IN A STORY ABOUT THE MONTREAL EXPOS IN YESTERDAY'S EDITIONS, CATCHER CHRIS WIDGER SHOULD HAVE BEEN IDENTIFIED AS A NEW JERSEY NATIVE WHO PLAYED AT GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY. (PUBLISHED 06/07/99)
It's a half-hour before game time, and fewer than 500 fans are scattered among Olympic Stadium's 46,000 plastic, space-age seats. By the first pitch, there will be perhaps 3,000 fans in the stadium, almost all within shouting distance of home plate. Perhaps symbolic of what lies ahead for baseball's most troubled franchise, the Montreal Expos have shut down large portions of the stadium, covering some sections of seats with vinyl sheeting and refusing to sell tickets for others that remain exposed.
Built for the 1976 Summer Games, this futuristic mass of steel and concrete never seemed right for baseball. Now after almost three decades, it is cold, dark and unappealing. And this night, as the Expos prepare to play their 31st home game of what could be their final season here, it has the look of a house whose family is waiting for the movers to arrive.
For the 24th time this season, the Expos will draw fewer than 10,000 fans for a game. Last season, they were the only major league team unable to draw 1 million fans. This season, they're on a pace to draw just more than 720,000, which would be a major league team's lowest home attendance in 14 years.
Stripped of their best players to save money, the Expos have the National League's second-worst record, at 20-32. This night, an announced crowd of 5,395 will see the home team lose, 15-2, to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Afterward, beleaguered manager Felipe Alou will say: "Well, obviously we've got some problems. Hey, we just drafted a 17-year-old pitcher. Maybe he can help us."
Alou smiles weakly.
Long acknowledged as one of baseball's best managers, he still has days of anger and frustration. Most days, he ac cepts reality. Forced to cut costs again and again during the past decade, the Expos finally may have run out of tomorrows.
Efforts to Remain
Unless a new owner steps forward in the next few weeks, the Expos are almost certain to be playing elsewhere next season. General partner Claude Brochu was prepared to put the team up for sale this spring after being unable to meet baseball's deadline for obtaining financing for a new stadium. Unable to find a local buyer, Brochu was willing to deal with groups prepared to move the franchise.
One of those potential buyers was Northern Virginia telecommunications executive William L. Collins III, who would like to move the Expos to RFK Stadium while a Camden Yards-like ballpark is constructed in Northern Virginia.
Commissioner Bud Selig intervened to prevent a sale this spring and extended the deadline indefinitely, giving a group led by minority owner Jacques Menard an opportunity to find financing for a stadium and a buyer willing to keep the team in Montreal. Three months later, Menard and his group haven't finalized a deal. They say they are optimistic that they have found their major investor -- New York arts dealer Jeff Luria -- and that a stadium deal soon will follow.
"I know there's a lot of people there trying very aggressively to get something done," Selig said. "I can't tell you how it's going to come out."
Industry sources indicate Selig won't wait much longer. If Menard doesn't have deals in place by mid-July, Selig probably will allow Brochu to begin negotiating with Collins and groups representing Charlotte and other cities.
"In a nutshell, we're trying hard," said Roger Samson, a spokesman for Menard's group. "I think we're making progress. I do believe there's a group of partners who wish to maintain a franchise in Montreal, as opposed to Brochu, who believes it's in everyone's best interest to move away. We believe we're making progress, but it's slow and it's complex."
Samson acknowledges that Luria probably is the last hope for keeping the Expos in Montreal. If Luria agrees to invest between $50 million and $75 million to become the team's new general partner, Samson predicts others will join him. And once the new ownership is in place, Samson believes a stadium financing deal combining federal, provincial and private money will come together.
Luria didn't return telephone calls to his New York office, but baseball officials believe his interest in the team is serious. Last week, he began examining the team's financial records.
"If Mr. Luria is satisfied with what he sees, the rest will follow," Samson said.
Others aren't so sure. "They've got a lot to do in a short period of time, don't they?" a baseball executive said. "Maybe they can get it done."
But another official familiar with the team's finances said: "I don't see how he can see it as a good business deal. Even with a new stadium, it's not clear there's enough support in Montreal."
Samson argues otherwise.
"To those who say this town can't support baseball, I say baloney," he said. "Right now, I think the fans are pouting. They don't give a darn about owners fighting. It just aggravates them. But they're not going to commit to this team until the other mess is sorted out. We've got a great history of baseball in Montreal. We go back to Jackie Robinson [who played with the Dodgers' minor league team in Montreal]. But the involvement has to be emotional. Right now, the people are withholding their affection."
No one questions that time is running out. Selig has ordered a study of both the Montreal market and the various stadium plans that have been submitted by Menard's group. While the Quebec government has indicated it will contribute around $8 million a year toward a new stadium, other investors must come forward.
Baseball executives also are extremely skeptical of the most recent plan, which says a new stadium can be built for around $150 million -- about half what such a facility costs in the United States.
"We're confident we can build a state-of-the-art stadium that meets all of Major League Baseball's requirements," Samson said. "That's not a concern. If you look around here, you won't see many cranes around here, so the construction industry is very receptive to a major project. The builders, architects and others feel it's a community issue here."
Menard's group has told baseball it will get a new stadium opened for the 2002 season. To meet that deadline, they must begin construction early next season, giving them only a few weeks to finalize deals for both an owner and a stadium plan.
"I know there are a lot of skeptical people," Samson said. "They wonder how we'll get this done. I say, `Watch us.' "
The Expos represent one of Washington's best chances of getting a major league baseball team since the Senators left for Texas after the 1971 season. Collins expects Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to attempt to block the move of a team to the Washington area, even if it means filing a lawsuit.
Angelos publicly acknowledges opposing a team in Washington or Northern Virginia, saying the Orioles have staked out the area as their own and that a second team would mean declines in ticket sales and broadcast revenues.
Several major league owners agree with his assessment, and apparently would prefer that the Expos relocate to Charlotte, Las Vegas or Portland, Ore. -- if they relocate at all. However, Collins has made it clear he will bid for the team and even will allow Brochu to remain involved, perhaps giving him the title of team president, according to sources.
After quietly negotiating to buy several teams, including the Houston Astros, over the years, Collins is well thought of in baseball circles, according to sources. But many baseball executives don't like the idea of shifting a franchise to an area that might negatively impact an existing franchise.
Collins and his staff declined to comment on the matter with the situation at a sensitive stage. "Just say we're monitoring the situation," a source close to Collins said. "We'll be ready if the team goes on the market."
Not Sticking Around
Meanwhile, the Expos play on. Having produced as many quality players as any organization in baseball the past two decades, they have been forced to part with all of them. What would this team look like today if it had a rotation anchored by Arizona's Randy Johnson and Boston's Pedro Martinez -- arguably the game's two best pitchers? Both originally were signed by the Expos. Both were traded because the Expos couldn't afford to keep them. The same can be said of Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Larry Walker, Delino DeShields, Andres Galarraga and a long list of other prominent players.
"You know what's amazing?" asked Claude Raymond, a former big league reliever who serves as a commentator on Expos broadcasts. "Even after all the fire sales, we were still right in the race two years ago."
These days, the pipeline finally has run dry. Montreal's pitching rotation includes three players who probably should still be in the minor leagues. And while the everyday lineup includes one probable future superstar -- catcher-third baseman Michael Barrett -- and one of baseball's best young hitters -- outfielder Vladimir Guerrero -- there are holes, too.
Alou likes his players because they play hard and because they haven't been in the big leagues long enough to complain about their stadium and the small crowds. He also knows the Expos can't survive here unless something changes.
As for the players, they accept their situation with grace and humor.
"It has been going on for three years now," said catcher Chris Widger, a New Jersey native who played at James Madison University. "I think we tried to follow the story for a while, but it was going, staying, going. Now, we hear it might not be decided until the offseason, so what's the point? We'll all find out at some point.
"Sometimes it gets to you during a long homestand. You want the fans to help keep you going. I mean, what's home-field advantage all about? We don't have that. We just don't have any noise. You try to tell yourself it doesn't matter, but it does. It's just another obstacle for us."
Widger was excited two summers ago when he heard the Baltimore Orioles were attempting to acquire him. But he also has fallen in love with Montreal, with its beauty and low crime rate, and with its people. He ticks off the things he and his wife do on off days: sightseeing in Old Montreal, walking the trails of Mount Tremblant and sampling the restaurants.
"It's a great city," he said. "It's safe enough that my wife will go out at night. How many places can you say that about? We've got some great fans, but right now there's not many of them. When you have 5,000 people show up here, in a place that everyone says they hate, and with our record, they have to love baseball. When we had 44,000 fans here on Opening Day, it was a great place to play. I played in Seattle, and it was every bit as loud as that."
Many of the Expos agree with 26-year-old pitcher Dustin Hermanson, who said: "I'm just happy to be in the big leagues. God has blessed me with some talent and given me a great career. Here I am. Who am I to complain?"
He's asked about playing in front of baseball's smallest crowds.
"People always quote [center fielder Rondell White] and I as saying that it makes playing a little tougher," he said. "They don't quote the second part of what we say, which is that it's not what we should be worried about. We still have an obligation to go play hard and be professionals whether there are 50,000 people in the stands or no one. I understand why the fans are upset with the organization. A lot of great players have left here. That has nothing to do with the effort we're expected to give."
Some Still Show Up
Thirty rows behind home plate, a fan can hear the Expos chirping to one another as they finish infield drills. Before the series, Arizona Diamondbacks Manager Buck Showalter warned his team: "You have to be a self-starter here."
The Diamondbacks have come here after spending three days at New York's Shea Stadium, where the crowds were huge and hostile and fun. This is different. The Diamondbacks, who are drawing better than 30,000 fans a night at their new ballpark in Phoenix, will play before fewer than 16,000 fans total during three contests against the Expos.
One of those fans is Raymond Clermont, a retired Roman Catholic priest who said he comes to six to 10 games a season. This day, he has arrived at the stadium 90 minutes before the first pitch and gotten a seat a dozen or so rows behind home plate.
"I saw Jackie Robinson, Carl Erskine, Roy Campanella play in Montreal," he said. "I loved those Dodgers. It felt like they were our team even more than the Expos are our team. We felt a tie to the Dodgers even after they left here and went to the big leagues. Now, when the Expos get a good player, he goes somewhere. He has no connection to Montreal anymore. It's just made following the team hard, and we don't know if they're going to be here next season."
Average home-game attendance for the Expos in the 1990s:
Expos Make Crowds Disappear
The numbers don't lie. The Montreal Expos draw the smallest crowds in major league baseball -- by far.
10 SMALLEST CROWDS OF THE SEASON
Home Team Date Visitor Attendance
Montreal May 18 Philadelphia 4,660
Montreal April 28 San Francisco 4,998
Montreal May 31 Arizona 5,048
Montreal May 17 Philadelphia 5,104
Montreal May 3 Los Angeles 5,132
Montreal May 19 Philadelphia 5,182
Montreal June 1 Arizona 5,188
Montreal April 27 San Francisco 5,202
Montreal April 29 San Francisco 5,253
Oakland April 13 Anaheim 5,377
Home Average % of
games attendance capacity
Cleveland 25 42,237 97.4%
Baltimore 24 40,909 84.9%
New York 26 36,983 64.9%
Texas 27 33,974 69.1%
Anaheim 26 28,407 63.1%
Boston 26 27,726 81.9%
Seattle 30 26,602 45.0%
Toronto 29 25,220 56.9%
Tampa Bay 24 20,685 47.0%
Kansas City 24 18,884 46.6%
Detroit 27 18,814 40.1%
Minnesota 26 15,183 31.2%
Chicago 20 14,513 32.7%
Oakland 29 14,360 32.9%
Attendance through June 3
Home Average % of
games attendance capacity
Colorado 18 42,305 84.0%
St. Louis 22 40,533 81.5%
Los Angeles 24 40,135 71.7%
Atlanta 29 38,604 86.7%
Arizona 22 34,929 71.2%
Chicago 25 33,775 86.7%
San Diego 24 33,032 49.8%
Houston 26 27,106 49.9%
New York 27 26,726 47.9%
Cincinnati 26 20,536 38.8%
San Francisco 26 19,297 30.6%
Pittsburgh 29 18,882 39.6%
Philadelphia 27 18,881 30.3%
Milwaukee 26 18,103 34.0%
Florida 33 17,533 41.2%
Montreal 31 8,891 19.1%
Sources: Staff research and SportsBusiness Journal
CAPTION: Empty seats abound when pitcher Carl Pavano and other Expos play at Olympic Stadium. Most crowds are less than 10,000.