Expos not quite out of limbo

Originally Published: September 29, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

So now those Montreal Expos finally have a forwarding address. What a concept.

But we've been asking that central question -- where? -- for so long now, it's easy to overlook one pesky little problem:

There are still a whole mess of questions that haven't been answered about the Expos' move to Washington. So let's take a look at some of them:

1. HOW LONG WILL MLB CONTINUE TO OWN THE TEAM?

We know how thrilled baseball's other 29 owners have been to foot the bills for this franchise the past three years. So if it were up to them, they would sell this team by Columbus Day. But it's not that simple.

Jose Vidro
One near certainty, Jose Vidro will be the team's leader next season.

We surveyed several people familiar with team sales in general and this situation in particular. They estimated that MLB could be stuck with this club anywhere from another six months to (better grab the smelling salts) two years.

The best-case scenario would work like this:

  • There are no snags in getting the D.C. city council and (lest we forget) Congress to approve legislation financing the new ballpark and the renovation of RFK Stadium.

  • There are no hang-ups in what looks like an owner-friendly stadium lease.

  • Former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria's limited partners, who have filed a racketeering suit against him, don't grind the process to a halt by getting a federal judge to issue an injunction blocking the move. Or the arbitrator in the case rules against them, in a verdict expected in a month or so. Or someone (i.e., Loria or MLB) reaches some kind of settlement deal with them.

  • Lots of interested, deep-pocketed owners step forward, look over the stadium deal, size up the potential market and decide everything looks just swell.

  • MLB then picks an owner by the end of the year. The other owners approve that choice. It takes another two to three months to close on the sale and take possession. And if that's how it goes, you're looking at a new owner taking control around opening day, or maybe in late spring training.

    So at best, MLB will run this franchise all winter. On the other hand, the worst-case scenario is:

    None of the above happens. In which case, this drags on a year or more.

    Not likely. But not impossible. Remember, MLB was only going to run this outfit in Montreal for a year, too.

    2. IF MLB OWNS THE TEAM ALL WINTER, WILL THERE BE A SMOOTH TRANSITION?

    If you were going to design a blueprint for bringing a team to a new city, this would be about the last scenario you would lay out:

  • Have the whole operation directed and staffed by temporary employees with little or no stake in having the franchise succeed three, 10 and 50 years down the line.

  • Try to pull off the whole process in just six months -- as opposed to the three years most recent expansion teams had.

  • And, oh by the way, try to make a last-place team presentable on the field, even though the general manager just left and the scouting operation gives new meaning to the word "understaffed."

    But that's how MLB will be forced to pull this off. In way too little time. And probably with way too few employees. Pretty scary.

    "A lot of people have been focusing on how little time they have to renovate RFK," said one long-time sports executive who has overseen a franchise move in another sport. "What I would worry about is the other stuff, as well.

    "There's not one person working on selling a baseball ticket right now. There's not one person working on selling a suite, or a marketing deal, or a sponsorship. And there's already too little time to do all of that right. They're going to need people who know what they're doing, know how to multi-task and know how to get a lot of things done in a short period of time. That's for sure.

    "If I were directing this, this would be my approach: In the first season of your franchise, you don't want to just sell a season ticket for the first season. You want to look long-term and maximize the opportunity -- with TV, radio, sponsors and fans -- with a six-month window to do that. I don't know if, under this set-up, they'll possibly be able to do all that very well."

    Given this messy situation, another long-time sports executive suggests a different approach.

    "I'd say: They should just look at the first year as a grand little fun experiment," he said, "They shouldn't even worry about the first year and hope everyone enjoys the literal throwback atmosphere of RFK.

    "I'd advise them to just go have fun for a year and then start building this up. I think these people would be wise to point to their first year in the new stadium (which would be 2007 or 2008) as their true first year. I suggest they decree for themselves a nice, long honeymoon."

    3. WHAT WILL THEY CALL THE TEAM?

    Well, the mayor already has announced he doesn't want the name to be "Senators." So that opens the door for all kinds of cool possibilities.

    The next-most popular names that have been submitted to the official web site of the Washington Baseball Club (baseballindc.com) have been the Grays (after the old Homestead Grays of the Negro League) and the Monuments (after some kind of memorial structure that was apparently erected somewhere nearby).

    But if they really want to get creative, think of the names they could trot out:

    RFK
    The Nationals will play their first season at RFK Stadium.

    The Washington Cannot Tell A Lies.
    The Washington Circles.
    The Washington Ex Post Factos.
    The Washington Committeemen.
    The Washington Lee Arthur Smithsonians.
    The Washington Cherry Blossoms.
    The Washington Tax Cutters.
    The Washington Diamond Dept.
    The Washington Diamond Double Talkers.

    Or there are these, proposed by ESPN research wizzes Erik Barone, Dan Kramer and Mark Simon:

    The Washington Red Tape.
    The Washington Rhetoric.
    The DC Lobbyists.
    The Capital Punishment.
    The Washington Georges,

    The possibilities are, of course, truly endless. If you have a suggestion, send it to our SportsNation department.

    4. WHO WILL WIND UP OWNING THE TEAM?

    Bud Selig has been telling his fellow owners not to sweat those 80 or 90 million bucks MLB has lost running this team so far -- because he expects this club to sell (including stadium) for a cool $400 million.

    If you're paying attention, you know that's more than double the recent selling prices for the Angels or for Bud's own team, the Brewers. So that translates into one thing:

    Auction.

    Baseball expects eight to 10 groups to come forward and kick off some serious bidding. Some already have been identified.

    The Washington Post has reported that the three groups known to have stepped forward are fronted by Washington businessman Jeff Zients, New York real estate investor Mark Broxmeyer and Memphis investment banker Brian Saulsberry.

    Among other names who have been linked to various bids: Cal Ripken Jr., former Braves president Stan Kasten, former Cardinals catcher Tom Pagnozzi and current Expos manager Frank Robinson.

    So clearly, these groups won't lack for money. And they won't lack for recognizable baseball names. All they need now is a half-billion bucks to win the bid and pay some players, and the rest should be more fun than inauguration day.

    5. WHO WILL THE GENERAL MANAGER BE?

    With GM Omar Minaya happily dashing off to run the Mets, no one is quite sure what happens to the Expos' baseball-operations department. But since the folks in Washington are in favor of actually having some players show up next spring, this is not a minor area of concern.

    Assistant GM Tony Siegle would no doubt be willing and able to keep the ship afloat. But given what a bare-bones operation MLB has forced Minaya and Siegle to run, baseball will almost certainly bring in a new interim GM.

    There are numerous candidates: Bob Watson and Sandy Alderson are former GMs who currently work for MLB. Robinson was once the assistant GM of the Orioles. Other former GMs who might be interested could include Kevin Malone, Dan Duquette, Syd Thrift, Fred Claire and Ron Schueler.

    But whoever runs this show, this is a critical offseason for a team that has watched way too many Vladimir Guerreros, Javier Vazquezes and Orlando Cabreras sprint out the door.

    MLB is expected to increase the payroll somewhat. But you can bet it won't be into Yankees territory. Or even Orioles territory. And there is just about a zero chance of this team being allowed to sign a megabuck free agent, a la Pedro Martinez or Carlos Beltran, before any new owner can sign off on the contract.

    So there's no reason to think this team can, or will, be making any major launch upward in the standings in Year One. But what the heck. It should still be more entertaining than watching a good filibuster.

    6. WILL THIS PAVE THE WAY FOR FUTURE FRANCHISE MOVES?

    Now that this team has finally moved, you can bet those cities that once lined up to try to lure the Expos will turn their attention to those other clubs that are a threat to use the "M" word at some point.

    The A's, Twins and Devil Rays have been the teams most prominently conjectured about. But thanks to the precedents set by this move, they could be very limited in their choices of destination, even if the commissioner gives them the go-ahead to shop around.

    Now that the commish has guaranteed to make up any loss in revenues or franchise value to the Orioles because of this move, the odds of a team moving to New Jersey, San Jose or Portland any time soon become much longer.

    How much would Selig have to guarantee the Yankees and Mets to allow a team to move into North Jersey? How much would he have to guarantee the Giants to pave the way for an A's trip to San Jose? How much would it be worth to him in guarantees to the Mariners for allowing a team into Portland?

    "The precedent is now in place," said one longtime sports executive. "So if they'll do it for one team, they have to do it for everyone. This doesn't make it impossible (to move a team into another club's neighborhood). It just makes it really expensive."

    The one metropolis that probably is helped most by this is Las Vegas -- just because it's the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country that wouldn't be considered a threat to some other team's territory. Vegas, obviously, has other issues. But would it be a shock to see the A's playing there in 10 years? No way.

    7. WILL THE EXPOS BRING YOUPPI TO WASHINGTON?

    There's sadness in all goodbyes. Even this one. Baseball in Montreal may never have been confused with baseball in New England. But it had its own unique ambiance. And you would like to think the new D.C. edition of the franchise will find a way to honor its past.

    The Expos, for example, were a team that always did everything in two languages -- English and French. Former executive Gene Kirby used to joke that the reason it took the pre-dome grounds crew so long to roll out the tarp is that it had to do it in both languages.

    Well, now there may be no reason to recite every event in English and French. But in a cosmopolitan town like Washington, there's no reason to stop using two languages. We suggest a guest language of the day. And someone from the local embassy could stop by and make all p.a. announcements in the language du jour. We hope someone thinks about that. Hasta manana.

    And it saddens us to think there will never be another mascot quite like the lovable, inexplicable Youppi! The unique wit of the Youppster would never quite translate in D.C. on a daily basis. But the thought of Youppi roaming the streets of Quebec, jobless and teamless, is one we shouldn't tolerate as the compassionate nation we are.

    So once a homestand, we'd like to see Youppi Night. Let the Youp Man slide on top of the dugout, line up at the smoked-meat sandwich stand (if he can find one), ride around on his Youpmobile and do his inimitable thing.

    No one ever youpped like Youppi. So move the team, but honor its legends. The Hawk. The Kid. And the mascot. They all deserve a place in our minds, our hearts and (yes) our nation's capital.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    Jayson Stark | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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