Unhappy with the end result of the negotiations and the financial resources that would be required to continue fielding the 1994 team; the Expos’ managing general partner, Claude Brochu ordered a fire sale of all talent. A year later the team’s General Manager quit over the decision to dismantle a quality franchise. By 1999, the team was a shell of itself. Talk of the team being a target for contraction started to swirl. Enter Jeff Loria and stepson David Samson.
In 1989, Morgan Creek Productions and Mirage Pictures developed a film, Major League, starring Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernson, Bob Uecker, and little known up-and-comers Wesley Snipes, Rene Russo, and Denis Haysbert. The premise of the film was that the owner of the perennially terrible Cleveland Indians had died, leaving his team to his spoiled, self-absorbed, middle-aged daughter. The daughter desperately wanted to move the team to Miami, but, in order to do so; she needed to find a way to exploit a loop-hole in the team contract in regards to poor attendance. So, she arranged to sabotage the team by hiring scrub players, and providing sub-par facilities and accommodations. The plan was, the team would be so bad, that attendance would drop below the threshold, and she would be free to move the team to Miami. Unfortunately for her, the plan backfired; the Indians took the challenge personally and went on to win the American League Pennant. I remember going to see the film with my father. We enjoyed the comedy, laughing throughout. It’s amazing how something can be so funny in fiction and yet, so sad and tragic in real life.
In December of 1999, American art dealer Jeffrey Loria purchased Claude Brochu’s ownership stake and made himself the Expos’ chairman, CEO, and managing general partner, and naming his stepson, David Samson, executive vice-president. His first act after acquiring the team was to instill some goodwill by spending big on talent while trying to force Montreal to fund the building of a new stadium. Loria insisted that the team simply would not be viable without one. With schools and hospitals were closing due to a lack of public funds, the province decided it could not justify funding a stadium. About the same time, Loria allowed the television rights and rights to English language radio broadcasts of the all the team’s games to expire. Suddenly, the only way to see the Expos on television is if the other team happened to be broadcasting the game, and no one could catch an Expos home game in English on the radio. Attendance dropped precipitously. In 2001 Loria fired the long-time face of the franchise, former player and current manager Felipe Alou while watching attendance drop below minor league attendance levels.
Later that year, Major League Baseball voted to contract two teams, the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos. However, an injunction was won by the people responsible for Minnesota’s Metrodome, the home of the Twins, preventing the team from being contracted as they had not yet fulfilled their commitment to the stadium. This forced MLB to abandon the plans for contraction for both teams. But, Montreal was not off the hook yet.
In 2001, the ownership of the Boston Red Sox decided it was time to move on. The team was eventually purchased by a group led by John Henry, who just so happened to own the Florida Marlins at the time. Since it is a conflict to own multiple teams, Henry divested himself of the Florida Marlins, selling the team to Expos owner, Jeff Loria, for a little over $150 million, $38.5 million of which was provided for through an interest-free loan made by MLB to Loria. Major League Baseball then turned around and purchased the Expos for $120 million and assumed operational control. Only two years prior, Loria had purchased the team for a paltry $67 million.
Upon completing the sale of the Expos, Loria took the entire executive front office, scouting reports, computers, and all other assets he could with him to South Florida, leaving the incoming manager, Frank Robinson with nothing but players and a decrepit stadium with which to field a team. In the true spirit of Major League, the players rallied and made a push for the playoffs in 2003. Despite Bud Selig’s decision to move 22 of the Expos “home” games to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Expos endured the long travel and shoddy facilities and, on August 28, 2003 were in a five-team-tie to go to the playoffs with only a month to go. With a budget somewhere between $30-40 million dollars (the New York Yankees spent $153 million on payroll alone), and no true home facilities, the Expos were turning in a successful season. That’s when Bud Selig decided that it was not in the best interests of the game to afford the team the extra $50,000 necessary to facilitate the September call-ups of minor league players, a move that would allow veteran players to remain fresh and heal small aches while up-and-coming talent helped push teams past the finish line. While every other team (all 29 of them) was able to call up minor league talent, an exhausted Montreal/San Juan Expos limped through the final month of the season, posting a 12-15 and finishing eight games out of the final wild card slot. Meanwhile Jeff Loria’s Marlins would go on to win the 2003 World Series.