They have the second-lowest payroll in baseball, yet they had the game's best record through Sunday. They don't draw well, they're losing money, and after this season they'll lose at least one frontline player to budget constraints. Yet somehow they'll replenish. They're the Montreal Expos, and they're shooting holes in the assertion by major league owners that small-market teams can't compete.
The Expos have competed—and more. Their payroll is $18.6 million, higher than that of only the Padres ($13.5 million) and less than half that of the league's top spender, the Braves ($40.5 million). Yet at week's end Montreal had won 11 of its last 12 games and held a 3½-game lead over Atlanta in the National League East.
"This could be the year of the Expos," says Kevin Malone, who became Montreal's general manager in January after two seasons as the Expos' director of scouting. "We've made a lot of sacrifices over the years, and we've been through some very difficult times. If we're not able to reap the possible rewards of this season, that would be disappointing. But the other 27 clubs would know we did it the right way."
The Expos were 65-38 through Sunday because they have outscouted teams over the past decade, they've always done a superb job of developing their players and they've made some great trades in the past few years. Rightfielder Larry Walker, centerfielder Marquis Grissom and shortstop Wil Cordero are among the standouts who came up through the Expo system. Two other homegrown products, rookie first baseman-outfielder Cliff Floyd and outfielder Rondell White, are potential stars. Catcher Darrin Fletcher, an All-Star this year, was plucked from Philadelphia for pitcher Dennis Cook in 1990. Leftfielder Moises Alou, another '94 All-Star, was swiped from Pittsburgh in a 1990 trade for pitcher Zane Smith. Closer John Wetteland was heisted from the Reds in '91. Lefthander Jeff Fassero was signed in '90 as a minor league free agent.
The Expos don't sign big-name free agents, they lose them—or deal them before they get to free agency. In the past eight years they have parted with Andre Dawson, Hubie Brooks, Mark Langston, Pascual Perez, Bryn Smith, Tim Raines, Tim Wallach, Delino DeShields and Dennis Martinez. They'll probably lose Walker to free agency after this season because he'll be asking for about $5 million a year. The Expos can't afford that, not if they want to hang on to Alou, Grissom, Fassero, reliever Mel Rojas and ace Ken Hill, all of whom are eligible for arbitration.
Although the Expos considered trading Walker, they've held on to him—partly because they're in a pennant race and partly because the impending strike has put other teams off—and are now resigned to getting only a draft choice should they lose him to free agency at the end of the season. Before the strike date was set, teams also were asking about Wetteland (who, at $2.2 million a year, is one of only five Expos making seven-figure salaries).
Expo veterans have griped about the team's refusal to keep its own stars and its failure to make major trades down the stretch. In '92 the Blue Jays acquired pitcher David Cone on Aug. 27 for a pennant drive; four days later the Expos, also in a division-title hunt, traded for pitcher Bill Krueger. Martinez, then Montreal's ace, publicly blasted the front office.
There has been no grousing this year—at least not since spring training, when Grissom called the trade of DeShields to Los Angeles for pitcher Pedro Martinez "the deal of the century...for the Dodgers." (He may have spoken too soon; through Sunday, Martinez was 9-5 with 129 strikeouts in 128 innings, while DeShields was hitting just .256.) Expo players understand the rules of playing in Montreal, baseball's 12th-smallest market, where the Expos are averaging only 23,724 fans per game, 21st in the major leagues; Malone estimates the club will lose between $5 million and $10 million this year. "We have a lot of character on this club," Malone says. "You don't find much of that anymore."
Back from the Dead
That guy playing first base for the Padres these days is Eddie Williams. The same Eddie Williams who used to be a third baseman, who first appeared in the major leagues in 1986 with Cleveland, who last played in the major leagues in 1990 with the Padres and who has played in Japan, Mexico and a beer league in San Diego during the last four years. Through Sunday he was hitting .324 with nine homers and 36 RBIs in 40 games. "I've been in the cemetery, man," says Williams, 29.
Williams's odyssey began after the 1990 season, in which he hit .329 for Las Vegas, San Diego's Triple A affiliate, and .286 in 14 games for the Padres. He took his 335 career major league at bats to Japan in 1991, then signed with the Braves in 1992 but was released after hitting .203 in 24 games with Triple A Richmond. He spent that summer playing in Mexico, then signed with the Brewers in 1993 but was released at the end of spring training.
Williams played in Mexico again last summer, but the San Diego native badly wanted to return to the Padres. "For two years I called [Padre assistant G.M.] Reggie Waller almost every day," Williams says. "I just wanted a tryout. It was like going to 7-Eleven and applying for a job, and six or seven times having to fill out an application." On the next-to-last day of the '93 season, Williams was invited to take batting practice with the Padres. He hit well but wasn't offered a minor league contract until December. By then Williams, who wasn't in good condition—"too much greasy food in Mexico," he says—had worked his way back into shape in the beer league.
This year Williams hit .352 with 20 homers in 59 games at Las Vegas, earning a call-up to the big club on June 14.
Williams says the last four years "made me want to cry. Once you get out of the majors, people don't talk to you. When I got back, people told me they liked the way I battled."
Juiced Ball Note of the Week: At the end of July six players had 92 or more RBIs: Jeff Bagwell (105), Albert Belle (98), Kirby Puckett (97), Joe Carter (95), Frank Thomas (95) and Dante Bichette (94). The only players in the last 20 years to have more than 92 RBIs at the end of July were Cincinnati's George Foster (98) in 1977 and California's Don Baylor (96) in 1979....
How bad are things in Detroit? Manager Sparky Anderson was booed loudly while making a couple of pitching changes on July 27....
The Royals reentered the race with nine straight wins through Sunday. It's their longest winning streak in the '90s, yet for some reason they've been shopping two-time All-Star closer Jeff Montgomery....
Oriole owner Peter Angelos no doubt ruffled some feathers among his fellow owners by suggesting a long-term solution to the game's economic troubles: Instead of worrying so much about a salary cap, build more ballparks like Baltimore's Camden Yards. His theory is sound, because new parks generate fan interest and revenue. But by the time Milwaukee. Montreal, Pittsburgh, Seattle and other cities with teams in financial trouble build new parks, their teams might have relocated to some other city.
Young guns such as Cordero have kept the Expos' payroll low and their win total high.
Between the Lines
Most Valuable Penmanship. The best handwriting in the American League belongs to Oriole coach Jerry Narron, who, using a cartridge pen, fills out Baltimore's lineup card in calligraphy (below). "It takes as long as it would take if I just scribbled it," says Narron, who claims to have no other artistic ability. Earlier this season an attendant in the visitors' clubhouse in Detroit told White Sox coach Terry Bevington that his lineup card was the second best in the league, to which Bevington took exception. But when the O's and the White Sox met in June, Bevington saw Narron's lineup card and tipped his hat to Narron.
Gone but Not Soon Forgotten. The amazing career of Marlin pitcher Charlie Hough, 46, ended July 26 when he was placed on the disabled list with a hip injury that will require hipreplacement surgery. There has never been a classier, more professional and less pretentious player. Hough's good-natured sense of humor will also be missed. To wit:
Hough on walking five batters in a row in one inning in 1992: "After a while I asked if I could pitch from closer in." On his fear of flying: "I'm not afraid of flying, I'm afraid of crashing." After a seagull was accidentally killed by a thrown baseball in spring training of 1982: "That's what happens when you don't wear a helmet." On whether Ranger pitchers' throwing a football as a drill made them better pitchers: "I don't know, but we're leading the league in third-down conversions." When told by a doctor that he would be able to dance two weeks after knee surgery in 1984: "That's great. I didn't know how to dance before the surgery."