There’s a lot of speculation about what will happen to the Montreal Expos and where the team will play its home games during the 2003 season.
One rumor says the Expos will use Fenway Park in Boston when the Red Sox are on the road, and another idea is to keep the Expos franchise in Montreal but have the National League club play about 18-20 home games next season in Puerto Rico. An Associated Press story reporting that news also said, “Charlotte, N.C., Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C. have also been considered for Expos’ home games.”
Does that mean the Expos will host games in San Juan or one of the other towns? Or would the team play “home” games in all those cities? It all reminds me of the 1973-77 Lotte Orions, who had no home and were known as a “gypsy team.” The Orions had lost their ballpark, Tokyo Stadium, after the 1972 season, when the 35,000-seat facility near a prison on Tokyo’s north side was closed due to a monetary scandal involving its owner. It was eventually torn down.
Lotte played home games for the next five years at Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo (sharing it with the Giants and Fighters), Jingu Stadium (home of the Swallows), Kawasaki Stadium (then the home of the Taiyo Whales), Sendai’s Miyagi Stadium, Maruyama Stadium in Sapporo, Kusanagi Stadium in Shizuoka, and they even played a series at Nishikyogoku Stadium in Kyoto, despite the fact there were three other Pacific League teams in the Kansai area at the time.
The Orions eventually found a home base at Kawasaki Stadium in 1978, after the Whales moved down the road to Yokohama, and the O’s played there until moving to Chiba in 1992. Lotte even managed to win a Pa League pennant and a Japan Series as gypsies in 1974, hosting playoff games (the Pacific League had a split-season format then) in Sendai and using Korakuen as the home park while defeating the Chunichi Dragons in the Series.
Jim Lefebvre, an Orions player and coach during those years, said the travel was horrendous and, while his apartment was in Tokyo, his life was basically lived out of a suitcase, as the players were constantly on the go, spending countless hours in hotels, on buses, in airports, railway stations, on flights and trains from local lines to mid-distance express runs to the Shinkansen bullets.
One memory Lefebvre had was of getting off a bus and lugging his gear through the wicket and onto a train platform. “We would be traveling in suits and ties, all prim and proper,” he remembered.
“We waited until the train pulled in. Then, during the two minutes the car doors were open, we would go crazy, shoving in bags, bats, suitcases, equipment, just to get everything in the train before the doors closed. Then, as the doors closed and the train pulled out of the station, we would straighten out our ties and resume a calm posture, as if nothing had happened. The other passengers were wondering what in the world was going on, until they realized it was the gypsy Lotte Orions.”
Another player of that era, then-Hanshin first baseman Hal Breeden, gave his opinion of the homeless Orions when he was about to be released by the Tigers. After hitting 40 homers and .261 in 1976, Breeden slumped to .238 with 37 homers in 1977, and there was talk Hanshin would fire him. Other Japanese teams were said to be interested in acquiring him for 1978, and Breeden was asked if he would go to another club.
“If the (Chunichi) Dragons want me, I’ll play,” he said. “If the (Hiroshima) Carps (sic) want me, I’ll play, but as far as Lotte or some club like that, I ain’t playin’ for no gypsy-ass team.”
Hammerin’ Hal was kept by the Tigers but suffered an injury and retired after playing just 17 games in that 1978 season.
It remains to be seen what will happen with the Expos, but it is doubtful the Major League Baseball Players Association would ever approve a schedule that would see the Expos playing their 2003 home games in Montreal, Boston, Puerto Rico, Washington, Charlotte and Orlando.
No doubt those 1973-77 Lotte Orions will remain as the only gypsy team in the history of either Japanese baseball or the major leagues.
Meanwhile, the game of musical chairs is on for foreign players here in Japan, and it will be interesting to see who goes where. We could set a record for gaikokujin switching teams, with as many as seven guys changing clubs for 2003.
Already the Chunichi Dragons have claimed pitcher Marc Valdes off waivers from the Hanshin Tigers, and relief ace Rodney Pedraza, axed by the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, was signed by the Giants. Former Yokohama BayStars infielder Bobby Rose is apparently coming back to play for the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Roberto Petagine will leave the Yakult Swallows and take his big bat to the Giants.
Lefty pitcher Alan Newman, cut by Yakult in September, will join the Hiroshima Carp. There may also be interest in utility infielder Eddy Diaz, canned just a few days ago by the Carp.
Of course, the biggest stories for Japanese fans will involve the transfer of free-agents Hideki Matsui and Norihiro Nakamura. Will Matsui sign with the New York Yankees as expected or join another American or National League team? Will Nakamura stay with the Buffaloes, head for the Central League or try the majors with Matsui?
And what of Tsuyoshi Shinjo, just let go by the National League champion San Francisco Giants? Will he rejoin the New York Mets, seek a job with another MLB club or look for a return to Japan?
Hold onto your hats; the hot hibachi league is getting hotter.
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