- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

VIERA, Fla. They are training in a different facility this spring, one abandoned by another team. They will play 59 games in Montreal and 22 other "home" games in Puerto Rico. They are a team without an owner and perhaps a team without a future.

Welcome to the real world of the Montreal Expos.

"Uncertainty is a certainty for us," said catcher Michael Barrett before workouts at the Expos' spring training complex, which the Florida Marlins left for a facility in Jupiter. "We expect the unexpected."

The Expos are baseball's orphans, disowned last winter by Jeffrey Loria in a bizarre deal that allowed him to purchase the Florida Marlins from John Henry. Henry, in turn, became part of a group that bought the Boston Red Sox.

The deal left the Expos as wards of Major League Baseball the 29 other owners bought the franchise for $120 million and made it the target of suitors trying to bring a team to the Washington area. That pursuit continues in March when representatives of the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore. meet in Phoenix with Major League Baseball officials to present detailed proposals for stadium construction and financing.

Last year the uncertainty during the Expos' spring training was whether the franchise would be contracted, as commissioner Bud Selig planned, or moved to Washington. This year the uncertainty has a new twist: the 22 games the Expos agreed to play at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan.

Those games were moved to Puerto Rico in an effort to reduce the losses sources estimated as much as $40 million the franchise suffered from poor attendance last season in Montreal, where crowds averaged 10,031.

In San Juan, the Expos will play the New York Mets (April 11-14), Atlanta Braves (April 15-17), Cincinnati Reds (April 18-20), Anaheim Angels (June 3-5), Texas Rangers (June 6-8), Florida (Sept. 5-7) and Chicago Cubs (Sept. 8-10).

"I think it will present a challenge to play about 100 games on the road," Barrett said. "I am looking forward to seeing how it works out."

Said third baseman Fernando Tatis, who is from the Dominican Republic: "I think the trip to Puerto Rico will be good for us, especially for the Latin guys."

Pitcher Britt Reames said there are at least two advantages to playing in San Juan rather than Montreal.

"We will have a lot of fans there and be playing outside, so we are looking forward to that," he said.

Expos general manager Omar Minaya called the Puerto Rican trips "a great baseball party." But it might not be a party in Montreal: Some Expos are concerned that the team's few remaining fans will be offended by the loss of 22 home games and that attendance will fall to even more embarrassing lows at domed, dismal Olympic Stadium.

"I'm worried about the reaction from Montreal fans this year," Barrett said. "I don't know what to expect."

Manager Frank Robinson hopes the fans can separate the bizarre business of this franchise from the game on the field.

"I'm sure there will be some fans disappointed in losing 22 home games," he said. "It might be looked at as a slap in the face or something, but I hope they don't hold it against the players. We don't have anything to do with that. We are given the schedule, and that is what we play. I thought the fans who came were very supportive last year and really helped us get through the season."

A strong performance on the field might help ease the problems.

The Expos played good baseball last year, finishing second in the National League East with a record of 83-79. This season, however, the division appears much stronger.

The Marlins have a strong young pitching staff led by A.J. Burnett and Brad Penny and catcher Ivan Rodriguez. The Philadelphia Phillies signed Jim Thome and traded for Kevin Millwood. The Mets signed former Atlanta ace Tom Glavine and outfielder Cliff Floyd. And then, of course, there are the perennial NL East champions, the Braves.

"We have our core group back, so we will be able to compete," Reames said. "But we are in a tough division."

They don't exactly have their core back.

Minaya was able to keep stars such as outfielder Vladimir Guerrero (.336, 39 home runs, 111 RBI) and second baseman Jose Vidro (.315 average, 19 home runs, 96 RBI) under baseball's budget restrictions. The Expos do have promising young pitchers in Javier Vazquez and Tony Armas Jr.

But Minaya was forced to trade ace pitcher Bartolo Colon, who won 10 games in a half-season for the Expos. Colon and his $8 million salary were sent to the Chicago White Sox in a three-way deal with the New York Yankees that brought Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (8-5, 3.64 ERA last season) from the Yankees to the Expos. Hernandez's value primarily has been as a standout postseason pitcher. It's unlikely that he'll get a chance to continue that role with Montreal.

Still, the Expos have enough promise and potential to keep the 67-year-old Robinson around as manager this season and perhaps beyond a change of heart from when he was hired last year and said he would only be doing the job for one season.

"Last year I think we all went into this thinking it was a one-year thing," he said. "That is what we were told it was going to be, and that was the approach I took. And I didn't want people to think I was using this as a steppingstone to go someplace else. I wasn't and I'm still not. What I am saying is that I am open to managing beyond this year with this ballclub, maybe someplace else."

There is the disclaimer: maybe someplace else. It has been the cloud the Expos have been operating under for at least five years. Robinson said he doesn't believe the uncertainty or the team's schedule this year will affect its play.

"I don't know if [the players] have gotten used to it, because everybody wants to be loved, and wanted," he said. "But I think they have been a little calloused to the situation and [will] not let it interfere with their performance on the field. They did a tremendous job for me last year as far as shutting all that stuff out, and not let it affect their play on the field and their enthusiasm. That is what I will ask of them this year. Just focus on what we have control over, going out and playing baseball."

Whether it is in Montreal, San Juan or perhaps Washington in 2004.

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