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March 26, 2014

Pebble Hunting

What We Can Learn from the Expos

by Sam Miller

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Among Jonah Keri’s many contributions to our baseball-reading world—his excellent 2011 book about the Tampa Bay Rays; his editing of, in my opinion, the finest Baseball Prospectus annual ever—is his very first article at BP: The Success Cycle. In it, he describes the way each club’s place in the winning cycle should drive its decision-making. A simple enough proposition, and one that has arguably lost its power as the business of baseball has changed, but inherent in it is the idea that baseball clubs exist for a very long time, and the decisions they make must be viewed on a long timeline.

That timeline further requires that, when searching for the cause of a particularly grisly outcome for a team, we look not just at the battle itself, but the leadup to the battle, the generations of innocuous-seeming guns on dressers slipped into the frame to be detonated only much later. Keri’s latest book, Up, Up & Away (out yesterday, complete with 22-word subtitle) is an examination of this murder scene, and goes back to the very beginning of Expos baseball—earlier than that, actually—to discover who really killed Youppi! (Exclamation point Youppi!’s.)

In a sense, this is a mirror image of Keri’s first book. In The Extra 2%, Keri showed how an organization that was severely broken—as late as 2003, Tampa employees didn’t have internet access—fixed itself and became a model of excellence. Here, he shows the opposite: a team that starts to fall into the same spiral that the Rays did but couldn’t escape, and ultimately became that thing a fan most fears.

You know who is to blame for this, of course. Say it with me: Jeffrey Loria. That old villain, probably the least popular owner in the game, a greedy carpetbagger who sold out the Expos to MLB’s contraction plot so that he could turn a big profit and own a team in a much sunnier locale. The owner under whom the Expos quit broadcasting games on English radio, and who announced his ominous presence by acquiring, at troubling costs, Lee Stevens, Hideki Irabu, and Graeme Lloyd. But the real blame, as Keri recounts, goes back further.

It goes back to, for instance, the previous ownership group—call it the Brochu ownership group, under team president Claude Brochu—which was built out of a collection of Montreal-based investors who considered their initial contribution to be little more than a civic duty, and a one-time duty at that:

Cigar in his mouth, an amused look on his face, [Cyr] joked, “Listen. I’m prepared to make a donation. Five million. But on one condition: that you never bother me about it again! Understood? Never.”

It was under those conditions that the Expos became the fire-selling team you remember. It was that ownership group that responded to losing the 1994 pennant race to the strike by trading three of its four stars just before Opening Day—and giving the general manager only a week’s notice to try to get full value out of them. It was that group that also refused to consider resigning Larry Walker, though Walker had made it clear that he would play for a discount. That was the group that, faced with a fanbase outraged by the cancelled World Series, exacerbated things by fielding a suddenly last-place (if low-cost) product. That ownership gave Loria a rotten product (and, in Keri’s telling, misled him about how rotten it was by overstating the progress of negotiations for a publicly-subsidized new ballpark).

But, oh, it’s not that simple. See, by the time that the Brochu ownership group came into play, the Expos were already bleeding revenue thanks to decisions made by their previous ownership group—the Bronfman ownership group. Some of those decisions were on the field (like trading franchise icon Gary Carter, or letting Andre Dawson walk away as part of their collusion efforts) and some were business. Most notable among the latter: Actually pushing for MLB to put a major-league team in Toronto, naively introducing competition that would strip them of broadcast rights in Canada’s most lucrative media market and ultimately turn them from Canada’s team into that French team. (One of the great details in Keri’s account: TSN, the national sports network, offered to pay $5,000 per Expos game; at the same time, they were paying $200,000 per Blue Jays game. Another great detail: An English radio station agreed to broadcast Expos games if the Expos paid $1,000 per game.) By the time the Expos traded Carter, in 1984, they were already struggling financially, and by the time Brochu took over the Bronfman regime was turning over a team well past its peak and with minuscule margins.

But, shoot, maybe it wasn’t the Bronfman group’s fault. Maybe it was the impulsive Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau and his fixer, Gerry Snyder, a pair of “bid now, work out the details later” visionaries who brought baseball to Canada and tapped Bronfman to steer the Expos into existence. They’re the ones who promised Bronfman a covered stadium but who took nearly a decade to deliver it. And it was that stadium, on the wrong side of town and impractical for baseball, that was the team’s longest curse. For that matter, maybe we can blame it on John A. Macdonald, one of Canada’s founding fathers and its first prime minister; isn’t it his fault, as much as anybody, that the Expos were constantly at the mercy of currency fluctuations against the dollar? I mean, isn’t it?

Along the way, there are countless examples of misguided decisions, quirks of fate, acts of God that seem rather trivial but echo throughout the franchise’s short-, medium-, or long-term future. There’s the way recreational drugs become nearly epidemic on the roster, as the front office mostly looked the other way. There’s the time that the GM is fired for having an affair with Brochu’s wife—setting off a trend of GM churn that would see four front offices in eight years. And, of course, there are single pitches that tilt the outcome of games, pennant races, entire seasons.

And in reading Keri’s book, it’s striking how few actions—even those that seem fairly trivial in the moment—fail to show up later with unanticipated (or even anticipated) consequences. As much as anything, that’s the lesson of this book: Don’t take anything lightly. The last-place finishes of 20 years from now might very well have their roots in the heartbreaking NLCS losses of today.

Not every team’s stakes are as existential as the Expos’ were, of course, but the ideas of Up, Up & Away apply to any team, good or bad. Ultimately this book is about every team, and it’s about thinking of each team’s decisions on more of a geological timeline—even while acknowledging the need to take it one game at a time. Flags fly forever, after all, unless the team moves to Washington before it wins one.

At least, that’s the way I read the book. For Keri, a lifelong Expos fan who recounts an adolescence of sneaking down to better seats in Stade Olympique, this is as much a love letter as a detective story. But even if you, like me, don’t share Keri’s sentimentality toward a team you barely cared about when it existed, you will benefit from his passion for the subject. It drives his reporting to the extremes, leads him to sources and down tangents that a more dispassionate writer might never have pursued. In doing so, he finds clues we never saw coming and would never have otherwise noticed.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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