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MLB Takes Over Dodgers, Expos Fan Nods Sadly

Not again. Good Lord, not again.

It’s impossible to see Bud Selig’s announcement that Major League Baseball will assume operating control of the Los Angeles Dodgers and not remember the last time MLB made this move.

On Valentine’s Day 2002, the league did the same with the teetering Montreal Expos. By the end of the 2004 season, MLB had presided over a trade that set the Expos’ successors back several years, helped short-circuit a last-gasp playoff run, ended baseball for good in Montreal, and reminded us why a sports franchise in league hands is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

On February 14, 2002, MLB bought the Expos for $120 million. From the beginning, this wasn’t some benevolent stewardship, meant to steer the team through choppy waters. Rather, the stated goal was to assassinate (“contract” was the slightly less repugnant term the league used) the Expos, as well as the Minnesota Twins.

There have been many theories as to whether or not the threat was real, and what MLB hoped to achieve. It may have been a way for owners to gain leverage with a new collective bargaining agreement drawing nigh. Or a last-ditch effort to bully the twin cities into building a publicly funded ballpark for the Twins’ outrageously wealthy owner. Or all of the above, and more. Luckily for Twins fans (but unluckily for taxpayers), Target Field eventually got built, and Joe Mauer got a $184 million contract. Ummm…well, the stadium’s nice anyway.

Expos fans weren’t as lucky. A new CBA prohibited contraction through 2006. But the three seasons between MLB’s purchase and the last Expos game remain one of the blackest marks on Selig’s checkered resume.

MLB named Frank Robinson as the Expos’ new manager, a nice gesture for one of baseball’s all-time greats, and a man who’d prove to be a half-decent skipper, actually (though the guy freaking loved to bunt, gah!).

The league also named Omar Minaya as vice-president and general manager. That move was…not so special.

Minaya inherited a horrific situation, that much is true. The Expos’ entire administrative staff consisted of two administrative assistants, a media relations director, the head trainer, a minor league pitching coach, and the assistant farm system director. Just to staff up to reasonable levels in the six weeks before Opening Day took plenty of hard work and creativity.

But Minaya also saw his big break as first-time and GM, and especially MLB’s (very possibly hollow) threat of contraction as carte blanche to do reckless things with the talent he inherited.

As threadbare as his front office may have looked, Minaya actually had a promising major league roster for the 2002 season. The Expos had lost 94 games the previous season. Still, Javier Vazquez was maturing into an ace, Jose Vidro and Orlando Cabrera formed one of the better double-play combinations in the game, and Vladimir Guerrero’s talent was so breathtaking that Roberto Clemente comparisons seemed perfectly reasonable. A few breaks and the 2002 Expos could become a fringe contender.

And they did. By June 26, Montreal’s record stood at a respectable 40-36. The Expos were still seven games out of first place behind yet another loaded Braves squad. But it was a nice little underdog story, and the team could feel proud to have a shot at 85 wins.

Ah, but Minaya had to make his bones as a new GM, prove to the world that he was a fearless deal-maker who deserved employment after this Expos gambit ended. On June 27, 2002, he made a deal hailed as one of the ballsiest moves in recent MLB memory. Minaya sent three top prospects — Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee — along with veteran first baseman and salary-balancer Lee Stevens, to Cleveland. In return, he snagged Bartolo Colon, and the least talented Drew brother, Tim.

In truth, this trade wasn’t ballsy so much as it was stupefyingly selfish. There was plenty of debate about which of the Expos’ prospects had the best upside. Phillips was perceived by many as the biggest get, a five-tool middle infielder who could become a major league star in the near future. Sizemore appeared to be furthest from making the majors, but he was a multi-sport high school star dripping with athleticism and upside. Being a stats-obsessed fan, I liked Lee, the lefty starter with 297 strikeouts in 241 minor league innings to that point, best of all. Whatever your preference, the bigger takeaway was unanimous: Minaya had given away more premium young talent than any trade in years (maybe decades), for a pitcher who could pitch like vintage Koufax and still not get the Expos to the playoffs.

Mind you, as a selfish Expos fan who didn’t expect the team to last long in Montreal, my emotional side was fine with this. If Phillips, Sizemore and Lee became stars, it wouldn’t be in la belle province, that was for sure. Washington Nationals fans should still curse Minaya’s name today, though. Imagine what that team would look like if the Nats had the prime years of those three players, or even the fruits of later Phillips, Sizemore and Lee trades, populating the roster.

Of course the deal didn’t work out for the Expos either, and Minaya only made it worse that off-season. If Phillips, Sizemore and Lee represented full value for Colon’s services, Orlando Hernandez, Rocky Biddle and Jeff Liefer were 22 cents on the dollar. Walking around the IBD newsroom one day the next spring, I spotted a copy of Inc. magazine. On the cover was a very suave, very self-satisfied Omar Minaya. I made a mental note never to buy a copy of Inc. magazine.

If the Colon deal was the most famous result of MLB’s stewardship, the most tragic one came in 2003. A five-game winning streak in late August launched the Expos to within striking distance of the Wild Card lead. Even after dropping the next three games, Montreal still had an outside shot at a miracle playoff run, trailing multiple teams in the Wild Card chase but still just three games off the pace. Infuriated by Minaya adding payroll the year before (he’d also picked up Cliff Floyd soon after the Colon deal the previous summer, before quickly shipping Floyd back out of town) and perhaps generally annoyed at funding the playoff run of a rival team, the Expos’ owners (the 29 other teams) vetoed the club’s request to call up a bunch of minor leaguers to fortify the roster for a September run. This even though such a move would have cost a few hundred thousand bucks, tops.

A year later, the team was off to DC, leaving both Expos and Nats fans to feel the effects of the Montreal Screwjob for years to come.

(I’m not even going to touch the travesty that was games played in Puerto Rico, because I like to pretend that didn’t happen.)

It won’t be that bad for Dodgers fans. Selig will undoubtedly hand the case over to some lawyer friends, thus ensuring new summer homes for all involved. Frank McCourt and his leveraged-to-the-hilt ownership will be gone, replaced by what can’t help but be a better replacement. And the Dodgers will regain their reputation as a first-class organization soon enough.

Still, if Clayton Kershaw shows Cy Young stuff all year, the Dodgers find help for Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, and a few other things fall into place, this team could be a contender down the stretch. If the Dodgers aren’t sold by the summer, MLB could face another political hot potato as the league decides whether or not to greenlight new deals and new spending for a contending team.

At least Ned Colletti won’t trade three top prospects for Bartolo Colon. Probably.