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December 27, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Marooning Montreal

by Derek Zumsteg

In the spirit of holiday cheer, Bud Selig has suggested that MLB may operate the Expos for the 2002 season while the franchise awaits contraction. His comments ran in the Chicago Tribune on December 23rd.

Now, this whole problem has come about because Jeff Loria--the New Yorker who bought the Expos after the last ownership group imploded--failed to salvage Montreal as a market or get a new park built, and now wants to buy the Florida Marlins, another team rumored to be a contraction candidate. The Marlins, of course, are themselves screwed by their lease, through which former owner Wayne Huizenga sucks all stadium-related revenue directly into his pocket. If Loria thought Montreal was inhospitable, he wasn't paying attention to the post-1997 deception campaign engineered in Miami by Huizenga.

Loria's exit puts the Expos in limbo. They will immediately become the worst-run franchise in all of baseball, because they'll have no clear direction. Previously, they could at least say their purpose was to field a .400 team as cheaply as possible while receiving revenue-sharing payments and turning a tidy profit. That's a stupid plan for running a team, but it's a plan.

MLB won't want to run the Expos like that, because the whole reason for eliminating the team is to stop that sort of mooching. At the same time, however, making the team viable might eliminate the need to contract it: if the 2002 Expos worked hard, especially in trying to get as many games on the air in as many languages as possible, they could well draw more fans and start repairing the damage seven years of neglect and profiteering have done in the community. Baseball certainly doesn't want that. Being in charge of marketing the 2002 Expos would be a thankless task at best: "Voyez l'Expos: Pour aucune raison!"

We don't even know if there'll be revenue sharing in the 2002 season and beyond, because revenue sharing has always been tied to salary caps and the luxury tax, but it's a safe assumption that some sort of arrangement will be made. If it includes a salary floor, the owners aren't going to want to compete against a short-lived franchise for worthwhile free agents. What we'd see as reimbursement for the revenue sharing the Expos might receive would be for the Expos to take on the bloated contracts the richest teams want to dump, i.e., if the Orioles pay the Expos $2 million in revenue sharing, then the Expos will pick up Tony Batista when Thrift waives him to make room for some Ryan Minor play-alike. The Expos could well be a sinkhole in 2002, paying big-name veterans who suck it up on the field, and baseball will play it off as a last gasp for the franchise, a final test to show that Montreal can't even support baseball when given a team with a real payroll paid out to "name" players.

It's also possible that this kind of sophisticated end-game strategy hasn't occurred to baseball. Instead, they'll appoint a skeleton crew to keep the team limping to season's end, fearful of making any trades that risk their being accused of holding a fire sale, trying not to compete and upset the other owners, but at the same time not wanting to tank too badly and become a laughingstock.

And what of the Expos' minor leaguers? Why should MLB care if they're coached, or well-fed, if they stay at a Red Roof Inn or if they're stacked like cordwood at the Off-Interstate Stick-Up Shack? It doesn't matter to Selig if the Expos give Brad Wilkerson regular playing time to see if he can play, or if they play Geoff Blum in left field every game. For players like Wilkerson, a lost year of development time and the opportunity to show their talent could well be setbacks too big to overcome, and cost them the ability to make a living if the Expos do indeed go away.

You may disagree with me and believe that baseball can't be viable in Montreal. Perhaps too much harm has been done. But for baseball to run a team out for 2002 without support, purpose, or future instead of seriously considering other options--selling the team to a reasonably intelligent owner, arranging a move to Washington, D.C. or elsewhere--is an unconscionable and brazen breach of every fan's support of baseball. It's a betrayal of the contract baseball has with the country in which they're allowed a legal monopoly in exchange for upholding the social and community obligations for which Selig and the hard-line owners obviously care little.

Selig is not only a liar and perjurer (in Congress, no less), he is also a coward. If this plan is going to end baseball in Montreal, just end it now. If it's a solution to a problem, solve the problem now. If it's all designed to pick a fight with the Players Association, hey, put up your fists. You want new stadiums? Build them.

This wishy-washy sniveling, combined with hints that if a new buyer got the Twins a new stadium they'd drop off the retraction list, is reprehensible, stupid, and has the potential to alienate fans of baseball like no bungle yet conceived.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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