Finally, Hart got the New York Mets to bite. On July 29 they agreed to trade in-fielders Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Kent for Baerga and infielder Alvaro Espinoza, the kind of prankster who thought putting a bubble-gum bubble on an unsuspecting teammate's hat was funny—the 59th time.
By then Hart had already traded for Mark Carreon, a righthanded bat with pop, and dealt Murray, who carries a chip on his shoulder toward the press and, more important, who, Cleveland scouts decided, had a slow bat and couldn't play first base even on a part-time basis.
"The easy thing to do is to do nothing," Hart says. "But my responsibility is not only to improve the club on a short-term basis but to look at the long-term picture."
Hart wasn't done shaking up the club. With righthanders McDowell and Dennis Martinez nursing arm injuries, he tried getting lefthander Denny Neagle from the Pittsburgh Pirates in mid-August. Hart offered Pirates general manager Cam Bonifay packages involving several of Cleveland's top prospects. Bonifay turned them down. Finally, on Aug. 28, a frustrated Hart opened the vault. He told Bonifay to pick any three prospects in the system. "You put the deal together," Hart said to Bonifay. "Make me say no."
Bonifay declined. "You don't have enough," he said, then accepted an offer of three prospects from Atlanta. Hart, who has such gems as righthanders Bartolo Colon and Jaret Wright rising through the minor leagues, was stunned. Now, though, he admits, "Down the road [not trading those prospects] may be the best thing that happened for us."
Three days after the Neagle deal collapsed, Hart got DH Kevin Seitzer from the Milwaukee Brewers for reserve outfielder Jeromy Burnitz. "What Seitzer did," Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove says, "is set our lineup." Seitzer gives the Indians another righthanded bat and a perfect fit in the number 2 hole between lefthanded hitters Kenny Lofton and Thome. Like the righthanded-hitting Franco, Seitzer gives the club another solid citizen who is hungry to win. Franco has played the most career games among active players without getting to the postseason (1,759); Seitzer ranks sixth on the list (1,365).
"Our scouting report was pretty clear about how to beat them last year," says Mercker, who played for the Braves in '95. "Pitch a lefthander. Just about any lefthander, but especially one who can change speeds. They had a lot of free swingers. We respected their lineup, but it wasn't like we were in awe of them."
The Indians can still pound the ball. At week's end they were hitting .292—one point better than last season. For the first time in franchise history they had three players with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs: Belle, Thome and outfielder Manny Ramirez. They had seven regulars batting better than .300, and Vizcaino was at .298, including his work with the Mets. Still, a perception of vulnerability has grown around them.
"Last year," says Texas Rangers general manager Doug Melvin, "they steam-rolled everybody. You'd go into a series against Cleveland just hoping to come out in one piece. You knew going in that after a three-game series with Cleveland, you'd have to make some roster move with your pitching. Somebody would have to be sent down or you'd have to get some fresh arms. They pummeled people. Now I think they've sacrificed a bit of that power for defense."
Says Hargrove, "I just think people's expectations of this ball club coming off last year were unreasonable. This club has had a very good year. We've just had more rough spots than we did last season."