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THE BIG PICTURE
Michael Farber
April 07, 1997
In striving for long-term success, Indians general manager John Hart has made tough player moves that weren't immediately popular
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April 07, 1997

The Big Picture

In striving for long-term success, Indians general manager John Hart has made tough player moves that weren't immediately popular

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Before spring training Hart called Schuerholz to say that he might be interested in Justice if Grissom were also part of the deal. The general managers tiptoed around the trade for a long time, chatting once a week. Finally, at midnight on March 24, the teams made the swap.

Hart, 48, is a zealous, fast-talking man. He was a history and phys-ed major at the University of Central Florida, and he learned economics the way most people do—by cashing his paychecks. The Montreal Expos signed him as a catcher in 1969, but he drifted to the Baltimore Orioles' organization, where he became a fixture, first as a minor league player and later as a minor league manager. Cleveland president and general manager Hank Peters, who had been the G.M. in Baltimore from 1975 through '87, brought Hart over in 1989 to groom as his successor. Hart did a bit of everything, including managing the Indians in 1989 for 19 games after Doc Edwards was fired. Peters retired after Cleveland finished a grim 57-105 in '91, a fortunate time for Hart to take over not only because he could sell a rebuilding plan in a city that expected nothing, but also because there was a new stadium in the works.

"Not to take anything away from John, who's been nimble and smart, but not every general manager has had his assets," Hershiser says. "John's had the wherewithal. Before you grade a general manager, you have to measure what he has to work with."

Fair enough. This season Cleveland has the fourth-highest payroll in baseball ($52 million), but in a metropolitan area of only 1.8 million, the Indians aren't flush with local TV dollars. Cleveland receives approximately $5 million in broadcast revenue, some $11 million less than what the Orioles get, for instance, which doesn't give the Indians a huge margin for error. If the Indians hadn't been making smart baseball decisions, the Jake could have been the most charming white elephant in baseball.

There is also the more delicate matter of geography. Last winter Hart put a full-court press on some premier free agents (pitchers Alex Fernandez, Roger Clemens and John Smoltz and third baseman Tim Naehring) and came up empty. While each had a swell reason for signing elsewhere—at the last minute Fernandez chose to pitch at home with the Florida Marlins, for example, and Naehring didn't want to play second base—their snubs, and the inability to nab free agents Paul Molitor or Mark Grace the previous winter, add up to one thing: Cleveland is, alas, Cleveland. A chance to make good money, win and play in front of a guaranteed 43,000 every night goes only so far.

Hart says he doesn't know where baseball is heading, though this spring when he looked around the Indians' sleepy Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Fla., and saw Lake Lulu beyond the first base stands, he cheered himself with the thought that baseball's purity might shine through again in coming years. "No matter what, I'll always be little Johnny Hart, the bright-eyed kid who loves the game," he says. "That's where I came from. That's who I am."

But Hart will keep looking ahead so that the Indians can make money while making good on the unwritten guarantee that with every season ticket goes a pennant race. That is baseball's clairvoyant: a prophet with his eye on profit.

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