- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Major league baseball owners today are expected to approve a plan that would allow the Montreal Expos to play 20 games in Puerto Rico to reduce the owners' losses from carrying the franchise another season.

They could hide this team in a Cayman Islands off-shore bank account, and it would still lose a pile of dough.

Baseball managed to avoid embarrassment this season with its bizarre ownership of the Expos because the team was perceived as an overachieving novelty act. With players like Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro, they were enjoyable to watch even for Montreal fans who had no clue whether the team would be leaving town at the end of the season. They even had an increase in attendance, nearly 27 percent, drawing 812,545 fans for 81 home games.

It won't be a novelty for Montreal fans if the team goes back to Olympic Stadium next season, though. It will simply be salt in the wounds because the team likely will be a shell of the competitive squad that finished second in the National League East this past season.

People came out to see Guerrero, Vidro, Bartolo Colon and Javier Vazquez play for the Expos and lead them to an 83-79 mark, their first winning record since 1996. To keep that team intact, major league owners would have to agree to approve a payroll of about $55 million, compared to last year's $38 million, with expected losses nearly equal to that.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos will buy season tickets for baseball in Washington before the owners will spend that kind of money on what amounts to a welfare club.

It was galling enough last year for the owners each of whom owns 1/29th of the Expos after baseball purchased the team from Jeffrey Loria so he could buy the Florida Marlins from John Henry, who in turn purchased the Boston Red Sox to have their money used against them. For instance, the Expos obtained Colon in a trade with the Indians, and Expos general manager Omar Minaya signed their first-round draft pick to a record contract.

Does anyone really expect the owners to let the Expos keep together a team that could compete for the NL East next season?

"Whoever gets this team is getting something special," manager Frank Robinson said after the last game of the season in Montreal. "There is a strong core of good, young players here, and they only need a few more pieces."

Not for long. The core is about to be ripped apart, and baseball's ridiculous attempt to carry the Expos through another season will be exposed for a farce.

There has been speculation that gutting the team would hurt its sale value. That's not the thinking in baseball, according to Expos president Tony Tavares. "Certainly anyone who wanted to buy a team, if they had a choice, would rather buy one that is well stocked and well positioned to win right now," he said. "But there is some question whether value is affected when you have more than one group that is bidding on a team. If you are selling a team to the highest bidder, how will the bids be affected? My guess is the impact of the talent of a team may be overrated from a price standpoint."

My guess is that it doesn't matter whether the team has Vladimir Guerrero or Boris Yeltsin in right field when it comes time for the Washington baseball groups to bid on the Expos, if it comes to that. A team is a team, and you need to get one before you can start worrying about who is going to play for it.

Baseball hopes that the 20 games they are attempting to play in Puerto Rico will reduce some of their financial losses. But that still means they will have to play 61 games in Montreal, and they could face record lows in attendance there embarrassing lows with what little fan base is left turned off by seeing the Expos' star players leave one more time, this time with no hope of a new crop. This will be it for baseball in Montreal, so why bother to come out for another season? For many Expos fans, they have already said their goodbyes.

"If they gut the team, then the heck with it," Montreal sports talk show host Mitch Melnick said. "What would be the point of having them play here then? That would be beyond insulting if they did that."

Of course, why owners are bothering with this shell game and taking money out of their own pockets when they could be lining them with Washington baseball money is beyond explanation. They managed to do a three-franchise shift last winter in a matter of months, and now they say they want to take their time and wait until next year to make sure they make the right decision about what to do with the Expos?

When there are more people at a Cadillac Bud Selig pep rally than there are at Expos games in Montreal next year, owners will know whether they made the right decision.

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