In his heart, Montreal general manager Kevin Malone believes the Expos were the best team in baseball last year. Montreal would've maintained its lead over the Atlanta Braves, he is sure, and swept through the playoffs and World Series and earned riches and rings and revitalized the entire organization.
But the strike destroyed all that -- the Expos claim losses of $20 million and, depending on how the next labor agreement is drawn up, could lose three of their best players. If there is restricted free agency, center fielder Marquis Grissom and pitcher Ken Hill are expected to sign in Florida, and ace reliever John Wetteland will go to the Boston Red Sox. Their contracts include no-trade clauses, and Malone says the Expos can't match the offers.
No wonder that Malone is a little disgusted with the strike and just about everyone involved, players and owners. This week, Malone had lots to say and little of it was complimentary.
On Orioles owner Peter Angelos and his refusal to use replacement players: "I think he's digging himself a big ditch. He might look good now, but in baseball, hard feelings last a long time. It's going to hurt him.
"I think this guy is out of line. . . . He says he's fan-conscious, but if he were so fan-conscious, I guess he wouldn't raise ticket prices, either. I think he's on his own agenda."
There was more.
"He has a lot more insight into his situation than I do, but I don't know, I think a lot of it is grandstanding. I think a lot of it is meant to [show he's] carrying the flag and to promote himself. It's not helping us get a settlement. The players see what he's doing and think that [the owners] have problems."
Angelos, obviously annoyed at Malone's comments, said: "While this gentleman may quibble with what I say, he should be willing to accept Sparky Anderson's evaluation of the situation and the use of replacement players. I'll leave it at that."
Malone mentioned Donald Fehr, with whom he's traded words in the past: "Fehr's accomplished one thing no one has ever done -- he's united the owners."
X-ing out the O's?
If the strike lingers and replacement players evolve from a nationwide punch line into actual participants in the regular season, Major League Baseball will have to address the absence of the Orioles. Other than vague threats toward Angelos and the organization, Major League Baseball hasn't said much about how it will compel the Orioles to play. Here are some possibilities (and granted, each likely would begin a dozen rounds of litigation):
* Baseball could simply bypass its Angelos problem and form a replacement team. This could lead to the first replacement player expansion draft, whereby each club will have to expose one replacement -- their worst, although that could lead to hours of debate. Instead of playing at Camden Yards, the cast-off castoffs will gather in some minor-league stadium in Florida under some assumed name and simulate heated AL East rivalries against the Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees. In this way, other AL clubs could play out their schedules.
* Baseball could force the Orioles to forfeit each game they don't play. Seems like an easy option, but it would involve ticket refunds for Orioles road games -- not likely.
* Baseball could attempt a takeover of the Orioles. Angelos has already said this isn't going to happen, and given all of the other problems in the game, this would be a battle so bloody -- the national media would lionize Angelos, ostracize Major League Baseball -- that Bud Selig, Gene Budig, et al, wouldn't want to try.
P.S. from Malone
Malone on other clubs that attempted to raid the Expos' roster after the owners implemented the salary cap and restricted free agency: "It did annoy me because it was the only way we could be beat. I'm annoyed, because to me it was unfair. Implementation was unfair to the Expos . . . because the playing field wasn't level. We couldn't compete [financially]. We were like sitting ducks. The only way they could beat us was financially. All those clubs better get their shots in now, because once we're at least in the ballpark financially, nothing can keep us [from winning]. Right now, it's unfortunate that we don't have the money and finances to compete."
Statistical food for thought
Some numbers to chew on as you ponder the timeless question of whether Phillies replacement player Jeff Stone could possibly be a worse outfielder now than when he played with the Orioles:
* Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn had an on-base percentage of .600 leading off innings in 1994.
* Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro batted .422 in day games, best in baseball. (He hit .276 in night games).
* The majors' best pitcher with two strikes was Seattle's Bill Risley; opponents hit just .118 in that situation against him (12-for-102).
* When ahead in the count, Houston's Jeff Bagwell batted .506.
* The toughest pitcher with runners on base was Roger Clemens, who allowed just 42 hits in 234 at-bats by his opponents, a .179 average.
* The Astros' newly acquired outfielder Derek Bell, who hit .311 for San Diego last year, could challenge for the NL batting title now that he's on artificial turf. Bell averaged 3.24 ground balls for every fly ball; the major-league average was 1.33.
P.P.S. from Malone
Malone on the exorbitant free-agent spendings in December, when Seattle made outfielder Jay Buhner a $5 million player, when the St. Louis Cardinals gave injury-prone left-hander Danny Jackson a three-year contract worth $11 million, and the Texas Rangers signed journeyman starter Kevin Gross to a two-year, $6 million contract: "I was embarrassed for the industry. We had been discussing our economic woes for months, and then we send a mixed message to the fans. . . . And the timing of it. Everybody is losing millions of dollars, and here we are on strike, and there still [are signings]. If I was a fan who was reading all that propaganda, I would be upset."
The Expos' GM then spoke on behalf of the fans: "Basically, what we're saying about the fans is we don't care. All we care about is splitting the money 50-50, and that we know they're going to come back. All everyone is interested in is protecting their own interests. Who's protecting the interests of the fans? The owners are grouped together and the players have a union. Maybe it's time the fans get together a union."
Goodwin's rave reviews
One NL scouting director raves about Orioles minor-leaguer Curtis Goodwin, who will be given a chance to be the Opening Day center fielder and leadoff man by manager Phil Regan.
"He's an exciting player," the scout said. "He still needs a little seasoning with his bat, but you can see the potential. To maximize his talent, he'll need to handle the bat a little better. Learn how to bunt more, and so on. If he does that, I think he'll be a Brett Butler-type of player."
Still a Rocky Mountain high
The strike means nothing to Coloradans, who embrace everything about the Rockies, including their replacement players. The first two exhibition games in Coors Field the weekend before the regular season sold out in two hours, and the Rockies have already sold 96 percent of their TV advertising.
Been there, sort of done that
Easy for Walsh to say -- the NFL strike in '87 lasted three weeks, not six months.
The rich and hypocritical
The worst public relations move of the entire strike comes courtesy of Roger Clemens, who ripped former teammate and White Sox replacement pitcher Oil Can Boyd for crossing the imaginary picket line at about the same time Clemens appeared on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
Closing, from Malone
Malone on replacement players: "Maybe this will work and maybe it won't. But it appears to be the best alternative. Baseball fans are used to seeing the Mike Mussinas and Cal Ripkens . . . and these players don't have as much ability. But they love the game and they play just as hard as the regular guys. They do have talent, or they wouldn't have played for so long."
Malone softened when he was asked if other clubs would freeze out the Orioles, refusing to talk trade with GM Roland Hemond.
"I don't think so," he said. "I'll deal with the Orioles. If it helps my team, I'll do it. Roland Hemond is a good man, and he's respected within baseball, although I know from dealing with the Orioles last year [in the Larry Walker trade talks], Mr. Angelos is involved. He has to agree to a deal before they pull a trigger.
"I respect Peter Angelos as a person . . . and I can't sit in judgment of him. But when we're trying to do what's best for the industry, we've got to stick together."
@4 No question. The strangest spring training ever.