GMs in LCS have a lot of Hart

GMs in LCS have a lot of Hart

The Cleveland Indians had a seven-game lead late in the 2001 season, but general manager John Hart was nervous.

The Minnesota Twins weren't done yet and Hart was sitting in his office checking the ticker tape, waiting for the scores to come in from around the league. His assistant, Mark Shapiro, watched his boss in amusement.

"Come on John," Shapiro said. "It's over. Relax."

Hart was not ready to acknowledge that. He was not ready to relax. "I was a guy who had been around," Hart said. "I knew about the '64 Phillies. I knew about the '51 Dodgers. I knew clubs blew leads. You never knew."

The Indians didn't blow their lead that year. They didn't blow their lead this year. They also had a seven-game lead on Sept. 5 and won 15 of their last 23 games. But, on the night the Indians clinched this September, Hart still got a phone call from his former assistant.

"John, I got it now," Shapiro said. "I understand what you were going through, about never thinking it's over."

It was just another lesson from the headmaster that has stood the test of time, one of many lessons that Hart imparted on an extraordinary group of young baseball executives during an extraordinary era in the history of the Cleveland Indians.

Three of those executives are now general managers for teams that are playing in the League Championship Series. Shapiro replaced Hart as the Indians general manager, while Josh Byrnes is in charge of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Dan O'Dowd is running the Colorado Rockies.

"I can still remember sitting in the bowels of old Cleveland Stadium in the middle of winter with a little space heater interviewing Mark Shapiro," Hart said. "We had just lost 105 games. He was a bright kid out of Princeton, his dad Ron had been an agent of a lot of our players in Baltimore and Mark had expressed an interest in getting into the game. We hired him and gave him a desk in the outer office with all the secretaries."

There are two others who started under Hart in Cleveland who became general managers. Paul DePodesta was the Dodgers general manager in 2004-05 and Neal Huntington was just hired by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Chris Antonetti, the Indians current assistant GM, is also considered a future general manager.

Hart, now a special assistant for the Rangers, stays in contact with all of them and understands what O'Dowd, Byrnes and Shapiro are going through as they sit one step away from the World Series. He went through it when he guided the Indians to six division titles in seven years in 1995-2001.

"I know what an exciting time it is for them," Hart said Monday from his home in Florida. "I have a very strong relationship with all of them. It's the greatest time of the year, meeting with their staffs, going over rosters and scouting reports, sitting there in the enemy stadium. I also know, even though they won't admit it, when they go home at night there is a deep personal satisfaction inside of all of them."

The common denominator is their time under Hart with the Indians. It truly was an extraordinary time when Hart put together an organization that bridged that gap between old-time baseball people with a new wave of young guys eager to have an impact on the game.

The long march of vets included guys like Johnny Goryl, Gordy McKenzie, Tom Giordano, Dom Chiti, Charlie Manuel, Jay Robertson, Ted Simmons and Buddy Bell, baseball men with decades of experience and firsthand knowledge of the game.

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They merged seamlessly with O'Dowd, Byrnes, Shapiro, Huntington, DePodesta and Antonetti, the young guys who could work the computers, study farm systems and opposing rosters and had a feel for the changing economics of the game. They worked with printouts while Hart still doodled on the yellow legal pads.

"They were able to use the baseball acumen that they were surrounded with and get creative with new ideas," Hart said. "They were passionate and energetic with a great work ethic and great organizational skills. We'd work out together at five in the morning and go for 18 hours. We'd be there in the stadium after a game until one or two in the morning, our feet propped up on the desk, talking baseball and what we could do to get better as an organization.

"When I went to the Indians from the Orioles, I felt the game was changing. The economics were growing as salaries went from $500,000 to $5 million in beyond. In Cleveland we were operating on a pretty strict set of guidelines and I felt we needed to be out front on the economics. So we looked at the idea of bringing in some extremely bright young guys who could handle that."

O'Dowd came to Cleveland with Hart and Hank Peters from Baltimore in 1989. He was head of the farm system when Hart was named general manager at the end of the 1991 season and was promoted to his assistant, overseeing both scouting and player development.

Shapiro started out working with the secretaries, eventually moving up to farm director and Hart's assistant after O'Dowd left. Byrnes, who played baseball at Haverford College, started out as an intern and ended up as director of scouting.

"We felt it was important to give them positions of leadership as the heads of departments to help them grow," Hart said. "It was all part of the process. They understood that franchise had been through some rough times and we were going to build an organization from the bottom up. There were not going to be any shortcuts. They all had a vision of where we were going."

Byrnes said Hart's influence on his career was immeasurable.

"That whole shop, and obviously John was the GM, was the best possible environment that I could have possibly walked in to," Byrnes said. "John had an open-door policy and I was in his office a lot -- even as an intern. I've learned a lot from observing him and interacting with him and from his encouragement and critiques. I refer back to a lot of how he did things, or sayings or his beliefs, probably more than I realize. I mean, there are things he said 12 years ago that ring true right now. He was a tremendous influence on me."

The results from their collective efforts were remarkable, an unprecedented turnaround of a franchise that had easily been one of the worst in the game. The Indians won six division titles in seven years, plus two American League pennants.

"What I tried to be, if anything, was an encourager," Hart said. "I tried to give them direction but I had some sharp bright guys with a great work ethic. They all had ambition, but they didn't put their ambition out front. They were very loyal. Everybody pulled for each other. That's why we've all stayed close."

Now they all try to beat each other and their old mentor just sits back and watches. "I'm trying to be neutral," Hart said. "I'm just sitting back and watching the games. But it's been a lot of fun."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.