Baseball has always been a game of statistics and of numbers: the most homeruns in a season or the biggest contract.
But those numbers pale compared to the odds against players who are trying to make it to the major leagues. Those odds, those numbers, are astronomical.
And those odds are at work every spring across the training camp landscape where players without connections and without contracts try to catch the eye of a big league scout.
Mark Leavitt, one of those scouts, explains: "What we look for is average major league tools: an average time, an average runner for the Montreal Expos is 6.8 seconds; the average fastball for the Montreal Expos is 88 to 91 miles an hour."
Players come from all over to the tryout camps, from Germantown, Tennessee, to New Castle, Delaware, to El Segundo, California. The numbers are against most of them. After a couple of hours, they face a harsh reality. Some are told their arm doesn't have enough zip in it; others that their legs don't move fast enough.
Mark Leavitt says, "You talk about guys trying to start a career at age 23 or 22. We've got guys in the big leagues, in Montreal, that are younger than that."
The Montreal Expos have a history of giving young players an extra chance. They have no choice. They are a small market team on a shoestring budget compared to, say, the New York Yankees. It's the biggest problem baseball has: the widening gulf between the "haves" and the "have-nots."
"Last year, it was the most difficult season of my baseball career," says Expos Manager Felipe Alou.
Alou is in his eighth year as the Montreal Expos' manager. In recent years, his franchise has had to get rid of budding superstars at an alarming rate because of rising salaries. Montreal's payroll last year was the lowest in baseball, at $8 million. This year, the Yankees will spend more than $80 million.
"It has been real tough," Alou says. "And Pedro Martinez, just before he left, he won the Cy Young award."
Pedro Martinez was the best pitcher in the National League. Now, he pitches for Boston.
And it's happened before. "When I saw Larry Walker leave the Expos, Larry Walker being the greatest Canadian baseball player that ever lived and we let him go, then I said, 'well, Felipe, your boy's going to be let go, too'."
That boy would be outfielder Moises Alou, Felipe Alou's son, who, two years ago, led the Florida Marlins to a world championship.
"Oe thing is to have your boy, and then your boy get married and things like that, you know, and leave the house or whatever," says Moises' father. "But the other stuff is to manage your own son. And he's a very special son. He's a very special baseball player."
And therein lies a tale. The Alou family hails from the Dominican Republic, from which there has been a steady stream of players to the big leagues. Felipe and two brothers came in the late 1950s and had long, productive careers. Twenty years ago, the Expos gave Felipe a chance to coach and then manage in the lowest minor leagues, known as 'Class A ball.' Latin American managers weren't high on baseball's priority list then.
Felipe says, "I have to admit that I was a very decent player, but I didn't make any money. I mean, we didn't make any money during those days. I'm in my 60s now and I got a $200 bonus and I was making $20,000 a year managing Class A ball, and I was living on fried fish, fried sand perch on the east coast of Florida, which is actually a fish which I now use for bait. But I love the game. I have a lot of respect for this game."
Minor league managers aren't highly paid. But all along Felipe kept honing his managerial skills. Eight years ago, all his hard work suddenly paid off.
"The word came for me to come back to the big leagues and be the bench coach," says Felipe. "And from being the bench coach, for a month's time, wind up being the major league manager until today. Things just don't happen like that. You could call that a miracle."
Despite his late start - he was 55 years old when got the job - he has become one of the most respected managers in the game. Last year, the Expos even had a day in his honor, a rarity for an active baseball manager.
It's been said that because of his background, young Latin players especially have thrived under his tutelage. The Expos have tapped into the Latin pipeline and might have the youngest team in the majors this year. And even though the franchise has been on a rocky financial road, they have begun to spend a little money to become competitive.
"We'll probably be one of the few clubs in baseball that are going to double their payroll," says Jim Beattie, Montreal's general manager. And, he says, "This is the first year really I have not had to move a player for financial reasons."
But the fact of the matter is that even with a $16 million payroll, the Expos are bucking the odds in trying to make the playoffs. Last year no team that spent less than $48 million made it to the post-season.
Felipe says, "The big guy with the big market, the big bucks, they want to win it. And there are eight or ten clubs in that position to win it, and this is business."
Beattie agrees: "What we're shooting for is a window of opportunity of a year or two with our young club, build it up and hope at that point they stay healthy. But if we do win, or even f we don't, those players are going to get too expensive for us to keep."
Over the winter, the Expos faced a money dilemma they didn't expect. Felipe Alou, their secret weapon, was offered a huge contract to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers.
To Beattie's relief, "We battled and Felipe's loyalty to the Expos, loyalty to Montreal, really came through."
Los Angeles offered more money, maybe a million a year more. But Felipe, whose wife is Canadian, decided to remain where his commitment and where his heart is.
"I think money was not the big thing. It was, like you say, a commitment to stay, and I'm glad I did," says Felipe. "It was difficult for me to leave Montreal. It was impossible for me to leave Montreal unless I was pushed to go. This is almost a ten-year crisis and I want to see the end of this crisis. I didn't want to look at it from Los Angeles."
Spring training is a time of decisions, of numbers really. At the Expos' one-day tryout camp, a few players impressed the scouts. It all depends on the needsÂ…and on the numbers.
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