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Sunday, September 8
Updated: September 9, 2:46 PM ET
 
A plan for the Expos: Make them the Orphans

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

What's going to happen to the Montreal Expos in 2003?

They're going to "rotate" their homes, playing the normal road schedule but playing their home games in various cities with designs on bringing a major-league baseball team to town.

At least, that's the story. This possibility hadn't even been discussed in the media (until Larry Stone made a brief mention in Sunday's Seattle Times), so what if I could break the news last week? I started making some phone calls, and the first person who called back was Padres owner John Moores.

"Well, you surprised me with that one," Moores replied to my query. "I'd have to think about that idea for a little while to form an opinion. But I suspect that, after the season is over, the subject of Montreal will be considered by the commissioner's office."

A few other well-placed baseball people who keep tabs on such things each acted as if they'd never heard even a whisper of such a scheme. And so I'm led to the conclusion that if anybody at 245 Park Avenue is talking about this, they're keeping it to themselves.

So much for breaking the big story ... But you know, the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. In fact, I've got it all figured out.

If Major League Baseball wants to test the waters in Washington, Portland, and Charlotte, the Expos -- actually, let's call them the "Tri-City Orphans" -- could play 27 home games in each of those cities, along with their normal road schedule. If MLB wants Las Vegas in the mix, the Orphans would play 20 games in each of those four prospective homes, along with a "Bon voyage, Expos!" game in Montreal.

Actually, whether there are three home cities or four, Montreal should still get one last game. Major League Baseball generally treats baseball fans like day-old donuts, but MLB owes the fans of Montreal. Those fans -- whether 10,000 or 50,000 show up at the Big Owe -- deserve a chance to say goodbye, not only to the current Expos but also to names from the past like Rusty Staub, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers and Bill Lee.

Playing home games in various cities would accomplish two things, both of them important.

One, it would allow Major League Baseball to gauge fan interest. In the past, standard practice has been to simply find some sucker with a billion dollars in the bank, and then let him put his new franchise wherever he liked. Well, that didn't work too well in Tampa-St. Petersburg, and it won't work so well next time, either. If you could get a good idea of how fans would respond to a major-league team beforehand, wouldn't you want to? In addition to attendance figures (which are important), MLB could also get a good look at the local TV ratings (which are at least as important).

Two, it would allow Major League Baseball to build constituencies for baseball. Right now, it's very difficult to move a team because of the political and business interests, even in places like St. Petersburg. Nobody fights nearly as hard to get a team as to keep one from leaving. However, once there's a team in place, even if only for 27 games, all of those interests will come into play in the prospective permanent homes. And while most local and state governments are currently strapped for cash, they're a lot more likely to rustle up some ballpark bucks if the voters are agitating for a new ballpark (it's just too bad that 2003 isn't an election year).

And you know, the benefits would go beyond deciding on a new home for the Expos. They're not the only basket-case franchise, and maybe more than one suitable venue for MLB would be identified. Maybe Northern Virginia and Charlotte and Portland are ready for their very own teams.

So why not do it?

  • Because the scheduling difficulties would be immense. Katy Feeney is the wizard at Major League Baseball who gets the incredibly complex task of formulating the schedule each season. And when the suggestion of a "traveling team" was mentioned to her, you could almost see her wince through the phone lines.

    "I like to say you can do anything, but everything has consequences and they're all pretty ugly," Feeney told me. "I haven't heard a thing about this, but getting 24 hours notice that it has to be done would be tough. The biggest thing is, the travel for the visiting team has to be reasonable. But it could be done."

  • Because Peter Angelos isn't going down without a fight. Granted, a team playing 27 home games 40 or 50 miles away from Camden Yards presumably isn't as offensive as a team playing 81 home games so close to Charm City. But it's still plenty offensive. So can Angelos really stop a team from moving to Washington?

    There's nothing in Major League Baseball's rules that prevent a team moving to the District of Columbia or northern Virginia. Angelos is one tough lawyer, though, and it's unlikely he'd go down without a fight.

    "You wouldn't put another team in the same market with Boston or in the same market with St. Louis or the same market with Minnesota," Angelos recently told the Associated Press. "Why then 30 miles from Camden Yards?"

    But Peter Angelos, in addition to being a lawyer, is also a businessman. And the road to a businessman's heart runs straight through his wallet. What if Major League Baseball offered Angelos, say, $10 million in 2003, and another $50 million (or more) if the Orphans eventually became the Washington Senators (or Watergates, or Beltway Insiders, or whatever).

    After all, it's likely that the Expos will be sold for upwards of $350 million, so there should be plenty of swag for everybody.

  • Because Donald Fehr is ticked off. Actually, I don't know that he really is ticked off. But everybody seems to think that Major League Baseball "won" the labor negotiations -- I'm not so sure about that, myself -- and the Players Association does have the right to reject a proposed schedule, especially one that's significantly altered at this late date. The union's primary objection, I think, is that having three (or more) "homes" would place a heavy burden on the Orphans and their families, which it would.

    On the other hand, the players, like Angelos, can probably be bought off. Not playing in Montreal will save everybody a fair chunk of change because the tax rates are lower in the States. And if that's not good enough, why not tack on an across-the-board 5 percent raise for everybody on the major-league roster? The extra revenues sure to be generated would easily pay for it.

  • Because the franchise could turn into a joke -- on the field. Playing without a real home would be tough on the players, and would likely show up in the standings. That's bad for the rest of baseball, and it's also bad for the owners who are hoping to sell the Orphans at a substantial profit. So it would behoove the owners to spend whatever it takes to keep the good players already there and acquire a quality first baseman and another starting pitcher.

  • Because it's radical. As not one, but two general managers told me, "Wow, that sounds way too creative for Major League Baseball."

    And it probably is. But maybe, just maybe, the disaster that is Montreal Expos baseball will goad the owners into being truly creative. There's a first time for everything.





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