-- Like the orphans they are, the Montreal Expos have been handed off to a new, loving home this spring, simply because the owner of the Florida Marlins -- who, by baseball's bizarre machinations, also owns one-twenty-ninth of the Expos -- decided he didn't want to spend his springs here anymore. Space Coast Stadium still wears the bright teal paint of the Marlins, another reminder that the Expos are always one step away from homelessness.
The sun will come out tomorrow for the Expos, however, if for no other reason than they will be let out of dingy, domed, tomb-like Olympic Stadium in Montreal this season for 22 "home" games, to be played instead in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Of course, that means even more bouncing around from home to home. It's a hard-knock life, indeed.
To recap: For surviving contraction, rebuilding an organization that had been reduced to six employees by last February, finishing second in the ultra-competitive National League and posting a 83-79 record, the Expos were rewarded -- by remaining wards of the state, still owned by Major League Baseball as the relocation process crawls on.
They were told to slash $10 million from their projected 2003 payroll budget, forcing General Manager Omar Minaya to trade ace right-hander Bartolo Colon last month.
And they were informed that they essentially would be getting 22 extra road games in the form of three homestands that are being moved to San Juan.
(Thus, one trip this summer will find the Expos traveling from Montreal to Miami to Philadelphia to San Juan to Seattle to Oakland to Pittsburgh before finally returning to Montreal 25 days and 22 games later.)
"It's a joke," said right-handed pitcher Javier Vazquez when asked about the ongoing uncertainty concerning the Expos. "I can't believe it. Now we're owned by 29 other teams. We need an owner who is going to put money into the team to make us better, not make us worse. . . . [Baseball's owners] treat us like we don't exist."
Actually, it's not that baseball treats the Expos as if they don't exist. Baseball simply treats the Expos as if it doesn't want them to exist. And baseball's owners, who gave up the right to contract until 2007 in last fall's labor deal, certainly don't want to spend any more of their money on an orphan team, especially one that, more often than not, outperforms their own teams.
Although league officials still insist on a relocation timetable that could see the Expos moved to Washington by 2004, the Expos have learned the hard way never to count on things working out in their favor.
"It's the nature of the situation: We have no control over it," said Manager Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame outfielder who returns for a second year with the team. "When the schedule was made up, and they decided we should play 22 games in Puerto Rico? We'll go play them. The uncertainty of the sale of the ballclub? There's nothing we can do about it. We're still the Montreal Expos. They tell us to trim payroll? We did it."
It has come to this for the Expos: As long as the team wins its arbitration case Monday against Vazquez (the difference between Vazquez's salary figure and the team's is $1.15 million, and there remains a chance the sides could settle before the hearing), and as long as ticket sales remain strong in San Juan, Minaya probably will not have to trim anymore payroll.
If not, goodbye Michael Barrett.
"We'd like certainty," said Barrett, the Expos' marketable 26-year-old catcher and the subject of trade talks this winter. "But the question is, does certainty really exist in this game? The very nature of the job is uncertainty. So 22 extra road games isn't a big deal. It's still an honor to put on a uniform every day."
Ticket sales for the 22 games in San Juan -- spread out over three separate "home"stands -- actually have been outpacing projections. According to Minaya, the team already has sold between 4,000 and 5,000 "season" tickets to the entire 22-game package, with individual-game sales scheduled to begin this week. The team projects it will sell between 90 and 100 percent of the available tickets.
The Expos are guaranteed $7 million for moving the 22 games to San Juan, but the total revenue could climb as high as $10 million if all the games sell out and if sponsor revenue is strong. Minaya said that money would go toward payroll.
It is too late to bring back Colon, the stocky right-hander whom Minaya acquired from Cleveland last summer when the Expos were on the outskirts of the playoff race. But despite the fact everyone in baseball knew Minaya had to dump payroll, he still managed to pull of a slick deal, enlisting the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees in a three-way swap that netted veteran right-hander Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, first baseman Jeff Liefer and right-hander Rocky Biddle. In addition, the Yankees are paying almost all of Hernandez's salary.
"I would've loved to have kept Colon," Minaya said. "But we're not the only team that has to make tough decisions. As a GM, it has been a great challenge. The fact we were able to come away with El Duque, Biddle and Liefer -- and to have El Duque pitching for us for [almost] free, I'm very happy with that."
A year ago this time, Minaya had a cell phone permanently fused to his ear. Hired only 72 hours before the opening of camp, he was handed an organization that had been left bare by Jeffrey Loria, the owner who essentially swapped the Expos for the Marlins last winter and took nearly the entire organization with him to Miami. Minaya was left to piece together a scouting staff, minor league coaching staff and front-office staff almost on his own.
"When you look at our wins and losses [in 2002] relative to the payroll, the year was a success," Minaya said. "But what has been rewarding to me has been to build an organization under very difficult circumstances and short time constraints. It was a major risk to come here. It could have gone bad in those 72 hours, really bad. It could've destroyed my career. So I'm proud of what we've accomplished."
While last season served to raise Minaya's profile in the game, it also rejuvenated Robinson, who agreed only grudgingly to manage the Expos in 2002, insisting all along he only wanted to do it for one year. Then he re-upped for another year back in November, and now he is talking about doing it for another five years.
"My view has changed," Robinson said. "I want to keep managing, as long as my health is good and I enjoy it and someone wants me. Last year was a good, enjoyable experience. And I feel like the job isn't finished."