Wednesday, March 6, 2002

JUPITER, Fla. He is the perfect symbol for this vagabond baseball team a scruffy, long-haired Spaceman who sees the world through multi-colored glasses.
Baseball has finally caught up with Bill Lee.
The flaky pitcher who finished his 14-year career in baseball by spending his final four seasons with the Montreal Expos was holding court at the Expos spring training camp in Jupiter. The hair is gray, but there was no mistaking that it was Bill Lee, perhaps the person best suited to talk about the 2002 Expos; a team owned by all 29 baseball owners; a team that baseball says will be folded after this year; a team that nearly everyone in the Jupiter camp believes will be moved to Washington instead.
The only one who says the Expos are not coming to Washington is Bill Lee.
“Listen, 90 percent of all Canadian fans are amassing at the border,” Lee said. “If you think you’re gong to take this ballclub and move it down to Washington, I don’t think so. It can’t be north of town, because the Baltimore organization would have something to say about that. It can’t be downtown because no one goes downtown after July1 in Washington, at least that’s what I remember.
“Your team is in Minnesota,” Lee said, referring to the Twins, who originally were the Washington Senators before moving after the 1960 season. “Your team is in Texas,” he said, referring to the Rangers, who were the second version of the Senators before moving to Texas after the 1971 season.
“This is Canada’s team,” Lee declared.
In Lee’s mind, the Expos are going to play their way to survival in Montreal, because they have nothing to lose. “I think they will play great,” he said. “This is like dead men walking. You have to play your butt off so if this team does go under, you will have a job with someone else next year.
“These guys will probably get off to a good start, and then start drawing 25,000 to 35,000 fans a game. They will probably go coast-to-coast in the National League East, make the playoffs, and win in the seventh game of the World Series in Montreal, and then who are you going to contract? They will play the Twins in the World Series, all played in domed stadiums, and then who are you going to contract?”
The only way the Expos are going to draw 25,000 to 30,000 fans a game is if they execute a French figure skating judge at each game. If the Expos, who will field a talented starting lineup, manage to get off to a good start, they could at least match last year’s daily average attendance of 7,600. If they go in the tank, they may not be able to outdraw the Bowie Baysox.
“The hard thing would be if we fall flat on our faces and have to finish out the season after the All-Star break, that would be a tough thing to do,” said manager Frank Robinson, the former Orioles great who will run the team on the field for this one season. “That’s a tough thing under normal conditions, but it would be really tough here.”
Frank is in for a shock. The last time he was in Montreal was 1972, when an Expos franchise that was just four years old was playing in old, tiny Jarry Park, when they drew 1.1million fans. They haven’t drawn more than a million fans since 1997. I would love to see Frank’s face when he witnesses for the first time how the fans in Olympic Stadium use the empty chairs on either side of them as noisemakers, banging them up and down.
Frank is angling for a job beyond managing next year, and has made it clear to everyone that whoever owns the Expos next year, he would like to be part of the front office, in some sort of ownership/team president role. That presents an interesting scenario that even Bill Lee could appreciate. It has been well-known for nearly a year that if such a situation presents itself in Washington that Cal Ripken would also like in on it. Each of the two competing groups here the Collins group in Northern Virginia and the Malek group in the District could have their own Orioles icon to call their own, while, up in Baltimore, all they could have is statues and retired numbers as evidence either of these players were part of that franchise.
Despite baseball’s refusal to even acknowledge the offers made by both the Collins and the Malek groups to purchase the Expos, with the provision they be moved here in the 2003 season, it still seems likely that this is where this orphaned franchise is heading. Baseball is still talking a good game of contraction, but they are running out of candidates. The Florida Marlins aren’t going anywhere, at least not for three years. The Twins are now up for sale, and efforts to gain funding their for a new ballpark are picking up steam.
Reports are that baseball has given former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria two seasons to get a new ballpark approved down there, and last week the Marlins signed a two-year lease extension at Pro Player Stadium. The Florida franchise that should be closed down, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, apparently isn’t a contraction candidate, according to Sandy Alderson, Major League Baseball’s vice president of baseball operations. After that, we’re talking either the Oakland Athletics or Anaheim Angels as possibilities, and there has been the scenario that the Angels would be folded and the A’s moved to Anaheim.
In Jupiter, they are not talking contraction. They are talking Washington. “We would definitely like to play in Washington,” said catcher Michael Barrett. “It would be a perfect fit for us.”
If the Expos come to Washington, though, they can kiss the Spaceman goodbye. “The only way I am coming to Washington is if I am elected, and if I do I will paint the White House pink and turn it into a Mexican restaurant,” Bill Lee said.

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