JUPITER, Fla. Frank Robinson stood outside the Montreal Expos’ spring training site at Roger Dean Stadium yesterday and did his best to make the situation appear normal.
“We’re not going to worry ourselves about the off-field stuff and the political stuff,” said Robinson, the new manager of a troubled franchise with an uncertain future. “We’re going to focus on baseball and play it as usual.”
If only the upcoming season could be that simple. In Montreal, though, nothing is simple. Not after a winter in which the Expos were nearly contracted by Major League Baseball, then were sold by Jeffrey Loria in an unprecedented transaction to MLB’s 29 other owners, who plan to eliminate the club or move it (possibly to the Washington area) next season.
How could it possibly be business as usual for the Expos?
“I’m going to run this team with the assumption that it is going to be around in 2003,” said Omar Minaya, hired by commissioner Bud Selig last week to serve as general manager. “Our goal is to make this club better than it was last year.”
At the moment, Robinson and Minaya don’t have much time to think about victories and losses. They’re too busy assembling last-minute coaching and front office staffs from scratch.
In this most unusual of baseball offseasons, the Boston Red Sox were purchased by a group of investors led by Florida Marlins owner John Henry. The Marlins then were sold to Loria, who proceeded to take nearly his entire organization including manager Jeff Torborg and general manager Larry Beinfest with him from Montreal to Miami.
That left the Expos with a roster full of players but no baseball operations staff to run the show.
Enter Tony Tavares, former president of the Anaheim Angels, who took a similar position with the Expos. Minaya, who helped remodel the New York Mets this offseason as an assistant to general manager Steve Phillips, was given his first GM position. And Robinson, the 66-year-old Hall of Fame outfielder and former manager of the Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles, agreed to return to the bench after two years as MLB’s vice president for on-field affairs with one important stipulation.
“I don’t want to do it more than one year,” Robinson said. “I’m not looking to get back into managing. I’m going to help these young men have a good year because their future is in baseball. My future is not on the field.”
Robinson, who became baseball’s first black manager when the Indians hired him in 1975, hasn’t managed since being fired by the Orioles during the 1991 season. This job figures to be unlike anything he has ever experienced because of the unusual circumstances in which the Expos will operate. Uncertain about the team’s future beyond this season and facing potential conflicts of interest with an MLB-owned team making player moves, Robinson and Minaya are entering uncharted waters.
“I understand the guidelines,” Robinson said. “I know it’s not going to be functional from that standpoint like normal, but we’re going to be able to make some moves, I’m sure. … We’re going to keep the nucleus of this ballclub here all year long, no matter what.”
Said Minaya, baseball’s first Hispanic GM: “I’ve been told that I have full authority to treat it like any other general manager in baseball. If I think something’s going to improve the team, I have the authority to do that.”
First things first: Robinson and Minaya both have numerous hirings to make. The Expos will announce their full coaching staff today, but most of the names are already well-known, from pitching coach Dick Pole to bench coach Wendell Kim to hitting coach Tom McCraw a member of Robinson’s staff in Baltimore from 1989 to 1991.
“There is more talent here than me and Frank had when we started in Baltimore,” McCraw said.
Indeed, Montreal has a solid core of young, talented players, from star outfielder Vladimir Guerrero to infielders Jose Vidro and Fernando Tatis to staff ace Javier Vazquez, a 25-year-old right-hander who won 16 games with a 3.42 ERA last season.
“It’s been frustrating, all the uncertainty that’s been around the team,” Vazquez said. “I really had a feeling we were going to come back. I thought it was a little bit too late when they were trying to do contraction. So I wasn’t 100 percent sure, but I had a good feeling.”
With so much undecided this winter, some Montreal players took extraordinary precautions. Catcher Randy Knorr had a clause put in his contract that he could opt out if Torborg left as manager. Outfielder Mark Smith did likewise and actually did decide to leave the team Friday.
“I asked my agent when all this stuff was happening to call up and see if I can get that in my contract,” said Knorr, who ultimately chose to stay. “So he asked Beinfest, and Beinfest looked it up and said no problem.”
There is a surreal atmosphere surrounding the Expos’ camp. While pitchers and catchers had physicals and played catch yesterday, Robinson was busy trying to complete his coaching staff and Minaya was trying to put together an entire front office on the fly.
“I’ve had some general managers call me and say it takes them three months or five months to get ready for spring training,” Minaya said. “I only have a couple of days, and I’m a first-time general manager. I see it as a great challenge.”
Minaya, 42, has long awaited his chance to become a major league GM so much so that he turned down more money to stay with the Mets as an assistant and opted to take over the Expos. At the moment, he has no assistants of his own and no scouting bureau. He has one secretary, who has been answering the never-ending stream of phone calls coming from other GMs interested in players and various people looking for jobs.
Unlike Robinson, Minaya wants to keep his position for more than one year. If the Expos continue to exist in 2003, whether in Montreal or perhaps in Washington, he could remain as GM. Based on his first-year performance, he could get offers from other clubs. And in the ultimate fallback position, MLB has assured him of a vice president’s position in the commissioner’s office should the Expos be contracted.
That, however, is the last thing on Minaya’s mind as he takes on the thankless job as general manager of baseball’s most troubled franchise.
“We don’t know beyond this year what’s going to happen,” he said. “But you know what? I’m not going to think that far ahead. I gotta go fill a staff.”