a team they are supporting in trades, such as the ones that brought Bartolo Colon and (briefly) Cliff Floyd to Montreal during the season, and they are certainly unhappy that a team they are propping up paying record signing bonuses $2.5million to sign their first-round pick, Clint Everts.

Why do that when they can put the franchise up for bid and let the Washington Baseball Club, Virginia Baseball and Dan Snyder duke it out for the purchase of the team, which could bring at least $300million (to be divided up among the owners), despite the lesser price tags that local ownership seem to be counting on?

No, it's so long, Montreal, one way or another, either through contraction (still an issue before the arbitrator) or relocation. But Expos players are hoping to at least finish out the season before their fans and not have the 34-year-old franchise come to such an abrupt ending.

"I think the players want to play this out and say goodbye to the fans," Robinson said. "But it seems that since 1994 [the last strike, when the Expos were in first place when the players walked out], this franchise always seems to get the short end of the stick."

Strange times are nothing new to the Expos. No team had as shaky a future as the players did in the visitors' clubhouse at Veterans Stadium. But yesterday catcher Michael Barrett looked around the clubhouse, wondering if this is the last game he will ever play with Jose Vidro, Orlando Cabrera or his other teammates, some of whom have he has known since his days with the Delmarva Shorebirds in minor league ball in 1996.

"It's always one thing after another with this franchise," Barrett said. "There's always been talk of relocating, and then this year with contraction. But we've always been able to block out that other stuff because we could at least go out and play the game. We could control that. Now we may not even have that, the one thing that has kept us from worrying about all the other stuff."

There is a sense in the Expos' clubhouse that they are on the brink of being part of something special if they can just stay together. After five straight losing seasons, the Expos were 66-67 and within two of last season's win total. The possibilities for success on the field for this team next year and beyond, with the likes of players like Vidro, Barrett and Vladimir Guerrero, seem bright. "I like the core of this team," Robinson said. "It has a very good future."

Robinson, the former Baltimore Orioles great, wouldn't mind being part of that future, in the front office or even back in the dugout as manager next season under the right conditions. Washington would be the right conditions.

"That would be something I am open to," he said.

Right now, though, Robinson is hoping to be back in the dugout tonight in Montreal for a game against the division-leading Atlanta Braves. "I've enjoyed this season," he said. "It would be tough to not be able to see this through."

Strike or no strike, Barrett will be taking the field tomorrow for baseball. He is sponsoring a clinic for kids and is determined to be there to conduct it, whether there is a walkout or not.

"I'm not going to cancel it," he said. "Those kids are depending on it. But it will be tough to go there and explain to them why we aren't playing."

It is tough to explain it to anyone. In many ways, it's beyond explanation, millionaires arguing about dividing up multi-million dollar revenues with other millionaires. Barrett would like someone to explain to him how the owners could consider contracting this team when there are places like Washington to move it to. "Relocation should be the solution," he said.

At least that is what Barrett is preparing for. As he got dressed to go out on the field for warmups, he asked, "How do you think Spurrier is going to do this year?"

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