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Loria gives Expos reason for optimism

Special to

March 24

Expos players wear T-shirts that read, "Why Not Us? Why Not Now," and they also come in Spanish, French and, for Hideki Irabu, Japanese.

Felipe Alou says, "I feel much better this spring, physically and psychologically."

Players openly talk about the new enthusiasm and how owner Jeff Loria has not only doubled the payroll and brought in veteran complimentary players but done lots of small things to make the players feel as if they're actually major leaguers. "I don't know if we're a wild-card team, but we can sure make a run at it," says Dustin Hermanson. "We have power, we have some star-level players, we have a bunch of pitchers for whom it's their time, we have speed. Watch. We are going to be good." Vladimir Guerrero has hit 80 homers and knocked in 240 runs the last two seasons and this spring has, according to Alou, "shown all kinds of improvement."

Third baseman Michael Barrett is a star waiting to happen. Rondell White is a terrific player. Second baseman Jose Vidro can flat-out hit, and has begun playing second base better since Alou left him at one position. Rookie center fielder Peter Bergeron is an Alou favorite, a switch-hitting rare prototypical leadoff hitter who gets on base, takes a lot of pitchers, is fundementally sound, steals bases and can play center field (what were the Dodgers thinking when they traded him?).

Hermanson and Javier Vazquez are ready to take off, Carl Pavano has prepared himself to do the same, Irabu is relaxed and throwing very well and the bullpen is deep, with a 41-save closer in Ugueth Urbina and two lefties, the underrated Steve Kline and Graeme Lloyd. But will anyone in Montreal know it? For all Loria's enthusiasm, he didn't get started until Dec. 9, and while season ticket sales are "up," they're up negligably from the 2,500 they had last season. For all Loria's attempts to reach out to the community, he has to answer "I don't know" when asked about getting a new park, and "I don't know" when asked if the team can survive in Montreal without one. Then there is their radio-TV revenue -- or lack of it. "All I want is to be 30th, not 80th," says Loria. Last year, the Expos received $1 million Canadian for their rights, about $600,000 American, in contrast to the $50-something million George Steinbrenner banks and the $6M the Orioles get just for their radio rights.

As of right now, Les Expos will not have their games on radio or television. "We don't feel that we should give our games away," says Loria, who is fighting a nationalized TV system that allowed network folks to tell the Montreal owner that they're happy putting curling on their station instead of baseball (and you thought curling had something to do with cheese doodles). The top offer for the combined TV and radio rights is $2M Canadian, which after paying all the announcers comes to less than $600,000 American, about enough to pay Mike Mordecai's salary.

"Things are different here," says Urbina, who has been the subject of ongoing rumors of a John Rocker trade. Loria has made the Expos different, but will Montreal ever change? Or, two years from now, will we be talking Northern Virginia? It's a shame, because this is an interesting, exciting, dangerous team.

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