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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Expos Have a Splitting Headache

September 14, 2003|Ross Newhan

Opinions and otherwise ...

Baseball's caretaking of the homeless Montreal Expos might be a bigger farce than contraction. Bud Selig conducted a news conference in Puerto Rico on Wednesday at which there were no Spanish-speaking interpreters. Nothing was lost in the translation, though, because the commissioner had nothing new to say, calling the 2004 Expo options limitless, which is not true.

There will be no permanent solution in 2004, and baseball will not let the Expos play all 81 games in Montreal, which the players want, having gone 36-17 there and enjoyed an attendance revival on their last home stand, when their wild-card hopes were still alive.

Baseball's plan, however, calls for another split season of 60 or so games in Montreal and the rest in San Juan -- where they averaged 14,222 for 22 games -- or Monterrey, Mexico, and the commissioner is believed to be swinging a blackjack in the attempt to win approval by the Montreal players.

The Expos conducted four meetings in six days during the last of their three Puerto Rico visits, ending Thursday, but refused to vote on the schedule and asked for a meeting with Selig in New York next weekend.

Multiple sources say the players are convinced that baseball is trying to strong-arm them with an either/or threat -- either approve the split schedule in which San Juan or Monterrey promoters would help subsidize an increased payroll or the team will be gutted.

Expo players bought into that scenario a year ago but are understandably suspicious after being made to play a wicked travel schedule, getting no payroll-inflating help down the stretch and even being denied September call-ups. Also, they question whether baseball can gut the team, allowing Vladimir Guerrero to leave as a free agent and trading Javier Vazquez, among others, and then expect to find eager buyers in Washington, northern Virginia or Portland, Ore.

Said a union lawyer, "Baseball will be making a serious mistake if it expects the players to adjust their stance through the use of blackmail."

It's a lingering and embarrassing situation, but c'est la vie in baseball.

* As difficult as it will be to separate the National League's MVP cast of Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Gary Sheffield and Eric Gagne, it would be a mistake to overlook Jim Thome, who has encountered little trouble adapting to a new league.

Thome started the weekend having driven in 110 runs and slugged 39 homers, 20 at Veterans Stadium, where only Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Deron Johnson had hit that many in a season. His influence on the Philadelphia Phillies is such that longtime coach John Vukovich said, "When he walks into the clubhouse, it's almost like Dad coming home from work. You feel that good."

* Bonds began the weekend with only one home run since his father died Aug. 23, but it has been mostly a matter of getting nothing good to hit. He had been walked 135 times in 116 games, 57 times intentionally -- and why would anyone ever pitch to him?

Research by Jeff Fletcher of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat shows that the San Francisco Giants who bat after an intentional walk to Bonds are hitting .167 with only 12 RBIs.

Noted Manager Felipe Alou, "That's an effective way to contain a hitter. Never throw him another strike the rest of his life."

* The Dodgers may catch a break, if they're still alive in the wild-card race, when the Giants arrive for a three-game series next weekend. San Francisco could have the NL West title clinched by then, meaning the Giants might be thinking of the playoffs as they rest and prepare their pitching.

The Giants' playoff rotation is suspect after Jason Schmidt and Sidney Ponson, but Alou said he would stick with Kirk Rueter as his No. 3 on the basis of experience even though Rueter has been hurting and ineffective in the second half, having been tagged for 16 runs in 13 1/3 innings of three starts before spending a month on the disabled list.

He returned, however, to throw six shutout innings against the San Diego Padres on Wednesday night and that was enough to convince Alou, as he put it, that Rueter was back. "If you make the playoffs, you want to go with three guys with experience," Alou said.

* The calm, objective and informative analysis of Jose Mota has been a welcome addition to the Angel TV booth. The suspended Rex Hudler deserves the organization's help in returning from his arrest on marijuana-possession charges, but Hudler and listeners would be best served if that help included the recommendation that he turn down the hyper-and-homer switch to restore credibility and viable communication. The Wonder Dog and partner Steve Physioc tend to get blinded by their World Series rings.

* No NL division or wild-card contender has a softer schedule during the last two weeks of the season than the Chicago Cubs, who play three games each against the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds and six against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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