- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

MONTREAL They've got some of the best young players in baseball. They've got an intense hunger to prove they can win. They've got one of the most respected men in the history of the game managing them. And through the weekend, they've posted a 20-17 record, one game out of first place in the National League East.
Is it really possible? Do the Montreal Expos a team with no fans, no support and seemingly no future actually have hope?
"We always had hope," infielder Mike Mordecai said. "It's just that the light at the end of the tunnel was usually a freight train coming right at us.
"Now the light at the end of the tunnel isn't a freight train. We can actually see the other side."
The other side of what? The Potomac River, where this team may be playing next year? The MLB guillotine, which may cut the head off this franchise permanently in the form of contraction?
"No," Mordecai said. "Good things are happening to this club."
Hard as it is to fathom, good things are indeed happening to the Expos, who are playing as though there is no tomorrow. Which is probably true.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way, at least not in Bud Selig's mind. When the commissioner announced plans last winter to contract two clubs (the Expos and Minnesota Twins, by all accounts), the fate of baseball in Montreal was all but sealed.
And even though legal battles by the state of Minnesota and the players union put contraction on hold and saved the Expos for the 2002 season (albeit under the ownership of MLB), what kind of ballclub were they supposed to field? Certainly not one with aspirations of playing in October.
So imagine the surprise around baseball when the Expos won 17 of their first 27 games this year, stormed out to take the lead in the NL East and proclaimed in no uncertain terms that they don't plan to fall out of the race anytime soon.
"We think we should win every game. That's our attitude," said Michael Barrett, Montreal's formerly anonymous catcher who entered the weekend with the sixth-highest batting average in the NL (.347). "We feel like we have the talent, and we feel like we have the pitching to win every game. We've shown that we can play with the best teams out there."
Truth be told, the Expos have had talented players in past seasons. Outfielder Vladimir Guerrero is one of the five-best all-around players in the game. Second baseman Jose Vidro and shortstop Orlando Cabrera constitute one of the better young middle-infield combos you'll find. Right-hander Javier Vazquez is a 20-game winner in-waiting.
Yet Montreal failed to win more than 68 games in each of the past four seasons, and given the bleak circumstances surrounding this year's team, there was little reason to believe things would change.
Until a 66-year-old Hall of Famer took control and proclaimed that things would, in fact, change dramatically.
"This is a good ballclub," says Frank Robinson, the former Orioles and Reds star who was appointed Expos manager by MLB just three days before the start of spring training. "People have a tendency not to give this ballclub the credit they deserve. They're looking at the problems surrounding this ballclub. But those problems have no effect on this ballclub on the field during the games."
Selig's decision to name Robinson (who had been working in the commissioner's office as MLB's chief disciplinarian) as Montreal's manager seemed at the time like nothing more than a token gesture to make the best of a bad situation. Robinson hadn't managed since being fired by the Orioles during the 1991 season, and he stipulated from the beginning he would be doing this for one year and one year only.
But the feisty Robinson always has had competitive juices flowing through his body, and even though he could have merely served as a figurehead for this troubled franchise, he saw too much potential in his new players not to give them his full effort in return.
So he assembled his players on the first full day of spring training and told them something they hadn't heard in a long time. He told them they could win the NL East.
"People looked at me like I was a little off," Robinson said. "But I felt it sincerely, I really did. And I told the players that."
Omar Minaya, a 43-year-old former assistant GM with the Mets, gave his ballclub a show of support as well, urging everyone to approach the contraction issue as a positive, not a negative.
"The attitude from management has been that we're going to play to win," Barrett said. "We're going to take advantage of the opportunity to play, and we're not going to sulk because of the uncertainties. We're going to thrive because of all the uncertainties."
The Expos went out and opened the season 17-10, moving into first place in the NL East. And though they struggled through a six-game losing streak last week (including a three-game sweep at the hands of the defending World Series champion Diamondbacks), they never lost their fire and came back home to win two in a row.
Ask the players what the No. 1 difference between this year's team and previous ones in Montreal is, and in nearly every case they point to the new manager and his coaching staff. Even at his experienced age, Robinson still has a passion for the game.
"And that rubs off on the players," Mordecai said.
Said Barrett: "If there was any person capable of bringing some order to this team and some respect to the Montreal Expos, there couldn't have been a more perfect guy."
Somewhere along the way, Robinson (who held three previous managerial positions with the Indians, Giants and Orioles) realized how much fun he's having.
"It's more fun than I expected," he said, "because of the players, the attitude, the approach and the enthusiasm they have had since Day 1. That's what's really made it more fun than I thought."
So much fun that Robinson is reconsidering his original one-year plan, even though his ultimate goal is to become a major-league GM.
"I don't want to make a career out of managing anymore," he said. "But I've thought about it after I've been with these guys, and if this club stays together and someone made me a deal that said we'd like for you to continue what you've started here, maybe one, possibly two more years, then I will consider that."
Robinson says he hasn't spoken with any of the potential Washington/Northern Virginia ownership groups, though "if somebody wanted to contact me, I'd tell them I'd listen."
While Robinson's lame-duck Expos are becoming the story of the baseball season, they haven't exactly captured the hearts of their notoriously apathetic fans, who have turned out in record low numbers. Average attendance at Olympic Stadium through Friday was 7,485, lowest in the major leagues, though Saturday night's promotion all tickets $5 Canadian (about $3.50 U.S.) enticed a boisterous gathering of 29,778, the largest since Opening Day.
Whether the Expos can keep this up remains to be seen. With the Braves, (winners of 10 straight division titles) struggling to keep their dynasty going, the NL East is, just as Robinson says, "up for grabs." The key test may come in July, when Montreal plays all but three games against division opponents.
Pennant fever hasn't made it's way up the St. Lawrence River in quite some time. The Expos' lone postseason appearance came in 1981, though they had baseball's best record in 1994 before the players' strike prematurely ended the season.
So imagine what it would mean, perhaps not to this indifferent town but to those who are a part of the organization and have no idea what the future holds, for the Expos to get a taste of meaningful baseball in August and September.
"It would be great," Mordecai said. "That's some fun baseball. And around here, we haven't had a whole lot of fun in a few years."


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