How Jeffrey Loria Destroyed the Montreal Expos/Washington NationalsOctober 21, 2009
The Montreal Expos were the best team in the National League back in 1994. Their roster was the perfect mix of up-and-coming youngsters and experienced veterans.
Cliff Floyd, Mike Lansing, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Larry Walker, Rondell White, Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill, John Wetteland, and Darrin Fletcher were just some of the names dotting the Expos' major league roster.
The Expos got off to a fast start and when the player's strike began on Aug. 12th, the Expos had the best record in all of baseball at 74-40 and were on pace to win 106 games.
They averaged almost 24,000 fans per game and things looked bright for both the franchise and the city.
A year later, the Expos were slowly going the way of the dinosaur.
The majority of their star players were gone in a cost-cutting tsunami that slashed more than a quarter of the team's payroll. They won 31 games less (based on full seasons in 1994 and 1995) and failed to make the playoffs.
And their fans noticed. Attendance dropped a full 10,000 per game.
Baseball in Montreal was over. Oh sure, they played on for another decade, but neither the owners, or the fans, took it very seriously.
In the team's 35 year history in Montreal, the Expos failed to draw one million fans nine times.
Seven of those nine seasons occurred after 1994.
So who's to blame? Several people; some greedy, some stupid, and some both.
Baseball had a rich and storied history in Montreal. Except for a few years after World War I, Montreal had a professional baseball team from 1897 through 1960, when the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles made the traveling distance between the cities unworkable.
Montreal was chosen as one of the National League's two new baseball cities in late 1967. Though many owners were uncomfortable with Montreal's ability to support a major league franchise, the Dodgers' Walter O'Malley, a friend of the city, supported their bid and ultimately Montreal was awarded their franchise.
Charles Bronfman, majority owner of the Seagram's empire, was named as the franchise's first owner. Bronfman, Canada's fifth richest man, was easily able to absorb the losses that came with fielding a very bad team over a very long period of time.
The Expos played their first eight seasons at Jarry Park, a 28,000 seat bare-bones stadium that was a converted tennis facility. The team averaged almost 14,000 fans per game during their time at Jarry Park, right at the National League average for that era.
The move into Olympic Stadium, though it didn't significantly increase attendance, was a turning point for the team. Prior to the move, the Expos never had a winning record, but from 1979 through 1994, the Expos had just three losing seasons.
In their last 10 years in Montreal, the Expos had a winning record just three times.
Charles Bronfman hated Olympic Stadium. The facility, built for the 1976 Olympics, was cold and cavernous and most of the new technologies created for the stadium never worked properly.
Bronfman lobbied the city for a new, baseball only facility but to no avail. Citing the failed economics of professional baseball at the time (the Expos total revenue was less than what the Yankees received just for their broadcast rights) Bronfman put the team up for sale.
The Expos were sold to a group of 14 investors in 1991.
After the lost season of 1994, and with the writing on the wall, the owners instructed general manager Kevin Malone to strip the team of its well salaried stars.
The team didn't offer salary arbitration to any of them, which meant that while the players would not return (and the team was rid of their salaries), neither would the team receive draft picks as compensation for losing the players.
Larry Walker, perhaps the team's biggest star, told ESPN.com that he would have been happy to take a pay cut to stay in Montreal, but the Expos never contacted him after the season ended.
Not only was the major league roster being decimated, but the minor league system was not being replenished either.
Disaster was just around the corner.
Jeffrey Loria had wanted to own a baseball team for quite some time. In his early 50's, the native New Yorker had made his fortune in the art world.
In 1989, he bought the Oklahoma City 89'ers, a "AAA" minor league team, but sold them four years later to pursue a major league franchise. He tried, but failed, to buy the Baltimore Orioles in 1994, losing out to current owner Peter Angelos.
Five years later, in 1999, Loria was able to buy a minority interest in the Expos for $50 million and became the team's managing general partner.
Over the next couple of years, Loria bought out the majority of the general partners, eventually owning 92 percent of the Expos.
Disaster had landed at the doorstep of the Montreal Expos. It's name was Jeffrey Loria.
In his first speech as owner of the Expos, Loria demanded a new stadium for his team. He bluntly said of Olympic Stadium, "We cannot and will not stay there."
The city made it very clear at the time that they would not build a new facility when millions were still owed on the existing stadium.
Later, though, the city began to warm to the idea of a new stadium and LaBatt Park was designed and was ready to be built using a combination of public and private financing. The facility was to be ready for the 2002 season.
However, Loria balked and demanded that the city pay a higher percentage of the building costs.
The city, weary of dealing with Loria, cancelled the project.
In 2000, Loria's demand for increased broadcast rights' fees was so great that the team could not find any English-speaking radio or television stations to carry their games.
Manager Felipe Alou, who had been with the organization for 27 years, was one of the most beloved of Expos. He had recently been offered a hefty raise to leave Montreal and manage the Los Angeles Dodgers. He refused, citing loyalty to the Expos as his reason.
A short time later, Loria fired him and replaced him with friend Jeff Torborg.
Now, this is where it gets confusing.
Loria wanted to buy the Florida Marlins, which was then owned by John Henry, who wanted to buy the Boston Red Sox.
With a little sleight-of-hand, a lot of money, and a few winks from Major League Baseball, Henry bought the Red Sox, Loria bought the Marlins, and the other 29 owners bought the Montreal Expos for $120 million.
Did you follow that?
Loria brought from Montreal to Miami the team's computers, all the equipment that didn't have an Expos logo (and a few that did), office equipment, all of the team's scouting reports, and other proprietary information.
But he didn't stop there.
Loria also took the team manager and the entire coaching staff.
What he left behind was a team headed for contraction.
A month earlier, Major League Baseball had voted 28-2 to contract both the Expos and the Minnesota Twins.
The team, stripped of everything but a few players and their uniforms, was headed into oblivion until the governing body of the Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis sued Major League Baseball for breach of contract.
The Expos were given a reprieve.
Major League Baseball authorized the team to play in Montreal in 2002 but they were very clear that the league would appeal the judges ruling and fully anticipated that contraction would indeed occur sometime after the season.
And then Major League Baseball realized that they didn't have either a coaching staff or any front office personnel for the Expos.
Major League Baseball chose baseball's chief disciplinarian, Frank Robinson, to be the team's manager. The Angels' vice-president Tony Taveres was named the Expos president, and Mets' assistant general manager Omar Minaya was named the team's general manager.
Later that season, Major League Baseball agreed not to contract the Expos and Twins.
For more than a year, Bud Selig told the people of Montreal that they had no interest in keeping baseball in their city. The people stopped coming, and they stopped caring.
But instead of moving the team to a new city, and giving the team their future back, Bud Selig decided that the team would play a quarter of their home games in Puerto Rico.
The additional attendance was negligible.
New general manager Omar Minaya treated the team as though they had no future. During this period of uncertainty, Minaya traded away minor leaguers (and future stars) Jason Bay, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, and Cliff Young for basically nothing.
The Expos' players realized there was no hope for baseball in Montreal late in 2002.
In spite of all the trades and unusual roster moves, the Expos were actually in the pennant race. The players were tired and looking forward to the traditional roster expansions that occur Sept. 1st, when teams call up their best minor leaguers and give them some major league experience.
One small problem, though. Major League Baseball turned down GM Omar Minaya's request to bring up the young players.
Too much money, they said.
The Expos, realizing they had no help coming, lost badly in that final month and were an afterthought in the National League East.
And they were an afterthought again in 2003. And 2004.
Things were so bad in that final year in Montreal that I'm surprised they found enough working trucks to haul everything down to Washington in time for the start of the 2005 season.
Is it no wonder, then, that the team's first five seasons in Washington have been bumpy?
It's easy to say that if the Nationals would only sign a few more big-name free agents, the team would be good enough to be competitive every night.
It's been difficult to watch, but the team needed to get young, get deep, and get a minor league system that can produce major league players.
It won't take too many more moves before the Nationals will be ready to contend.
I know I'm in the minority, but I know the Nationals are just a year or two away from being the feel-good story of the year.