Sunday, April 25, 2004

Everyone knew the Montreal Expos received a rough deal when Major League Baseball sent the club back to Puerto Rico for another split home schedule this season.

Most of the individual players were strongly against the move, as was the players’ union. But with MLB executives holding out for an absolute sweetheart stadium deal, they forced a repeat of the San Juan/Montreal Expos by threatening a massive rollback of the Expos’ already meager payroll.

The fallout was quick as star pitcher Javier Vasquez and franchise player Vladimir Guerrero made financially driven departures to far richer clubs.

But even against that ominous backdrop, few projected the club would sink quite so far and so fast after two years of brave overachieving under manager Frank Robinson.

The Expos currently sit in the basement of the National League East, right where many projected they would be. But their 4-14 record is easily the worst in the major leagues, and their team batting average of .203 is by far the lowest. Montreal has failed to score in five of 18 games and has topped three runs in just two others.

Far more striking, however, is what horrific business the Puerto Rico “experiment,” as commissioner Bud Selig has often called it, has become.

The Expos’ first six games of 22 in San Juan, including three each against the New York Mets and the defending champion Florida Marlins, had an average attendance of 12,269. The number is 3 percent below the Expos’ full-season average for 2003, 14 percent behind the average San Juan draw last year and completely counter to a flourishing return to the turnstiles that has marked much of baseball this season.

What Antonio Munoz, the San Juan promoter and businessman behind the Expos’ games there, apparently paid Major League Baseball $10million for is 22 games of a team that can’t hit, can’t score, can’t win and doesn’t like playing in Puerto Rico. Last week outfielder Brad Wilkerson said, “It’s ridiculous that we do what we have to do. It does affect the way we play. There’s no doubt.”

Predictably, Expos management is trying to take a more reasoned view on the troubled situation.

“It’s the second year down there and we’ve lost some very popular native players, both on our club and those we’re playing against,” said Expos president Tony Tavares. “So is there going to be a diminishment? Is there less of a novelty factor? Probably so. But [Munoz] is still very optimistic.”

Munoz, in fact, is even trying to get the Expos back next year for a trial relocation of 81 games. And if that doesn’t work, he has his sights set on other troubled clubs such as Tampa Bay, Florida and Pittsburgh.

Tavares, however, was less sanguine about the angry comments of Wilkerson and others.

“The fact of the matter is that we’re not hitting,” he said. “We’re not hitting on the road, and we certainly didn’t hit in Puerto Rico. We’ll now get a chance to find out about Montreal. I don’t want to get into a war of words, but I think blaming this on Puerto Rico is a convenient excuse. To make a direct connection between not scoring and playing in Puerto Rico, I think, is a stretch.”

It hasn’t gotten much better for the Expos since returning to Montreal. The Quebec home opener Friday drew 30,112, the least-attended opener at Olympic Stadium since 1985, and was easily overshadowed by a playoff game of the beloved Canadiens. Yesterday’s turnout plummeted to 6,899.

The Expos are well on their way to becoming this year’s baseball laughingstocks, but there is some light in the picture. Selig and his staff do appear truly serious about finally ending this competitive and economic circus, a situation that arguably can be called as serious an affront to baseball’s integrity as steroids or Pete Rose. A winnowing of the current seven cities competing for the Expos could occur at owners’ meetings scheduled May19-20 in New York, setting up the intended final decision by midsummer.

And locally the news is even better for Washingtonians. Plenty of pressing questions remain about Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ proposal to provide full public financing for a ballpark, not the least of which is how MLB executives feel about the RFK Stadium property as a potential site, and whether there is still any real hope for a downtown location given the alarmingly low cost estimates currently under consideration.

But a message is quickly spreading across the country that the District is very serious about landing the Expos. Talk around Las Vegas, in recent weeks a focal point of relocation chatter, now centers on that city being out of the race.

“I really don’t have a lot of leverage. [MLB] has the power on this situation,” Williams said. “But what we are doing is putting together an extremely competitive offer. We can be a solution.”

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