Expos well-equipped for Caribbean

You think you have it tough packing for a trip? You could be Mike Wallace, equipment man of the Montreal Expos.

And the Viera Expos. And the San Juan Expos. And soon, who knows, maybe the soon-to-be Ho-Chunk Casino Expos.

Anything seems to go with Major League Baseball's orphans. In terms of their finances and long-term future, the Expos have been in limbo throughout Javier Vazquez's entire career, and he's only one more season away from free agency.

"This is really a joke,'' Vazquez said.

Vazquez was talking about the year-to-year existence of players whose contracts must be approved by the 29 clubs they are competing against. He wasn't speaking about the organization's latest challenge -- the longest road trip this side of the Harlem Globetrotters.

After opening the season with three-game series in Atlanta, New York and Chicago, the Expos flew to San Juan on Wednesday night. They'll open a 10-game "homestand'' on Friday against the Mets.

Before making it back to Montreal, the Expos will play four games against the Mets and three apiece against the Braves and Cincinnati Reds. Before Montreal plays its first real home game, many teams will have already played 10 home games.

With days off, that adds up to almost two weeks sleeping in their beds while the wayfarers live off room service and cable television.

"My players, like all players, ideally they'd like to be home,'' general manager Omar Minaya said. "But we're fortunate that they're hungry, too. It's a hungry team. We've got guys that want to perform well, not only for the team but for their long-term future. This team as a whole has been very willing to accept a challenge.''

Vazquez, a native of Ponce, is among the Expos who are excited about MLB's decision to switch 22 games from Montreal to San Juan.

"Being a Puerto Rican, of course I think it's great,'' Vazquez said. "I get to pitch in front of my family and my friends. It's going to be exciting. I've played there in winter ball, of course, but this will be even better. The crowd is going to be really into it. I guarantee that.''

Vazquez is one of 12 Latin Americans who play for the Expos. But only one of the others, Wil Cordero, is from Puerto Rico. The others come from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and Colombia.

Minaya is right about his players. The roster is light on chronic complainers.

The Expos proved their resiliency by bouncing back from a contraction threat to go 83-79 under manager Frank Robinson last year. Having swept Atlanta in a three-game series to start the season, they genuinely believe they can be a factor in the National League East.

"I think we're all open-minded about what we might be asked to do this year -- our roles, the travel and everything,'' said Rocky Biddle, who started for the White Sox but is being used as a closer. "We know that we all have jobs to do and we want to do those jobs.''

This includes the aforementioned Wallace. It is his job to keep the Expos supplied wherever they go, which on this trip is quite a challenge.

"You've gotta take things as they come,'' Wallace said.

There are few equipment men in sports who are as prepared and as flexible as the guy everyone calls Wally. He literally grew up at Arlington Stadium, where his mother repaired torn knees in pants worn by players like Frank Howard and Carl Yastrzemski. He worked for Joe Macko, a former minor-league slugger who has been a fixture with the Rangers' since their arrival from Washington, D.C., and eventually left to have a clubhouse to call his own.

Wallace ran the Kansas City Royals clubhouse before being lured to Florida when the Marlins were born. He celebrated alongside Jim Leyland, Kevin Brown and Moises Alou after Edgar Renteria's single won Game 7 in 1997 but was swept out when MLB approved the sale of the team from John Henry to Jeffrey Loria, who was abandoning Montreal shortly before the 2002 season.

Loria essentially brought his entire staff from Montreal to Florida, leaving only six holdovers in place when Minaya took over, while terminating dozens of staffers with the Marlins. Wallace was among those who jumped at a chance to work for the MLB-run Expos. Instead of complaining about the lack of direction, these people are happy to have jobs.

Wallace admits he's never started a season quite like this. But he and Expos executives Claude Delorme, Dan Lunetta and Denis Pere have tried to do everything possible to make players and their families comfortable.

"Everybody has put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this,'' Wallace said. "All of this stuff has been worked on since November or December. Even before it was officially announced, we'd heard the rumors and were always just-in-casing.''

Spring training was the first challenge. Because Loria had somehow weaseled approval to switch headquarters with the Expos, Montreal had to leave the two-team complex it shared with St. Louis in Jupiter, Fla., to move 110 miles north to Viera, a planned development west of Melbourne where the Marlins had trained since birth.

When spring training ended, Wallace and his assistants shipped a massive amount of supplies -- everything from baseballs and sunflower seeds to hangers and vacuum cleaners -- to San Juan.

They then went different directions. Wallace and about 6,000 pounds of equipment accompanied the team on the trip and the four others went back to Montreal to prepare the Olympic Stadium clubhouse for the Expos' eventual return.

Their work there complete, those guys flew to San Juan last Sunday. They spent the week arranging the clubhouse at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Wallace says players who have been there for winter league games will be impressed. "MLB is putting a lot of work and money into the place to make it more comfortable,'' he said.

Clothing should not be a concern for players. Among the items shipped from Viera at the end of spring training were suitcases packed especially for San Juan, where game-time temperature Friday is expected to be 81. That's a mere 49 degrees warmer than Tuesday at Wrigley Field, where the Expos lost to the Cubs in their home opener.

"We didn't want them to have to travel with all their warm-weather clothes when they didn't need them,'' Wallace said.

Just how many extra suitcases do players need for 10 days in Puerto Rico? "I wish it was only one,'' Wallace answered.

MLB has agreed to pay for family members of players to travel to Puerto Rico during the series. That will add to the load on the night of April 20, when the Expos finally wind their way to Canada.

Awaiting them is a trip through customs where -- horror of horrors -- players will have to carry their own bags. Even if there are five or six of them.

They'll have to do this all again about a month later. From May 26 through, June 19, the Expos are scheduled for a 22-game ride through Florida, Philadelphia, San Juan, Seattle, Oakland and Pittsburgh.

The only thing that could make any of this easier is a winning season. Like the line at customs, that's one thing that's out of the planners' hands.

"I don't think we should be thinking that long term or too much about the future,'' Minaya said. "We need to be prepared to play that day's game every day. I think the players and the coaching staff have been able to focus on the day at hand, starting last year with the threat of contraction. The players have responded well, which is encouraging.''

The Expos' motto: Play hard, pack light.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.