- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2002

MONTREAL Montreal Expos president Tony Tavares doubts the embattled franchise will be sold to Washington bidders or anyone else in the near future.
"I personally don't see this team being sold in the offseason," Tavares said. "I think it will be operated by Major League Baseball again. That's my instinct."
That doesn't mean this franchise owned by MLB's 29 other owners will return to Montreal next season, according to Tavares. "To me, the question is just a matter of where [it will play]," he said. Tavares said he hopes that decision is made by the end of October, but "baseball has a history of going at its own pace."
There have been reports that baseball is considering moving the franchise to another location for one season while it sorts out what to do with it in the long term including rotating it between several locations, possibly Washington; Portland, Ore.; and other cities. That would have significant scheduling hurdles, plus, most likely, strong opposition from the players union.
Officials at some of the possible locations floated in the media, such as New Orleans, Charlotte, N.C., and Las Vegas, have said they have had no contact from baseball to play host to the Expos on any kind of temporary basis, nor do they have much interest in doing so. Only Portland has stepped forward and offered the use of its Class AAA minor league ballpark.
Then again, Tavares admits he really has no answers concerning the future of the Expos. Not that this city is holding its collective breath about whether the team will return to cavernous Olympic Stadium for one more season.
This weekend might have been the last time major league baseball is played in Montreal. The club brought in a group of former players for an old-timers game on Saturday. The Expos had a chance to earn their first winning season since 1996, and did so at 83-79 after sweeping the Cincinnati Reds. And one of the best players in baseball, Vladimir Guerrero, with 39 home runs and 40 stolen bases going into this final series against the Reds, had a chance to make history by becoming only the fourth player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases.
In other words, there were plenty of reasons for baseball fans to come to the ballpark this weekend. Yet just 7,750 showed up Friday night, and 11,376 Saturday night. They did manage to draw 25,178 yesterday, but finished the season with a home total of 812,545 an increase of nearly 170,000 over last year, but still the fifth straight year the franchise has drawn less than a million fans.
In the pecking order of sporting events in Quebec province, the possible end of major league baseball in Montreal was not high on the list. It certainly trailed the following festivities, at least in attention:
The 30th anniversary celebration of the historic eight-game series between the NHL players for Team Canada and the Soviet Union.
The 25th anniversary celebration of the Montreal Alouettes' 41-6 upset over the Edmonton Eskimos in 1977 to win the Canadian Football League Grey Cup, in a game that drew more than 68,000 to Olympic Stadium.
The Colorado Avalanche formerly the Quebec Nordiques came back to Quebec for the first time since they left in 1995 for an exhibition game Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens. The game drew a sellout crowd of more than 15,000, and a morning practice drew more than 7,000 the equivalent of Friday night's Expos crowd.
"It's a shame that more people haven't come out here," Expos catcher Michael Barrett said. "This is a good team. We're playing well and we had a pretty good season."
It's tough to criticize Expos fans for their lack of interest, though. They have been watching this franchise suffer through the fear of extinction since the 1994 baseball strike the last time baseball mattered in Montreal. That was the team with such stars as John Wetteland, Marquis Grissom and Moises Alou that was in first place in the National League East by six games, with a record of 74-40, when the players went on strike in August.
Since then, the club has flirted with threats of relocation by the former owner, Claude Brochu, and then the tumultuous three-year tenure of Jeffrey Loria. He came with promises to save the franchise and then alienated the entire city by failing to deliver and then abandoned the team last year in baseball's bizarre franchise switch. Major league owners pooled together to buy the team from Loria for $120million, which allowed Loria to purchase the Florida Marlins from owner John Henry, who in turn led a group that bought the Boston Red Sox.
When the Expos opened their season this year, the plan was to contract them after this final game, but the owners agreed to give up their 5contraction plans, at least until 2007, as part of the recent labor agreement reached with the players union.
Despite all of this, the Expos may be back in Montreal for at least one more season, under the ownership of major league baseball, until decisions are made about how to sell the franchise and to whom. However, sources with several organizations say owners may balk at supporting the team, and losing money in the process, for another season.
Mitch Melnick, a longtime sports talk show host in Montreal, said it would be worth having the Expos back for one more season if the team, with young stars like Guerrero and Jose Vidro, stays intact.
"It's worth going through this again if they don't gut the team," he said. "If they gut the team, then the heck with it. What would be the point of having them play here then? That would be beyond insulting if they did that."
There is that question the future of some of the Expos' younger players. Guerrero and pitcher Bartolo Colon are both free agents at the end of next year, and a number of players will become arbitration-eligible during this offseason. There is the feeling that the team is on the verge of being a playoff contender.
"Whoever gets this team is getting something special," said manager Frank Robinson, who added yesterday he has not yet decided if he will return to manage again next year. "There is a strong core of good, young players here, and they only need a few more pieces."
That's going to be difficult to do if baseball owns the team again next year. The Expos' payroll was $40million this year, and if everyone comes back for next season, it will likely climb to $60million. There have been reports that the Expos will lose up to $40million this year, and that could rise to as much as $60million next year numbers that match their payrolls.
"If we were to come back here next year and operate for a full season, our payroll would go up substantially," Tavares said. "Now we are into a tolerance issue. How much are the other 29 clubs willing to contribute to the existence of the Montreal Expos in Montreal? If you are not willing to tolerate the increased losses, then you are faced with the probability that you would have to be spinning some players off."
For baseball fans in Montreal, that is business as usual. But even their toleration may have run its course. When Guerrero was called out on a checked swing in the bottom of the eighth inning his last chance at 40 home runs in yesterday's 7-2 win, fans began tossing debris on the field, forcing the Reds to head for the dugout and briefly delaying what could have been the final inning of major league baseball in Montreal after 33 years.

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