MONTREAL -- Baseball in this town is a puzzlement. The owner wants to sell, star players who have been here have wanted out and star players who aren't here don't want in. The problems are numerous: High taxes, lines at customs, mediocre seasons, low attendance, a constant shuffling of players in and out.

Perhaps worse, players complain they have trouble living the lives they've been used to in the United States. Even the little things, like a difficulty in finding catsup and some kinds of snack foods, or not being given ice cubes in drinks, drive them nuts. And almost everyone needs an interpreter.

Montreal is major league baseball's forbidden -- or forbidding -- city, and the Expos are a team simply trying to make do. It's as if the other 25 teams in the majors play by one set of rules, and the Expos, who are in third place, 5 1/2 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League East, play by another.

They lost so many free agents last season (four, including pitcher Mark Langston and outfielder Hubie Brooks) that they ended up with more draft choices (10) in the first two rounds of the June baseball draft than any team in history.

Expos officials now are resigned to the fact that's the way they will have to rebuild the team, through the draft. (Nine rookies have been with the club this season.) They know many of the game's top players have clauses in their contracts that forbid a trade to Montreal.

"You just can't fall in love with a player," said Manager Buck Rodgers, who has been here since the 1985 season and is signed through 1991. "We have turnover. This is not a free agent's paradise up here. We are not going to plug holes with free agents.

"Most players with long-term contracts have got 'no trade to Montreal' in their contracts. We can't make trades like other clubs. So we have to work within the farm system. Every year is on-the-job training. I have to work as much on instruction as managing ballplayers."

With this kind of problem, the club hardly needs additional controversy. But it has it. Owner Charles Bronfman, head of the Seagram distillery empire, has set a Sept. 1 deadline for a Quebec investor to come to him with an offer to buy the team, which he has owned since it was formed in 1969.

He is asking $85 million ($100 million Canadian) and has said he would prefer the club remain in Montreal. He also has said it would be "nonsensical" to wait for a local buyer if others are interested, and others are. About a dozen groups of potential American buyers are believed to be interested, including groups from Buffalo, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Miami and Washington, D.C.

"I don't blame him for wanting to sell the team," said Gerry Snyder, who brought expansion baseball to the city 21 years ago, got Bronfman involved and is trying to land an NFL franchise for the city. "The pressure is so high. He goes to a cocktail party and everyone asks him: 'What's wrong with the Expos?' How long can you take that?"

Robert Pincus, a Washington banker who, along with developer John Akridge, is heading a group seeking a National League expansion team for RFK Stadium, said his organization would be interested in buying the Expos.

"We're exploring every option of trying to get a team for this city," Pincus said. He declined to say whether he has talked with Expos officials, but added his group would be aggressive "and willing to talk to anyone" in pursuit of a team.

But if you ask people in Montreal if they really believe the Expos will leave, they say it is impossible to fathom the thought.

"Montreal and Quebec cannot afford to let the team get away," Snyder said. "If you don't have a baseball team, you're not major league. In spite of the problems, this team really does mean a lot to the city and the people."

For 25 years the vice chairman of the executive committee of the city, Snyder advocates that, if all else fails, the city should step in and buy the team.

"Governments have to get involved," he said. "It's like subsidizing zoos, planetariums, aquariums, those kinds of things."

In anticipation of a change, Bronfman has tried to maintain stability. Several team officials have signed contracts through 1991 and Bronfman has said the Expos management team will stay intact.

"He has tried to stabilize everyone's emotions," said General Manager David Dombrowski.

In Montreal, for as long as it lasts, baseball is different. Perhaps something is lost in the translation.

It starts with the ballpark, Olympic Stadium. Montreal residents say it's too far from downtown, and although it's just a 15-minute drive, this is a city of European ways, and a 15-minute drive for a baseball game can't compare with a walk to a sidewalk cafe. Also, so many Expos games are on cable TV -- as many as 100 this year -- that people get used to watching at home and don't go to the park.

Built for the 1976 Olympics, the field is surrounded by a 400-meter track. As a stadium, it was state of the art, a magnificent Olympic facility. But the Expos moved in, the stadium lost its charm and it suddenly became cavernous.

"Sometimes in the first inning, you can really hear a pin drop," said third baseman Tim Wallach. "That's disappointing."

The people who sit in the stadium are different from the fans at U.S. stadiums. Many don't know the game the way U.S. fans do.

"They don't cheer until the board tells them to, in French," Wallach said.

"In the United States, great-grandfathers and grandfathers and fathers bring up their children in baseball," said Rodgers. "Here, they have that same kind of tradition in sports, only it's hockey. Baseball does not have tradition here and it probably never will have it."

"I played hockey for 13 years and always wanted to play in the NHL," said rookie outfielder Larry Walker, only the fifth Canadian to play for the Expos. "As a kid, all I wanted to be was a hockey player. I played some baseball, but hockey was it."

The other day, the Expos beat the Phillies in front of 17,904 spectators in the 59,000-seat stadium. Only a couple of fans held radios to listen to the game. Others squinted into binoculars from the lower deck, they were so far from the action. During an unscientific search, one boy -- just one -- was spotted wearing a glove. And no one was keeping score.

One man was asked why he wasn't keeping score.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said.

When it was explained, he said, "Well, we know how many shots go on the net."

They don't speak the language of baseball, or of its players. And the players, for the most part, don't even try to learn the language of the fans. The Expos have offered French lessons to players and their families for several years. Last year, attendance fluctuated between five and 15 persons, said Jacques Doucet, the play-by-play man for the French radio station that broadcasts Expos games. This year, no one signed up.

"I don't know why they don't," Doucet said. "If a ballplayer learned just a little bit of French, he would make a fortune endorsing products. Right now, no one can do it."

"I know I'm not going to live here in the winter," Wallach said, explaining why, in a 10-year career here, he never has learned more than a couple words of French. "I can understand things. I just don't speak it. They told us if we want to be in commercials and do promotions, we should speak French. Well, it's not really important to me to do those things. I'm not really interested in being on billboards."

The Expos have done surveys that say 80 percent of their fans are French-speaking and 20 percent English-speaking. Everything in the stadium is in two languages, from scoreboard messages to P.A. announcements to concession items. But French comes first.

Outfielder Otis Nixon has been learning the language from his bilingual girlfriend. The past three winters, he has not gone home to North Carolina but has remained in Montreal. He has toured Quebec as part of a caravan of Expos officials and the occasional player that goes to small towns to try to drum up support for the team.

"I start out by speaking a couple sentences in French," he said, "and even though I don't get everything right, the people like it because I'm trying."

Dombrowski, a Chicagoan who has taken French lessons, delighted broadcasters on a French-language TV station with an impromptu preview, in French, of the starting pitchers for a recent game.

"It's amazing the response you get when you learn French," he said. "They love it."

Outfielder Tim Raines, who has been here for a decade, hasn't learned French and would prefer not to. "Here, I'm not under a microscope because no one knows me," he said. "That can be good."

Many players live in the West Island area, an English-speaking enclave of the city near the airport. What is happening in Montreal is not that different than what happens with pro athletes in most major league cities -- they choose to live in the suburbs.

It would seem that almost anyone would want to summer in Montreal, but that's not the way the players feel. It's a nuisance, most say.

"Yes, there are problems," Dombrowski said. "But almost every major league city has some negative aspects attached to it. Los Angeles is great, but you've got smog, traffic you can sit in for hours, the cost of land and property and high taxation. Every city has positives and negatives."

But this city hits players in the wallet, and hard. Canadian taxes are higher than U.S. taxes. The players have figured that taxes here are 4 or 5 percent more than U.S. taxes, so the club gives each player a bonus to cover the difference, they said.

Some just laugh it all off. Pitcher Oil Can (Canette Huile) Boyd was one free agent who agreed to come here.

"As long as they drive on the right side of the road," he said.

"I think every ballplayer in the major leagues should play one year in Montreal," said Rodgers, who rents an apartment downtown and rides the subway to games. "The adjustment period in their life, the education period in their life. I think they'll be better for it overall as a human being.

"They'll get a little bit of humility, a little bit of adjustment, discipline. Because things are different."