The Montreal Expos' game-winning rally last Saturday began in
the seventh inning, when the leadoff batter, who had spent four
seasons in Triple A, singled and the man who was signed from an
independent Class A team doubled him home. After the cleanup
hitter, an erstwhile fifth outfielder with the New York Mets,
bounced to short for the second out, the slugger who wasn't good
enough to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers crushed his 15th
homer of the season. The home run helped the starter, a waiver
pickup last July who worked his way into the rotation in spring
training, improve his record to 8-2. The starter, however, got
help from the closer, who began 1997 without a save in his pro
career. To preserve the 4-3 win the closer whiffed Florida
Marlins star Gary Sheffield, whose $6.1 million salary is one
third of Montreal's payroll.
These Expos are more than the sum of their exceedingly funky
parts: Everyman leadoff hitter (outfielder F.P. Santangelo), the
refugee from the A ball Miami Miracle (second baseman Mike
Lansing), the rejuvenated cleanup man (first baseman David
Segui), the slugger (leftfielder Henry Rodriguez), the starter
(righthander Jeff Juden) and the novice closer (righthander
Ugueth Urbina). The Expos, as resilient as they are frugal, have
scouted, cherry-picked, traded for and discovered talent almost
everywhere. As general manager Jim Beattie says, "We place
Through Sunday this motley crew had won 12 of its last 15 games
and had the fourth-best record (41-31) in the National League.
The tear also brought Montreal to within two games of Florida
and to within 5 1/2 of the Atlanta Braves, who were leading the
National League East. Montreal began last week by taking two of
three from the Baltimore Orioles, the club with the best record
in the majors, and became the first visiting team to win a
series at Camden Yards this year. The Expos won the final game
1-0 when lefthander Carlos Perez pitched his third shutout and
bad-field-seldom-hit reserve Sherman Obando homered. When
Santangelo reached first on an infield hit in the eighth inning,
American League umpire Dale Ford approached him and said,
"You're not filthy dirty yet."
Said Santangelo, "Jimmy Key's pitching. I'm lucky to be on first."
"Well, I just want to tell you," Ford added, "that I haven't
seen a team play harder than you guys in a long time."
Santangelo was still beaming about the conversation three days
later. "That was awesome," said Santangelo, who has started at
three positions and batted in five spots in the order. "It's not
like you have to worry about failing here because we're not
supposed to win. We're not supposed to be in playoff contention.
We're not supposed to be good. We just go out and play, and I
guess we keep surprising people. We also have Felipe."
Felipe is manager Felipe Alou, the Sisyphus for the 1990s who
patiently pushes the boulder back up the hill each time the
gravity of Expos economics sends it tumbling to the bottom.
After '94, when Montreal had the best prestrike record in
baseball, it lost to free agency or traded away Larry Walker,
Marquis Grissom, Ken Hill and John Wetteland--the cleanup
hitter, the leadoff man, the ace and the closer, respectively.
After '96 the Expos likewise lost Moises Alou, Jeff Fassero and
Mel Rojas--the cleanup hitter, the ace and the closer.
Nonetheless, since Alou took over as manager on May 22, 1992,
Montreal has the third-best record in baseball, behind the
Braves and the Cleveland Indians. The Expos win because they
have what Alou calls a program. When asked to describe that
program, he reached for a piece of paper on his desk and drew a
small circle, then a much larger circle around it. "When I
walked into this office the first day and opened this drawer,"
he says, "there were a lot of checks in here. Fines. A lot of
them had Delino DeShields's signature on them. I called in
DeShields [now with the St. Louis Cardinals] and told him to
take his money back. I said we were going to make it easier
around here by widening the circle. I don't believe you can
manage in that inside circle. It's like if you put live bait in
a bucket that's too small, they'll jump out. You put them in a
bigger bucket, they're comfortable. That's why the circle had to
That approach allows Alou to find a place for a slow-track minor
leaguer like Santangelo or to remember that Juden (a first-round
pick by the Houston Astros) had been a dependable starter
against the team Alou managed in Class A in 1990 or to nurture
any of the other finds Beattie and his predecessors have turned
up with startling regularity.
A big myth is that Montreal keeps producing homegrown talent,
but the farm system went to seed after Expos scouting director
Gary Hughes left in '91 for a similar position with the Marlins.
While the Expos' roster has eight players who came through their
system, Montreal is the only team in the majors not to have one
of its draftees make its club since '93.
The Expos' $18 million payroll is the third-lowest in baseball,
behind the Pittsburgh Pirates' and the Detroit Tigers', but
Beattie says that his minor league operations' budget of less
than $10 million is among the lowest in the majors. The era of
made-in-Montreal stars like Walker and Grissom and Wilfredo
Cordero might as well be the Paleozoic for all its relevance now.
The other myth is that Montreal's win-per-dollar-spent ratio
makes it baseball's best-run organization, an absurd conceit,
considering that every team except Florida, which entered the
league in '93, has made the postseason since the Expos' only
appearance, in '81. Besides, if Montreal were really Shangri La
on the St. Lawrence, players wouldn't be counting the days until
parole. Example: For 1997 Beattie instituted a policy of split
contracts--one major league salary, a lower figure if the player
was sent to the minor leagues--for anyone not eligible for
arbitration, which shortstop Mark Grudzielanek, who hit .306 and
made the All-Star team last year in his first full season,
rightfully took as an insult. "They have no feelings for the
players, so we don't feel for them," Grudzielanek says. "When
it's our chance to return the favor, we definitely will."
"Sometimes guys joke that it's almost like Major League--the
front office is hoping you lose," says Segui, who was rebuffed
in his effort to sign a long-term deal.
General partner Claude Brochu put the city of Montreal on the
clock last Friday when he announced that the Expos needed a
commitment for a $250 million downtown stadium within a year or
the team would be sold and moved. He challenged Montrealers to
raise $70 million of that total by buying personal seat
licenses. Considering that the Expos sell only 7,000 season
tickets, charging fans for the privilege of purchasing one
seemed audacious. We'll see. In Montreal small miracles happen
not only inside the lines but also inside the large circle.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Thanks to Alou, players who have struggled, like Santangelo (sliding home safely), wind up starring for the Expos. [F.P. Santangelo and Mark Parent in game]