Wednesday, September 29, 2004

MONTREAL — The Montreal Expos are going home.

It may not be the home they are used to, but at least it’s a home, and that’s all the Expos care about after three seasons of bouncing between Montreal and Puerto Rico.

“It’s like a sigh of relief,” said rookie outfielder Terrmel Sledge, a name Washington fans should get used to. “Maybe I’ll start looking in Washington for a place [to live]. We’re finally set in one place. We’re going to play our home games in one city and not in Puerto Rico or someplace.”

The reactions of most Expos players to the announcement the team is moving to the District were laced with joy and sorrow — joy they finally will have a real owner and a real home with real fans, sorrow over the team employees and fans they will leave behind.

“It’s a sad day, but it’s probably time to make a change,” said Expos outfielder Brad Wilkerson, a cornerstone of the young team. “It’s hard to explain. It’s a good thing for us, but it’s a sad day for us.”

With the constant speculation over the last six or seven years about the fate of the Expos, Wilkerson can hardly believe he can talk definitively about his future in Washington.

“I never thought it was going to get here just because of all the talk,” he said. “It’ll probably help us to be more competitive as a team, having the resources to do some more things. I’ve had a great time here in Montreal. It’s been a very good experience for me.”

Expos reliever Joey Eischen — who broke in with the team in the strike-shortened 1994 season that essentially spelled the end of baseball in Montreal — has lived through the few ups and many downs of the last 10 years. Needless to say, he is excited for Opening Day 2005 at RFK Stadium.

“[Montreal] has had a team, a tradition, for a long time, and that’s being taken away from them. It would be hard for any city, any fan,” Eischen said. “It’s tough, but at the same time we’ve got a community that’s got open arms for us, that’s going to welcome us and take us in, so we’ll go there and play hard.”

Expos president Tony Tavares said there is a “litany” of issues to handle before the team begins play in Washington next season. He will remain with the team on an interim basis until the ownership issue can be settled, and Tavares estimated his to-do list will be “12 pages long, single-spaced.”

The most important item will be filling the general manager position. Current GM Omar Minaya has accepted a job with the New York Mets.

But most people around the Expos — most notably Minaya himself — agree the new GM will have a solid group of players to build around.

“I think with the core group of players that are here, it’s a good team,” Minaya said. “We have youth that’s developing, and in the second half it has shown that it is developing well. This team, with some veterans around it, is not far from competing and being as competitive as any club in this division.”

As far as Wilkerson is concerned, Washington should be getting a parade route ready soon despite the Expos’ position at the bottom of the NL East standings.

“When they get the new stadium, I think we’ll be ready to really push for a World Series championship,” Wilkerson said. “We’re not very far away. I think we’re two, maybe three players away from being a playoff team already, and with the young guys we have, we’re only going to get better and grow as a team. It’s going to be exciting to go in there with the ball club we have and how young we are, and the only thing we’re going to do is improve.”

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