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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Friday, November 09, 2001
La D?fense de Montr?al
Sometimes a baseball fan just can’t win.
There is a certain attractiveness to a struggling baseball team. No wild-eyed dreamer sits around dreaming about his day as GM where his wisdom, wit, passion and devilish good looks transform the New York Yankees into World Champions. The Yankees don?t need his help. No, the dreamer in all of us wants to take the struggling club, the doormats, the worst of the worst, and lead them to the World Championship with a grateful city offering its praise and adulation.
And so the wild-eyed dreamer in me has been inherently fascinated with some of the also-rans in Major League Baseball. The Pirates? Love ?em, always have. Devil Rays? Terrific fun.
But as you no doubt know, it has very recently gotten very ugly for two of these struggling franchises. Many people in the last week have come to bat for the Minnesota Twins and they certainly have all sorts of valid reasons for doing so, but let me speak for a moment for MLB’s favorite punching bag, the Montreal Expos:
By now everybody should know the story of the Expos, but here’s a blow by blow of their existence the last 7 or 8 years.
1994: While drawing 24,000 a game and picking up steam into August, the Expos put together the best record in baseball. However, Montreal fans are forced to watch helplessly as the Strike hits, canceling the rest of the season, the post-season and the World Series. A club that looked to be on the verge of breaking through and winning the hearts of Montreal has the rug pulled out from underneath them. The best season in franchise history ends unfinished.
1995: The strike ends and the Expos ownership decided that it would be a fine idea to slash payroll. The rationale some people have posed for this strategy was that since the new revenue sharing agreement was tied into payroll, with the lowest payroll teams receiving the largest share, the Expos had discovered that they could guarantee a profit every season simply by slashing payroll to bare minimum levels and collecting the shared revenue. Expos ownership could also cry poor, saying that they simply couldn?t afford the increasing player salaries and that the only way they could would be if they got a publicly funded stadium. Whatever the reasoning, the Expos lose two of their starting outfielders, one of their better starting pitchers and their All-Star closer in the resulting carnage. The team drops to 66-78.
1996: The Expos bounce back going 88-74. Attendance, which had understandably fallen off the previous year, begins to recover a bit. Despite losing their shortstop and third baseman and also losing two starting pitchers to injury, they continue to plug holes with talent from their abundant farm system. Expo fans hold their breath and hope the worst is over.
1997: The latest purges cost the Expos their rightfielder, their team leader in innings pitched, and their latest closer. One of the first purgees wins the National League Most Valuable Player Award for the Rockies. Having turned over their entire outfield, their shortstop, most of their starting pitching staff, and two different closers since the 1994 team, the Expos simply can’t plug the holes fast enough anymore and they drop to 78-84. Attendance falls slightly but was still above 1995 levels. Still, the Expos have added some nice young talent in Rondell White, Valdimir Guerrero, Ugueth Urbina and have good looking prospects like Brad Fullmer waiting in the wings. Most importantly, the Expos have the 1997 Cy Young Award Winner who posted a brilliant ERA of 1.90 struck out over 300 batters and was just 25 years old. This certainly looked like a team that could still make some hay…
1998: The 25 year-old Cy Young pitcher is promptly traded the following offseason. Expo fans get to watch in horror as he proceeds to dominate hitters the next three years to an extent that possibly hasn?t been seen in baseball history. If that isn?t enough, they also ditch their leftfielder, second baseman, catcher, first baseman and set-up man. They go 65-97 and attendance drops to 11,295 a game.
1999: The Expos have a good offseason and only lose their shortstop to the annual salary purges. With the club now fully gutted, the management side of things starts to unravel. An understandably grouchy Felipe Alou has trouble getting along with some of the young players (Brad Fullmer chief amongst them) and punitive benchings and demotions begin to occur. The youth movement begins to crumble as it appears the coaching staff has run out of patience with the revolving door. Their former Cy Young pitcher snags another Cy Young with the Boston Red Sox. The Expos field a young club and lose ballgames. They finish 68-94 before average crowds of 9,547. Head orchestrator of the great baseball flea market, Claude Brochu, finally leaves the scene after this season. New owner Jeff Loria pronounces that things would be different from now on.
2000: The Expos acquire a few veterans of dubious quality as a message that the team would begin trying again. The Expos storm out of the gate as the league?s surprise team and Expo fans see one last shining glimmer of hope in what has turned into an awful test of their allegiance. But it was not to be. The biggest of their offseason acquisitions has an ERA of a jetliner and then gets injured. The Expos cool off and start losing again. They trade one of their better (and soon to be more expensive) players, an outfielder, for a young pitcher who promptly pitches one game for the Expos and blows his arm out. He has not pitched for them since. Discussions for a new stadium come to a halt, the U.S. press starts beating up on the team, and the Commissioner’s office (in a position all along to stop the fire sales) begins questioning the ability of the people of Montreal to support their baseball team. Their former Cy Young pitcher grabs another Cy Young and narrowly misses the American League Most Valuable Player Award. The Expos go 67-95, though the early season run boosts their average attendance back up to 11,000 a game.
2001: After an entire offseason criticizing, not only the Expo fans for not supporting their team, but also the city of Montreal for being a second rate city, the U.S. press begins using the Expos as their favorite punching bag for all that’s "wrong with the game." The Expos have a slow start and the whole thing goes downhill from there. Alou is fired and replaced by former player, manager and broadcaster Jeff Torborg. Amidst increasing talk that the team will either be moved or contracted, the Expos start to draw crowds in the 2,000 range on occassion. The owner of the Colorado Rockies, out of the goodness of his own heart, decides he wants to donate some of the Expos revenue to the disaster relief fund in New York by having his team and city host games that were scheduled to be played in Montreal and donate the gate proceeds. When the Expos understandably balk, some of the press blasts them for not wanting to help out such a good cause. A shipment of American flags to be given out at the first games since the terrorist attack is late in arriving to Olympic Stadium and fans don’t receive them when they enter as they had in other parks. The press points out the lack of flags at the game as evidence as to how insensitive the city of Montreal is to the tragedy that has occurred in America. The team goes 68-94, averages 7,935 fans a game, and, just after the season concludes, reports begin to spread that the Expos will be contracted before the start of the 2002 season.
While just summarizing all of the events (and I’m sure I’ve missed or misremembered a grisly detail or two here or there) this nutshells what has occurred over the last eight years. To sum up even more simply: the Expos were a good young team, supported by one of the largest Canadian cities. They had their best season ever snuffed out by a labor dispute, saw the end results of said dispute encourage their owner to sell off any player talent with any sort of a price tag, and got to re-live this little exercise over and over again after every season. The owner of the club badmouths the stadium; the commissioner of the sport badmouths the sport; and both badmouth the town for not buying them a stadium. They endured losing seasons, and when there was hope for winning baseball, it was quickly extinguished by more fire sales. The stadium was, by most accounts, no longer being maintained properly. The best pitcher in the game got traded at the very start of the peak of his career in order to avoid arbitration. Finally, in the last year, Expo fans have seen the unsympathetic American press attack and villify the fans, the city and at times the country of Les Expos…
...and wonder of wonders, the fans have stopped attending Expos games. Who could possibly have guessed that?
One of the things I hear a lot when listening to a struggling team?s fans discuss their club, is ?the only thing we can really do about the club’s terminal incompetence is vote with our dollar. We should stop going to the park, stop buying their merchandise and stop watching the games on TV. If we hit them in their wallet, then they’ll have to take notice and correct their behavior.? A common theory about the Cubs long tradition on ineptitude makes the same argument: ?since the Cubs make money every single year and sell lots of tickets every single year, regardless of how good the team is, management never has any incentive to field a good team.?? In other words, the vote with your pocketbook theory contends that if you don?t buy their substandard product, they will be forced to improve it.
It is a theory the many fans of the Montreal Expos have put to the test, and it is a theory that apparently does not hold. If the team puts a substandard product on the field, and you don’t attend, it appears that:
Apparently ownership has decided that every Major League city is obligated to put a great deal of time, effort and money into supporting their baseball team, regardless of whether the team?s ownership chooses to do the same. If not, you lose your? team, and the owner gets to try his act elsewhere.
And so, as Bud Selig attempts to sell the used Volkswagen that is contraction to the baseball public, the city of Montreal and their many Expo fans get hit from all angles, as an increasingly reactionary baseball world lines up in lock-step to place the blame for "all that is wrong with the sport" squarely at their feet…
It doesn?t seem that baseball will ever realize that for most rational people (a group of which I am not a member) there is far more to life than Major League Baseball. Expo fans have spouses, children, parents and friends whom they care about more deeply than they ever could about a silly baseball team. They go to parks, and on vacations and use the money they earn from working to spend it in whatever way they find most enriches their lives and the lives of people they care about. For many of the people of Montreal, one of those things used to be Montreal Expos Baseball. Still, the citizens of Montreal will heal and begin to do other things with their time that will give them at least almost as much joy. And that is where Major League Baseball has made a terrible mistake. The city of Montreal is by far the most unique city in Major League Baseball. They speak a different language in a different country with strong ties to a continent into which Major League Baseball has made little inroads. They have a few of the most exciting young players in the game of baseball, and, like most fans of struggling teams, are just waiting for someone to step to the plate and make a difference for their ballclub. In eras past the city of Montreal has shown quite clearly it can and will support Major League Baseball and the Montreal Expos under one and only one condition: the league and team agree to meet them halfway and actually try to put a good team on the field for them. In the end greed isn?t the one holding the knife to throats of the Expos, but rather laziness. Apparently effort is a price Major League Baseball and the Expos current ownership is unwilling to pay.
And if there’s anything that can and will destroy the great sport of baseball, it’s most certainly that kind of attitude from its stewards.
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