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March 26, 2014

Pebble Hunting

What We Can Learn from the Expos

by Sam Miller


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.”

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Transaction Analysis: ... (03/26)
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Pebble Hunting: The Si... (03/21)
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Premium Article Pebble Hunting: BOOM! ... (03/28)
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