The Post-Journal

Lunetta Happy To Be Back With Montreal

With Contraction Looming, Jamestown Native Returns To Club That Gave Him His Start

 

The Montreal Expos are in a battle for first place with the large market New York Mets in the National League East, but barely anyone in the province of Quebec has been taking much notice.

Olympic Stadium is - OK, has been - more like a tomb than a ballpark for years as the cash-strapped team has traded, or opted not to sign, some of the game's brightest stars.

And with contraction looming over the troubled franchise at season's end, one can hardly blame the locals for not showing up. But one member of the front office, Jamestown native Dan Lunetta, says the community "has shown a lot of support for what the Expos are hoping to accomplish this year."

"That doesn't translate into the Expos averaging 15, 20 or 25,000 a night," said Lunetta, Montreal's special assistant to the general manager, "but people in the community realize what a difference guys like Frank and Omar have made."

Frank is manager Frank Robinson, the Hall-of-Famer, who is deftly guiding a probable lame-duck team, while so far, giving everyone else in the division fits. Omar is general manager Omar Minaya who was appointed to his post just three days before the start of spring training and yet was able to assemble a team and staff that has produced remarkably fine results under the most trying of circumstances.

"It would be a wonderful thing, if this was our last year in Montreal, that the Expos have a great year on the field and they exit Montreal with a winning season," Lunetta said. "It would leave a good taste in a lot of peoples' mouths, because anytime a city loses a major-league franchise it can be a blow to the community in a lot of ways."

Lunetta, who has been in professional baseball at various capacities since 1979, including major-league stops in Montreal (1985-88), Cincinnati (1988-90) and Florida 1991-2002), knows first hand what it feels like to take a figurative punch in the gut.

After 10 ½ years in the Marlins' front office, including a World Series champion ship in 1997, Lunetta and up to 80 co-workers were handed pink slips by the team's new owners on February 15.

"It was known as our version of the Valentine's Day Massacre," Lunetta said.

What happened, in a nutshell, was that the Marlins owners bought the Boston Red Sox, the Expos owners, in turn, purchased the Marlins and the Expos are being run by Major League Baseball. Lunetta, who lives in Melbourne, Florida with his wife, Jhoanna, and two young sons, was wondering what was in his future. Would he be able to stay in baseball in some capacity? If he did, would he have to move?

"So many things have happened in this transfer of ownership," Lunetta said.

First there was his meeting with Minaya.

We were able to carve out an agreement and accept this position (special assistant to the general manager)," Lunetta said. "I would be able to work out of Florida, because I didn't want to uproot my family for six months and face the prospect of relocating again at the end of the season. Omar was very understanding of my desire to put my family ahead of what I wanted to do for myself."

"There was a part of me, the baseball part of me, that wanted to go to Montreal. This was an organization where I started my career and have such fond memories. Part of me desired to go there and be part of that. But it was more important to do what was best for my family. Omar was very understanding and sensitive to my personal desires."

Ironically, Lunetta, 46, changed jobs - from Florida's director of minor league administration to Montreal's special assistant to the GM - but he didn't even have to clean out his office, which is located 10 to 15 minutes from his home.

"At the end of spring training, the Expos and Marlins exchanged spring training facilities," Lunetta said.

That little irony meant he didn't have to box up even a No. 2 pencil.

"That was all the more reason for me to stay in Florida until we know what the fate of the Expos is going to be," Lunetta said, "because, ultimately, there's going to be a need to relocate somewhere, if I'm presented with an opportunity."

Until then, Lunetta is enjoying the success of the Expos, who have captured the imagination of the baseball world, if not the hockey-loving Montreal fans. Two weeks ago, in fact, the Expos won three straight games against the Mets. The headline on the back page of a New York tabloid blared: "Contract 'Em Now!"

Yes, people are taking notice of the Expos.

"This club has talent," Lunetta said last week. "And while everyone is happy and pleased that we're in first place, we always remember it's only April. Anytime you're looking down at the standings instead of up it gives you cause to be happy where you are, but we have a long way to go. I don't think anybody in the National League expected this club to be a pushover. Our club has some very strong front-line players."

Vladimer Guerrero, Jose Vidro, and Orlando Cabrera provide plenty of offensive firepower, while pitchers Javiar Vazquez, Tony Armas Jr., and Carl Pavano are as good a top-of-the-rotation as there is in the National League.

"We have some depth issues, especially pitching-wise," Lunetta said, "but I don't think there are any clubs where they are completely satisfied where they're at pitching-wise."

Regardless of how the Expos perform this season, it will be their last in Montreal. That much is known. Whether they're eliminated entirely, well, that's still to be determined. Lunetta is hopeful he'll have an opportunity to remain with the team should the franchise move, possibly to Washington, D.C.

"It's hard to talk about the D.C. thing because no one knows," Lunetta said. "I'm just very fortunate I was able to have a position with the Expos, to have it structured the way it is and to have an opportunity to work with Omar."

Lunetta is sad about one thing, however.

Three days before the Marlins were sold, Lunetta received confirmation that Florida was going to have a minor league affiliate in Jamestown, which is a member of the New York-Penn League. That's the league and the Class A franchise in which Lunetta got his start, way back in 1979 when he served as a groundskeeper at the then College Stadium.

In those days - pre-renovation - the offices leaked, the scoreboard was mounted on one of the light standards near the Jamestown bullpen and the press box was the size of a large walk-in closet. Still, the memories of working in his hometown tug at his heart to this day.

"I had been actively involved in that whole process for the last year," Lunetta said. "When I got the call that everything was in place in Jamestown, it was bittersweet. I knew personally I wasn't going to be able to have the opportunity to enjoy that because this was going to change."

"Life goes on, but golly, for 10 years I waited for this to happen, but the timing wasn't right."

But, as always, Lunetta has landed on his feet and looks optimistically to the future.

"Whatever opportunities may be ahead I'm looking forward to that with a lot of enthusiasm," he said. "Hopefully, at the end of this experience a lot of good will come out of it, and I believe it will.

"Wouldn't that be exciting if the Expos could be in the postseason?"


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