The Montreal Expos Can Fix Baseball’s Free Agency Problem

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The World Series was pretty great for the second year in a row, and we’re in the middle of a dinger golden age. Is baseball great? You bet. But it’s very possible that the sport is also broken on some level. Some of the principals seem to think so, especially when it comes to the economics of the game.

We’re currently staring at the end of a glacially-paced offseason that may result in several star players going into Spring Training without jobs due to the inability of teams to spend on free agents in the way that they almost always do.

A work stoppage has been mentioned as a possible response to the rampant frugality and increasing allegations of collusion, but while the rhetoric seems to be intense, we’re probably not there … yet.

The current collective bargaining agreement expires in December 2021. That means there’s a lot of time for that rancor to grow, but there’s also a little bit of time to save baseball from itself. And I’ve got a plan to do it. It’s a plan that involves the seemingly impossible resurrection of a shuttered franchise, and the fleecing of some rich guys to pay some other rich guys a whole lotta money.

Step 1: Let’s Sign Some Players!

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A lot of people have made the observation that you could field a pretty great team with the shockingly large number of elite free agents that are still on the open market. But like — what if baseball actually did that?

If, on March 1, baseball is still awash in unemployed All-Stars, Major League Baseball should fill a competitive roster (and a taxi-squad) from those ranks. Tender contracts to 25-35 veterans and minor league free agents which will offer those players a modest bump from their last salary. They’d be free to reject these offers, of course, but on March 1, are beggars going to be choosers?

Jake Arrieta made more than $15 million last year. Signing him and other big-dollar players like Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez, and Greg Holland (assuming they’re still available) could get expensive, but the owners have a lot of money. Especially right now, since they’re each going to get a $50-68 million payout for the sale of BAM Tech to Disney.

Why not tax the hell out of that money to cover those salaries? There’s a case to be made that it’s where those resources should have gone in the first place and, to be honest, paying out $5-6 million per owner will probably sting less than a collusion settlement. Right now, it’s just whispers and anecdotal evidence, but the last time baseball owners got caught colluding to screw over baseball players it wound up collectively costing them $434 million.

Once those players have contracts, where are they going to play? One idea is to sprinkle them throughout the league. But while that might bring a little more balance to the game between the haves and have-nots, it would kick other players out of their existing roles (hampering their own future earning power). And it would also be a little boring, so …

Step 2: Let’s Bring Back The Montreal Expos (Kinda)!

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Montreal has a rich baseball history. The city’s first team was established in 1890. The Montreal Royals AAA team featured Jackie Robinson at one point. Many (most?) baseball fans still have fond memories of the Tim Raines/Gary Carter/Andre Dawson Expos, and the 1994 team whose dominance was undermined by the strike. But all of that wasn’t enough to keep a Major League team in Montreal. In 2002, MLB bought the Expos (facilitating the departure of owner Jeffrey Loria who then bought the Marlins from soon-to-be Red Sox owner John Henry) and moved them to Washington D.C. after the 2004 season.

Karma dictates that MLB should be the catalyst for a new era of Expos baseball at some point. Despite the work done by the Montreal Baseball Project and others to keep hope alive for a baseball reboot in Montreal, there are no plans in place. MLB could kickstart things by assigning some of the game’s displaced players to this newly reformed version of the Expos to bolster those efforts, and let Montreal’s political and business community know that baseball is serious about putting down roots in Montreal again. Of course, it’s not as simple as waving a magic wand.

It takes more than a roster full of players to make an organization. These are vast businesses with a lot of moving pieces (event staff, clerical workers, Youppi! the mascot), but it’s not impossible to cobble something together on the fly. In 2002, when MLB took over the Expos, Loria loaded up everything (and everyone) that wasn’t nailed down, including computers and scouting reports. New GM Omar Minaya had six employees (and no scouting reports) when he joined the organization a week prior to Spring Training. And yet, somehow, they made it work on an organizational level, and everyone got paid.

In terms of where these theoretical Expos would play, well, Olympic Stadium is still kinda viable. The retractable roof no longer retracts and repairs are often needed, but the Blue Jays are set to host an exhibition series there for the fifth straight year in late March, so it’s not like it’s on pace to be condemned. MLB could also take the team on the road to other cities while still being primarily based in Montreal. It’s what the Expos did in their later seasons when they played some “home” games in San Juan, Puerto Rico at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Then, as now, spreading baseball and goodwill across the world has immense PR value.

Step 3: The Catch (And The Pitch)

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This idea started as a dumb tweet, but it has kind of spiraled to a point where I’ve almost sold myself on the feasibility of this … at least in some small way.

Precedent shows that it’s not impossible to throw an organization together on the fly. Owners could easily fund a group of baseball mercenaries as a make-nice to keep from being sued, and the Expos would have a place to play, but the main issue is insurmountable: baseball’s complex schedule wouldn’t allow for another team to be inserted at this late stage. Not unless hundreds of games were canceled, inconveniencing fans and causing chaos throughout the league.

But what if this hastily-thrown-together version of the Expos didn’t actually spend 2018 as an MLB team? What if they embraced the long tradition of barnstorming that saw Negro League players and other baseball stars crisscross the country (and the world; the above picture is from a tour that went to Rome and The Coliseum) playing exhibition games?

With a mix of match-ups against international competition, minor league teams, and the occasional Major League team on their day off, a schedule could be quickly constructed that would offer these displaced free agents a high profile platform to show their wares. Furthermore, they’d have the security of a fair market contract (which could be assumed by a Major League team at any time). And doing it with some kind of tie to Montreal would be a step toward righting a wrong.

As The Ringer detailed at the end of January, a barnstorming tour was about to be the answer for displaced players during the strike in 1995 before players and owners reached an agreement, so again, precedent makes this seem moderately less insane.

“The union intended to bring back a time-honored baseball tradition, the barnstorming tour. Selected players would form four teams—East, South, Central, and West—and play each other in weekend-only games in parks across the country (mostly minor league parks without MLB affiliations) for six to eight weeks, beginning in May. The union hired outside consultants to help secure the venues and an agency to sell sponsorships that would help fund the tour, which would also raise money for charity, including youth baseball programs, the Children’s Miracle Network, and the Baseball Assistance Team.”

The only difference between that idea and this idea is that this barnstorming tour would be officially sanctioned. And would it be the worst thing for the MLBPA and MLB to get some practice working together before the CBA expires while tempers are flaring?

As former New York Times columnist Ira Berkow wrote in response to the threat of a baseball strike in 1981:

“Wars couldn’t stop major league baseball, the Depression couldn’t stop major league baseball; it seems the only thing that could is major league baseball itself. By the very threat of the players’ strike, the idea that the great stadia would be empty this summer – and the crack of bat against ball merely an echo in the mind – gives pause to reflect on baseball and its meaning in the warp and woof of life.”

Ask Expos fans what it’s like to spend the summer baseball-free. If that absence sounds terrible, root for these two clashing behemoths to do whatever it takes to stay together. Even if it means cycling through silly or far-fetched ideas on the way to finding a solution.