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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:

  • Your devotion as a fan will be questioned,
  • The adequacy of where you live will be questioned, and
  • You will lose your team.

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.


Voros McCracken Posted: November 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM | 9 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. RJ in TO Posted: November 10, 2001 at 12:13 AM (#604203)
Thank you for realizing that a lot of the problems facing the Expos in Montreal are not of the fans making, but of the Expos and the other owners. Just another example of baseball failing its market, rather than the marjet failing them.

As a side note, how can the owners complain about the position of Olympic Stadium when it is only about 20 min. from the majority of the downtown region on one of the best subway systems in North America?

By the way, over the last 20 years, the Expos have been about as sucessful as the Brewers. Why is it that, despite the artificial intruige of a new stadium, the Brewers have yet to be mentioned as a reasonable contraction candidate? Just wait for a couple years until the newness has worn off, and we will see how the attendance numbers are.
   2. Zeke Posted: November 10, 2001 at 12:13 AM (#604204)

I just wanted to write and say, kick-ass article Voros! Thanks.
   3. DEF: selfish min-maxer Posted: November 10, 2001 at 12:13 AM (#604207)
Very nice job, Voros. It looks like my comment on another article about a lack of analysis by the Primer staff was premature. Glad to see I was wrong.
   4. Charles Saeger Posted: November 12, 2001 at 12:13 AM (#604219)
On local television revenues:

The issue is that the Expos did not have a local television contract for 2001. In addition to driving down attendance, it also dried up a very necessary revenue stream for the team. Pro hockey teams, a sport that almost invariably draws lower ratings than baseball, all have local television contracts (to the best of my knowledge).

Here is what bothers me: this is probably a deliberate act of sabotage by Jeff Loria. Think about it. The owners have been quietly mentioning contraction since last year. To maximise his argument, Loria pursues a policy that will deliberately tank his team, so he can either acquire a more lucrative team or take the money ($150-$250 million) and run.

To say that deliberately causing a business to be a loser so you can have your competitors buy you out is a serious anti-trust issue, even if that franchise is in Canada (MLB is incorporated in New York, so it would fall under the Sherman Act, save for the exemption).

We are talking about some very nasty shenanigans on the part of the Lords of the Realm.
   5. Voros McCracken Posted: November 12, 2001 at 12:13 AM (#604224)
Just to back up David's point, he is correct that large markets suffer the same attendence woes that small markets do when they field losing teams: the Mets, Giants, Phillies, White Sox and Angels are all large market clubs and have all suffered attendance slumps due to poor team quality.

And the key point with the Expos isn't that they are bad, it is that the team gutted a winning a ballclub and has since not lifted a finger to improve the club. So not only do they suffer from fielding a bad team, but they also suffer due to a perceived (correctly IMO) lack of effort from the team's management to change things.
   6. Cris E Posted: November 13, 2001 at 12:13 AM (#604227)
David -
You're right and you're wrong: there is real money to be had at the gate, but not many teams can charge $30 a seat. Even with new stadiums all over the place the average ticket in 2001 cost $18.99. But the Twins avg seat price in 2000 was a hair under $10, so in a tupperware stadium in MN your numbers are cut by two thirds. If you have a bad park you won't get as much per seat. If you live in a cheap part of the country then people will flinch beore paying $6 for a beer. An article I saw recently showed that Santa Clara had the fifth highest cost of living in the country, and claimed that was as big a driver for moving the As as the population base.
   7. David Geiser Posted: November 16, 2001 at 12:13 AM (#604242)
Let's finish your list, Brad:

1969 7/12; 1970 6/12; 1971 8/12; 1972 9/12; 1973 9/12; 1974 9/12; 1975 9/12; 1976 11/12; 1977 6/12; 1978 7/12; 1979 4/12; 1980 4/12; 1981 3/12; 1982 3/12; 1983 2/12; 1984 8/12 1985 8/12.

It looks to me that there was a time between 1977-83 when the Expos were drawing quite well, comparatively.

Yes, they currently have some disadvantages: no real TV deal, ugly stadium. But the past suggests that they have plenty here to work with. Markets do not exist prefabricated for a business to simply walk in and capitalize on, they have to be built and maintained, and that requires investment. Those cities with successful franchises, and some of them are smaller media markets than Montreal, have made those investments. It seems to me that the Expos have neglected that over the years.

Is the Big-O as uncomfortably loud as it was four years ago, the last time I went to a game there? The noise alone would be enough to keep me from going.

   8. Voros McCracken Posted: November 16, 2001 at 12:13 AM (#604243)
The points about not all revenue coming from the gate are valid, but the relationship between a team's attendance and it's overall revenue (based on Forbes' figures) is quite strong. Attendance seems to correlate with revenue more than other suspects, like Market Size. I think the reason for this, besides the obvious (more tickets sold==more money), is that attendance works as a good estimator of team popularity which has an effect on most of the other revenue streams as well.
   9. Jokerman Posted: December 01, 2001 at 12:16 AM (#604374)
Great job! These comments should be forwarded to Gammons and every other member of the baseball media "elite" who merely echo Selig & Co. in exchange for a steady stream of info. While you're at it send it to every front office in baseball, starting with the Big One in New York.

One thing must be pointed out about the 2000 season (Loria's first).
The organization-not just Loria-tried to fill three holes with established players. #1 A set-up man, preferably lefthanded. Yes they over-paid for Graeme lloyd but certainly did not expect him to miss the entire season. #2 a veteran starter capable of throwing about 200 innings. Irabu, obviously was a physical mess. Again, who knew he'd be that bad? #3 A lefthanded bat with sock for the middle of the line up, with a much better glove than incumbent firstbaseman Brad Fullmer. Enter Lee Stevens.
The point is...if you throw in a typical Lloyd, Irabu & Stevens season (only Stevens came close and even his year ended 125 at bats early because of a foot problem)to a normal, HEALTHY mix, than the 2000 Expos would have created a lot more excitement than they eventually did (8 games over .500 in early June).
No team can overcome a season in which it has to use 27 pitchers. 27 for Goodness sake! (Check Cleveland Indians, same season).
Loria and friends did not sabotage the franchise. He tried to win, it just didn't work out.

And one more thing. The Langston-Johnson deal of 1989? It actually propelled the Expos into first place where they stayed...for awhile.
Langstons 1989 Expos numbers were damn good. He wasn't the problem.
Obviously,in retrospect, the trade was a disaster. But if others (Hubie Brooks, Tim Raines, Tim Wallach, Andres Galarraga, Kevin Gross, Andy McGaffigan & Joe Hesketh)had performed as well as Langtson did, then maybe the Expos get to the post season and owner Charles Bronfman does not get fed up, keeps the team, builds a new downtown ballpark and we wouldn't have to turn blue trying to explain to the ill-informed that Montreal can support Major League Baseball.

Once again, it's good to know that in some pockets outside of Montreal there are sophisticated, keen baseball observers who understand. And sympathize. Thanks.

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