CLEVELAND -- Chocolate-flavored whipped cream ran down his cheeks as tears filled his eyes. It was a moment equal parts preposterous and poignant. Here was Eric Wedge, the normally mild-mannered manager of the Indians, showing a rare display of public emotion, with the ridiculousness of a pie-in-the-face gag and a champagne- and beer-soaked celebration surrounding him.
But that moment on Sept. 23, shortly after Wedge's Indians clinched their first American League Central Division title and playoff berth under his reign, was telling. Wedge choked up a bit because he was watching a group of players who stuck with his day-to-day, grind-it-out mentality finally let loose in celebration. "I'm just so proud of these guys," Wedge told reporters. "I love watching them play. This is, without a doubt, the greatest moment in my career." A mere 5 1/2 weeks earlier, it was a much different story. On Aug. 14, Wedge's Indians had just suffered a 6-2 loss to the Tigers at home, dropping them a game behind Detroit in the AL Central standings. The Tribe had been hanging tough in the division chase all season, but its performance at the plate had grown lethargic, and its record since June 1 was 32-35, as a result. Wedge had rarely used his postgame interview sessions with the media to call out players. On that night, however, he sent a message to his clubhouse, openly questioning the toughness of his team and calling on its leaders to step up. "It's easy to be tough when you're winning," Wedge said. "Now is the time when we have to toughen up. Enough's enough. Now, we're going to see how tough we are." Perhaps it was a coincidence. Or perhaps the message got through. Whatever the case, the Indians toughened up considerably from Aug. 15 forward, going 31-12 down the stretch and capturing the division crown by eight games. The emotional impact of a manager's harsh words can be overrated or understated, depending on your opinion. General manager Mark Shapiro, for one, doesn't feel that speech was the spark that turned the Tribe around. Shapiro does, however, believe Wedge doesn't get the credit he deserves for this club reaching its stated goal of postseason play. "Outside of Cleveland, he gets credit," Shapiro said. "Inside of Cleveland, his contributions get overlooked. One of Eric's greatest strengths has always been his consistency. He's provided this team with a steady, consistent strength in leadership and enabled us to help our players overcome some challenges." The challenges presented to the Indians this season were relentless -- and well-documented. Throughout the craziness of playing April home games in Milwaukee because of blizzard conditions in Cleveland and missing off-days as the result of rescheduled dates against the Mariners, Wedge kept his club focused. And throughout the many tweaks to the lineup, rotation and bullpen and the wealth of callups from the farm system, the team never fell more than 2 1/2 games out of first place. "What makes a good manager," starter Paul Byrd said, "is a guy who gets the most out of his players, makes good moves, provides a good atmosphere in the clubhouse and knows how to interact with somebody who might be a head case or somebody who might be a young guy. You have to be able to adapt to people. "I think [Wedge has] handled everything well. He's stayed even-keeled all year and gotten the most out of his players." Staying on an even keel has been Wedge's specialty since he became the club's manager before the 2003 season. But never was it more important for him to stick to that mind-set than this season.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.