- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

It’s very easy for Washingtonians to get their parochial noses out of joint about the Montreal Expos saga. The Expos continue to languish in Montreal, Puerto Rico and elsewhere while the booming greater Washington area sits unused by baseball.

That’s the completely boiled-down version of the winding tale, now entering its 33rd year, as we all know painfully well.

But as the Expos relocation saga enters a staggering third year with the club existing under MLB ownership, the team itself continues to suffer — and this offseason is perhaps the most painful of all.

When MLB executives began working on a return in 2004 to Puerto Rico, where the Expos played 22 games this year, the promise was that the guaranteed revenues from San Juan would be instrumental in helping keep the young, talented team together and competitive. In real terms, it meant retaining free agent outfielder and franchise icon Vladimir Guerrero or star pitcher Javier Vazquez, or, in an ideal situation, both.

Seven months, at least three blown deadlines for some clue on relocation, and a trade with the New York Yankees later, another set of promises from baseball stands worthless.

Vazquez has gone to the Yankees for first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera and reliever Randy Choate. Expos general manager Omar Minaya tried to put a brave face on the deal, but he also had to concede that Vazquez’s eligibility for arbitration and the certainty of a hefty raise over his 2003 salary of $6million placed him beyond Montreal’s economic reach.

Guerrero, meanwhile, is all but gone, too. Expos brass are still considering an arbitration offer to the Dominican star by tonight’s 11:59p.m. deadline. But that isn’t likely, given the softness of the free agent market that almost certainly places a lower value on Guerrero’s services. Even with that softness, team president Tony Tavares says the Expos are not serious players for Guerrero.

“Right now, this is a poker game, and we’re not sitting at the poker table,” Tavares said. “We can’t compete with the big boys.”

Baseball fans, and MLB itself, know it simply shouldn’t have been this way. Even stepping beyond the team’s current, ridiculous ownership structure — one in which its operating budget is set in part by the teams it competes against — the split schedules in San Juan are foremost about two things. First, the guaranteed money from Puerto Rican promoter Antonio Munoz is designed to keep the Expos, generating a pitiful amount of local revenue in Quebec, from fielding a Class AAA-caliber team. Second, the games are intended to expand baseball’s marketing interests in the baseball-crazy Caribbean.

For a while, it all worked. The Expos won 83 games in 2003 and competed for a postseason berth into September. Good feelings surrounding the Puerto Rico “experiment,” as MLB commissioner Bud Selig calls it, were sufficient enough for Selig’s lieutenants to strongarm the players’ union into another year in San Juan.

And because of the renewal of the Puerto Rico games, the 2004 payroll will be between $40million and $50million, Tavares said — roughly equal to this year’s $45.8million.

But when fielding a young, talented team with several key players entering their professional primes, staying level with payroll simply isn’t good enough. The situation is even more insulting to Expos players and anyone who cares about baseball considering the Expos are also one of the leading recipients of the sport’s expanding pool of revenue-sharing funds.

The competitive outlook for Montreal in 2004 is not good. A last-place finish in the ultra-competitive National League East is quite possible. New York cannot possibly be so bad again. Philadelphia is gearing up to end a 10-year playoff absence in its new Citizens Bank Park. Defending World Series champion Florida, its troubles with catcher Ivan Rodriguez notwithstanding, already re-signed several key players and has all that young pitching. And Atlanta is still Atlanta.

So if the Expos aren’t going to be truly competitive, even with Munoz’s guaranteed money, what is the point of keeping this team a traveling road show? Marketing value alone does not justify this situation.

Even the still forthcoming announcement on the return to Puerto Rico has been botched before it happens. Despite nearly seven months of off-and-on work on this deal, several crucial elements of the arrangement, such as who will play against the Expos there and who will televise the games, remain unsettled.

There is still a chance the Expos will work some late magic and retain Guerrero. Tavares, Minaya and manager Frank Robinson already have performed a small miracle with virtually no resources. And the team reportedly has made a second five-year contract offer to Guerrero and Minaya has traveled to the Dominican Republic.

But plenty of risks still exist. The last-minute offer to Guerrero is believed to be backloaded heavily so that the new owners of the Expos will be on the hook for the vast majority of the funds, perhaps more than $50million. With several markets, including Washington, already leery of baseball’s heavy-handed attempt to squeeze every last dollar out of an Expos sale, is this the right approach?

In the end, though, MLB executives have been diligent in exploring every potential option for the Expos. With the Bush administration considering a return of lunar space missions, perhaps there is some economic opportunity in putting some Expos games on the moon.

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