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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Expos Turn Up Heat on Selig

June 01, 2003|Ross Newhan

In the sauna that is San Juan, the Montreal Expos begin their second Puerto Rican home stand Tuesday night, facing the Angels.

It's a home stand, of course, in name only.

In reality, the virtually homeless Expos -- amid the strong possibility they will be forced to split one more season between Canada and the Caribbean -- have embarked on the mother of all trips: from Montreal to Florida to Philadelphia to Puerto Rico to Seattle to Oakland to Pittsburgh to a June 20 return to Montreal.

Testing resiliency, resolve and room service, they'll play 22 games in 25 days, with the ultimate possibility of an unscheduled stop in a city not on the itinerary.

That's a stretch, perhaps, but if the undaunted Expos come off this expedition still shadowing the Atlanta Braves in the National League East and still leading the NL wild-card race ... well, says catcher Michael Barrett, "we should be in contention all the way," and the club's custodian, Tony Tavares, might be forced to stop in Milwaukee to ask Commissioner Bud Selig the mother of all questions.

That, too, may be a stretch, but there's no disputing the perception, at least, that the integrity of the commissioner and the 29 owners, in their second year of underwriting the Expos' payroll and other expenses, of making this franchise a ward of the state, could be at stake.

At some point, if still competitive, General Manager Omar Minaya may ask Tavares to see if Selig is willing to kick up the payroll, allowing the Expos to secure another pitcher, hitter or player off the bench.

The reaction?

Who knows? But it's more than what Selig acknowledges to be an "awkward situation."

It's a situation that challenges integrity and smacks of potential conflict.

With the Expos already receiving about $30 million in revenue sharing, will the owners balk at letting Selig lift the Montreal budget by an additional $5 million or so to let Minaya improve his depth and competitive position?

Will they be reluctant to help this vagabond team beat them or will they bow to the concept of competitive balance? Do they understand that the better the Expos are, the more people possibly filtering through the rusting attendance gates in Montreal, then the more money will be coming back to them?

Integrity? Conflict? Selig said he didn't see it. He insisted that any decision to raise the payroll would be his and not that of the owners.

No club can or has called, he said, telling him what to do about Montreal in that regard.

"That," he said, "would be a conflict."

In addition, he said, it's not as if the Montreal payroll is baseball's lowest.

At about $50 million, it's variously ranked from 24th to 29th among the 30 teams, depending on the accounting method.

"We're obviously doing something right since this is the second year we've put a very competitive team on the field in a situation that isn't generating much revenue," Selig said. "Tony, Omar and [Manager] Frank Robinson have done a remarkable job."

That, of course, doesn't answer the question of whether he is willing to bump the payroll, as Minaya was allowed to do in a creative fashion last year, acquiring Bartolo Colon and Cliff Floyd in midseason. Neither, however, is still with the team, both having been moved in similarly creative fashion to satisfy the budget restrictions.

Well, said Selig, the budget is what it is and he has told Tavares and Minaya to do with it what they feel is necessary. He said that given the economic landscape he doesn't think there will be many clubs adding payroll in midseason, but he added that he has tried to be "sensitive" to the Montreal situation and suggested that he would be "supportive" if the Expos ask to modestly inflate the payroll.

At this point, said Tavares, the former Angels' chairman, he and Minaya have no reason to get ahead of themselves.

"I'm not going to burn political capital by going in and asking, 'What if?' " he said. "We'll deal with it when and if that time comes.

"I suspect that if you were to poll each of the owners as to which team they'd like to see win, they'd list their own team first but -- aside from the owners in our division -- we'd make their ballot because they all have a vested [financial] interest in us."

What's at stake for the Expos, of course, goes beyond the current season and the concern that they don't have the depth to compensate for the loss of a key player.

Can they possibly keep free agent-eligible Vladimir Guerrero or arbitration-eligible Javier Vazquez, among others, without a new home and new owner?

Can they possibly influence Minaya and Robinson to remain and can the returning players retain a competitive spirit if forced to spend another season in Montreal?

This much is certain, said Tavares:

The Expos may have drawn 33,236 on the Saturday before leaving on a journey that would have exhausted Lewis and Clark, but it was largely the result of $5 seats and $1 hot dogs.

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