Hart of a champion: Tribe GM drew up resurgence
Indians HOF inductee brought five straight division titles, two AL pennants to Cleveland
While sipping coffee in his office atop the Marriott in downtown Cleveland, Dick Jacobs walked toward the window. He pointed out in the distance toward Lake Erie, half-frozen on this January day in 1992, and asked his guest to use his imagination for a moment.
"John, I want you to picture a summer day," Jacobs said. "All 30 owners of a Major League ballclub put on a bowler hat and walk into the water. Now, you tell me, knowing our situation, whose hat is going to float first?"
"Well, Dick," said John Hart, then in his nascent days as general manager for Jacobs' Cleveland Indians. "We'd probably go under first."
Indeed, these were the days when the Indians were not far removed from being owned by a dead man's estate. From being routinely rumored to be moving to St. Petersburg or some other baseball-starved city with a bigger budget. And though plans were in place for a new stadium and, hopefully, more robust revenues, it was clear where the Indians belonged on the lists of "haves" and "have-nots."
"Correct," Jacobs replied to Hart. "The Yankees and these other clubs have the advantages over us. We hope we'll get this new stadium, and that will help. But in the meantime, I want you to be creative. I don't want my hat to float."
Jacobs' hat never floated, of course. By the time he sold the Indians just eight years later, they were thriving. They were, by that time, winners of five consecutive American League Central titles and two AL pennants, playing their home games in a beauty of a ballpark before nightly sellouts. And while that ballpark was, for a time, a drawing card in its own right, it was the talent on the field -- a remarkable collection of homegrown products and wily acquisitions -- that kept those folks coming back night after night after night.
And the architect of it all, the man who brought consistent contenders back to Cleveland, was Hart, the Tampa-born exec with a shrewd eye for talent, a passionate personality and a relentless competitive drive.
"One of the things that I think everybody should look for in their life," Hart says now, "is that time when you're young and full of energy and have a chance to build something from the ground up. That was really the joyful part of it for me. The World Series and the winning were great. That was all fantastic. But it was seeing where that franchise came, the respect that franchise got, the great years in Cleveland for the city. ... It may sound corny, but it meant a lot to me."
It meant a lot to Cleveland, too. Little wonder, then, that Hart will now have a home in the Indians' Distinguished Hall of Fame, forever cementing his legacy as one of the most impactful non-uniformed personnel to leave his mark on the franchise. He will be officially inducted at a ceremony at Progressive Field this weekend, before Saturday's 7:15 p.m. ET game against the Twins.
Hart's legacy echoes to this day. His top lieutenant, Mark Shapiro, is now president of the club, and the Hart "family tree" extends across the baseball landscape. Chris Antonetti in Cleveland, Dan O'Dowd in Colorado, Neal Huntington in Pittsburgh, Jon Daniels in Texas, Josh Byrnes in San Diego, Ben Cherington in Boston -- all of these men in general manager positions directly benefited from Hart's tutelage when they worked under him.
"You can define legacy in a number of different ways," Shapiro says. "You can define it in rings or championships. But the legacy that's the most lasting and meaningful are the relationships that you have maintained and the people you played a role in developing and helping and providing opportunity for. I don't know if anyone in the game has as big a legacy on that side as John does."
And to think, a job in a Major League front office was never even Hart's goal.
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A former catcher in the Expos' organization, Hart had designs in his post-playing days not on team-building intuition but in player-grooming instruction. He assumed he'd make that slow but steady climb up the coaching ladder, from the lowest Rookie ball level to, God willing, a big league managerial seat. And his biggest advocate was Hank Peters, the Baltimore Orioles' general manager, who kept giving him opportunities in the Minor League levels and, eventually, a position with the O's as their Major League third-base coach.
Then Peters was dismissed by the Orioles, and plans changed for both men.
It was in the winter of 1987-88 when Peters called Hart and told him he wanted to discuss an opening with his new team, the Indians. Peters had just been plucked by Jacobs as the Tribe's new president, and he was looking for a right-hand man.
Hart was managing a winter ball team in San Pedro de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic, so the two men arranged to meet in a Miami International Airport terminal. It was in that two-hour meeting that Peters offered Hart his biggest opportunity yet, though not one he was expecting.
"The thought in my mind was that he was going to ask me to manage," Hart says. "Instead, he talked to me about Mr. Jacobs. He said [Jacobs] wanted a long-term fit for GM and wanted to do it right. Hank basically wanted to hire me to eventually replace him."
Peters assured Hart he would teach him all the ins and outs of the position, building off Hart's fundamental communication and people skills and understanding of the dynamics of the game and turning him into prime GM material with, as Peters called it, "the ultimate baseball job."
Hart was floored, but intrigued. He might have even accepted the job if not for one small detail: Baltimore denied Peters permission for a formal interview with Hart.
Recalls Hart: "[Baltimore owner] E. B. Williams called me and said, 'John, I know this opportunity came your way, but I'm just telling you that you're my next manager. I'm not going to let you go just yet."
Who knows what the fates -- or the baseball gods, as it were -- would have dictated had Williams not passed away in August 1988 or had Peters not kept that apprenticeship seat open for the next calendar year? Who knows who would have eventually assumed the club-construction responsibilities of the Indians or whether or not those glory days of the mid-1990s would have unfolded as they did?
All we know is that Hart did eventually take that job and, three seasons later, became the Indians' GM, just as Peters had promised. And it didn't take long for Hart to put his scouting and development backbone, as well as his understanding of the Indians' financial limitations, to good use.
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Hart was still serving as Peters' assistant in 1991, when the Tribe went to a salary arbitration hearing with Greg Swindell, who was coming off a 1990 season in which he went 12-9 with a pedestrian 4.40 ERA. Arbitration hearings are inherently awkward, because they pit teams against their own players, with each side offering its own take on what that player's salary ought to be for the coming season. Hart quickly realized he was no fan of this procedure.
"I loved my players," he said. "I wanted them to succeed for 364 days out of the year."
When Swindell succeeded in getting a substantial raise out of that arbitration hearing, Hart knew there had to be a better way to do business. He and O'Dowd, his chief lieutenant, quickly devised a plan that would be initially critiqued but eventually copied by many a small-market ballclub. In the spring of 1992, the Indians, coming off a disastrous 105-loss season, signed a dozen young players to long-term contracts. Not all of those deals panned out as planned, but enough of them did to keep the Indians' prime core of talent secure without extending the payroll to uncomfortable lengths.
"We presented it to Mr. Jacobs, and he said, 'Well, what happens if you're wrong on evaluation?'" Hart recalls. "I said, 'Dick, therein lies the problem. But if we're right, this is right for us. That's what we get paid for. Our job is to evaluate our players, and we think we have a group of star-type players."
More often than not, Hart and his baseball people were not wrong. They drafted the likes of Jim Thome, Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez. And because guys like Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Charles Nagy signed those initial long-term deals, the Indians put a stop to that revolving door that had left them buried in the standings for so long.
Hart's greatest skill might have been his ability to incorporate opinions from every spectrum -- from the old-school scouting types logging thousands of miles on rural roads to the statheads crunching numbers on a computer -- and come away with informed ideas about how to better the ballclub. He valued every opinion he received, and he wasn't afraid to place his faith in young guys like Shapiro, who arrived at the organization hungry to make their mark.
"When I reflect now," says Shapiro, "on the amount of encouragement, empowerment and leadership opportunities that he gave me at 24 or 25 years old, I'm blown away. He was just a guy who found people he believed in. John is just the consummate talent evaluator, in uniform and out of uniform."
And Hart always knew how to trust his gut, which is why he wasn't afraid to take risks with his roster.
"John," says former manager Mike Hargrove, "has the guts of a burglar. I absolutely loved working for him. He listened to people, listened to their opinions. That can't be said in a lot of cases. A lot of people in John's position don't want a different opinion, they want reassurance. There were no 'yes' men with John."
Jacobs Field, thanks to $48 million worth of taxpayer funding, opened in 1994. And by that point, Hart had assembled a club worthy of the state-of-the-art facility. He augmented the Tribe's young core with established veterans like Eddie Murray and Dennis Martinez. A 1994 players' strike killed what might have been a dazzling debut season in the new ballpark. But the 1995 club was a juggernaut, winning 100 games in a strike-shortened 144-game schedule and bringing Cleveland to the World Series for the first time in 41 years.
"When we clinched [the AL pennant] in Seattle, I stood in the clubhouse, sort of off to the side, and I was in tears," Hart says. "I couldn't help myself. I get choked up talking about it now. You think back to how we acquired all these guys and say, 'Isn't this just amazing? Little Cleveland. Who would have thought?'"
That would be the first of two World Series appearances in the Hart and Jacobs era, with both clubs coming up frustratingly short. Jacobs sold the team in 2000. And in 2001, Hart left the now-necessary rebuilding period in the capable hands of Shapiro. Hart would take on a new challenge with the Texas Rangers, but the magic of the Indians would prove difficult to repeat.
These days, Hart applies his intellect and expertise to a special advisory role with the Rangers, as well as an analyst position with MLB Network. But he'll never forget how far he and the Indians came together.
"Cleveland," Hart says, "is where my heart is."