SPORTS

The Expos face a season without stars

HAL QUINN March 16 1987
SPORTS

The Expos face a season without stars

HAL QUINN March 16 1987

The Expos face a season without stars

SPORTS

On Interstate 95 North, it is only a 2½-hour drive from West Palm Beach, Fla., to the exclusive residential community of Heathrow. But the Montreal Expos at their spring training camp in West Palm and free agent Tim Raines at his new home at Heathrow are separated by more than time and distance. Like other players and other teams, they are divided by the most heated dispute between majorleague baseball owners and their employees since the 1981 players’ strike. Said Expos general manager Murray Cook: “There are real problems, and the free agency of our players Raines and Andre Dawson is only one of them.”

On the surface, the summer game appears as pastoral and unfettered as ever. Attendance was at record levels last season, and tourists last week again flocked to training camps in Arizona and Florida. But the sunsplashed surface was misleading. Just nine of the game’s 26 teams made a profit or broke even in 1985. The major U.S. TV networks carrying the games—NBC and ABC—are losing money on the broadcasts and now want to lower their payments on the last half of their six-year,

$1.1-billion contracts.

Meanwhile, the owners face two grievances by the players’ association, which claims that they are acting in collusion to restrict free agents.

And at week’s end the American League’s top pitcher in 1986, Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox, walked out of camp demanding $1.3 million for the season. The team had offered $800,000. Said Expos chief executive officer John McHale: “Baseball is a funny business, and it’s becoming more of a business and less of a pleasure.”

As the Expos worked out between cloudbursts last week, Raines tossed a

ball around with a group of highschool players at a field five kilometres from his home. The man who led the National League in hitting last season with a .334 average is unemployed. Under the collective bargaining agreement, the Expos cannot negotiate with Raines until May 1, almost a

month into the season. Said the allstar left fielder: “I had a feeling it would be like this, but I didn’t think I’d be sitting at home in March. The owners are trying to force free agents to return to their old teams, which is against the rules. I don’t think I’ll play again in a Montreal uniform.”

In Raines’s case—and those of such other frontline free agents as New

York Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry— the immediate problem is money. But the larger issue is whether freedom is still a part of free agency. Said Raines: “I don’t think there is freedom. Three years ago guys were signed long before spring training. Now it seems we are penalized for becoming free agents.”

When the system came into effect in 1976, the owners could not spend enough. Superstars—and many mediocre players—became instant millionaires. But the frenzy ended last year when the sole topquality free agent, Detroit outfielder Kirk Gibson, did not receive a single offer.

This year the most talented group of free agents ever is receiving the same treatment. All have spurned their team’s contract offers— Raines rejected an Expos contract of $4.8 million for three years. In fact, former Expo outfielder Dawson last week signed with the Chicago Cubs for a guaranteed $500,000half the $l-million salary Montreal had offered. Said Raines, who earned $1.5 million last season: “I had my best year, and the Expos offered a smaller raise than I had received before. We’re entertainers. Nobody complains about what Lionel Richie makes from a concert, but we are called greedy. The owners are trying to buy a Rolls-Royce for the price of a Mercedes.” At week’s end Raines left Florida to talk with four teams—the Houston As-

tros, California Angels, Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres.

The players’ union claims that the owners are illegally acting together to hold salaries down and restrict the movement of free agents. The owners claim that they are simply exercising fiscal responsibility and that the free agents misjudged the market. Said Cook: “If the pre-1985 situation contin-

ued, it would have been disastrous. The owners had done some crazy, crazy things, and they finally realized it.”

As the free agents waited last week, their former teammates adjusted to their absence. Expos third baseman Tim Wallach suddenly found himself, at 29, cast in a leadership role.

Said Wallach: “There are a lot of young guys on this team, and if I’m negative, it’ll have an effect. I won’t give up until we’re out of the pennant race.”

With Raines and Dawson, the team leader in home runs and runs batted in, the Expos finished 29 Vz games behind the New York Mets, the division, league and eventual World Series champions. Said Expos manager Buck Rodgers, preparing his team for opening day on April 6: “You do feel helpless.

But there’s nothing you can do about it.”

When the exhibition season ends, the Expos will play 10 road games before returning to Montreal. The delay will allow time for installation of the retractable roof—promised for the 1976 Olympic Games—on Olympic Stadium.

And they hope to arrive with a healthy Hubie Brooks and Mike Fitzgerald. Shortstop Brooks, 30, was leading the

league in batting when he injured his left thumb last Aug. 1. He missed the rest of the season following surgery to reattach a ligament. Said Brooks, after a painless batting session last week: “Without Tim and Andre, we know that we’re going to have to put

some numbers up.” Fitzgerald, 26, was lost to the Expos the same day Brooks was injured. One of the game’s best defensive catchers, Fitzgerald was hitting .282 when he fractured his right index finger. The injury required immediate surgery and a second operation to remove a calcium deposit last month. But the second operation forced the Expos to seek catcher insurance. Last Feb. 3 the team sent Expos ace relief pitcher Jeff Reardon— 35 saves in 1986—to Minnesota in return for Twins left-handed starter Neal Heaton, 27, and catcher Jeff Reed, 24.

Last year, despite a roster that included Raines, Dawson and Reardon, the Expos lost more than $5 million, attracting slightly more than 1.1 million spectators. The team heading back to Montreal for the home opener on April 20 will be without its main attractions. Said McHale: “I predicted in 1976 that free agency would adversely affect baseball in Canada. When a player reaches a certain level of income and notoriety and wants to go elsewhere to capitalize on it, that puts Canadian clubs at a disadvantage.”

The Blue Jays have yet to lose a key player to free agency. But their recent million-dollar-plus signings of outfielders George Bell and Jesse Barfield, and the brief walkout last week of reliever Tom Henke, are portents of the future to McHale. “Once a player has one good year, there’s a problem with him from that point on,” said McHale, who was with the Expos when they were formed in 1968. “I don’t dispute Tim’s or Andre’s right to become free agents. I just wonder if it’s in their best interests.”

As the season approaches, baseball interest in Montreal remains focused on the absent Expos. Said Wallach: “We were supposed to be the team of the 1980s, and that didn’t work out. I just don’t know if the fans in Montreal are so disappointed that they’ve given up.” The players have not, but as they limbered up last week they also knew that without Raines and Dawson, the 1987 season promises to be a very long one indeed.

HAL QUINN in West Palm Beach