SPORTS

Managing miracles

Felipe Alou works wonders with the low-budget Expos

JEFF BLAIR August 1 1994
SPORTS

Managing miracles

Felipe Alou works wonders with the low-budget Expos

JEFF BLAIR August 1 1994

Managing miracles

SPORTS

Felipe Alou works wonders with the low-budget Expos

Felipe Alou describes himself as a “Third World man,” which, for the small-market Montreal Expos of bigleague baseball, is a perfect fit. Calm and soft-spoken, the manager takes what the Expos’ budget allows and fashions exciting, competitive clubs. Sure, he needs a third baseman right now, but he knows there is no budget for mid-season additions. He worries about what a players’ strike might mean to his young team. And he is aware that the Expos’ tenuous financial situation could some day threaten the existence of the franchise. But complain? Not Felipe Alou. “The challenge is great,” says the man whose club had the majors’ best record at the All-Star break and is now battling the wealthy Atlanta Braves for top spot in the National League East. “But I am from the Dominican Republic and I’m used to tough circumstances, used to making do.”

Alou, 59, is a rarity in modern baseball, a career man with strong ties to his team and his city. Two of his 11 children—a two-yearold son and seven-year-old daughter—are from his marriage to Lucie Gagnon, a native of Laval, Que. “I am not just a guy who comes across the border to work, d’ya understand?” he says, his stevedore’s arms resting on the desk in his Olympic Stadium office. “I have been in this organization for 20 years.” He was also once a fine ballplayer, a

17-year major league outfielder who played to win. “I just don’t want to pass through a place without winning something,” he says. “And I don’t want to ever feel like I’m in a hopeless situation.”

This is a bittersweet year for Expos fans. The threatened strike by the Major League Baseball Players Association has cast a pall over the most exciting summer since people named Dawson, Valentine, Rogers and Cromartie owned Montreal. This is the year of outfielder Moisés Alou—the manager’s son—and of pitcher Ken Hill, catcher Darrin Fletcher, outfielder Marquis Grissom and shortstop Wil Cordero, all of them All-Stars. The Expos have energized fans throughout Quebec and around the country—good timing given that the World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays have fallen on hard times. The Expos are on target to draw two million fans, a feat they last accomplished in 1983.

The focal point of fans’ affection are the Alous. Both father and son say that Montrealers, especially francophones, have traditionally taken to Latin-American players. “I don’t know if they feel like they’re a minority here in Canada, but it explains a bit why players like [former Expo pitchers] Pascual Perez and Dennis Martinez—and myself and my father—have been so popular here,” says Moisés Alou, who has fully recovered from last year’s horrific

fractured leg and dislocated ankle. “I think they also know that my father is a good manager, that he saved this team in 1992.”

Early that season, the Expos were foundering under manager Tom Runnells and attendance had fallen to woeful lows. But Alou took over the team and led it to a second-place finish. He follows his instincts. He did not, for instance, like first baseman Frank Bolick in 1993. “Small feet,” Alou said in spring training that year, as Bolick hobbled another ball.

‘The man must be connected to the ground to play well, d’ya understand?” He is part philosopher, part teacher—and all leader. “We lost four in a row to the San Francisco Giants and people started to wonder,” says Fletcher. “But we didn’t hear it from him. He was calm, just the way you’d want the captain of a ship to be.”

Alou is not, however, a meddler. He seldom strays into the players’ dressing area. He trusts a corps of loyal coaches. He accepts the fact that, even jacked-up, the team’s payroll is a mere $20 million this year—less than half that of the Blue Jays. But he has plen-

ty of talent to work with: a young corps of position players, a deep bullpen and a starting rotation led by Hill. “This club could be a powerhouse if we can keep this group together,” Alou says. “They could win for a long, long time.” If baseball rights its economic

ship—if some form of revenue-sharing comes into effect—the Expos might be able to sign some of the Alous and Grissoms to long-term deals. If it does not, or if, after a prolonged strike, the owners give in, then the franchise will probably collapse and be sold to interests in Phoenix, Ariz., or Orlando or St. Petersburg in Florida.

But Alou has more immediate concerns. Larry Walker, the slugger from Maple Ridge, B.C., has a three-quarter-inch tear in his right rotator cuff, which has necessitated a move to first base from right field. Sean Berry plays third base as if somebody told him he was not allowed to use his hands. Starting pitcher Pedro Martinez occasionally loses his concentration. But Alou, the son of a blacksmith-carpenter, can always move this piece here, or there; push this button now, or then. “Sometimes, the way he manages is almost a spiritual thing,” says third-base coach Jerry Manuel.

Besides, tomorrow there will be batting practice. And Alou must throw BP, must take his station at first base during other pregame drills. “This is all part of my daily meal,” he says. “I like to handle the baseball. I throw the baseball to stay alive, d’ya understand? When I stop throwing BP to my players, it won’t be because of arm trouble. It will be because of old age.” And when he stops wanting to manage? Expos’ fans don’t want to think about that.

JEFF BLAIR in Montreal