Cleveland Indians general manager John Hart gazed through the mist that shrouded Jacobs Field before an exhibition game last Saturday, surveying his handiwork. From his private box Hart could look out at a crowd of 33,854 that seemed indifferent to the rain, and at a team deserving of that devotion. And if Hart had squinted a bit, he might have been able to make out a sunny future on the horizon. Clairvoyance is his gift, you know. Hart has a knack for looking between the raindrops that inevitably fall on all franchises, for focusing not only on the bottom line but also on the finish line.
Five days earlier Hart had jumped ahead of the curve again when he and his counterpart with the Atlanta Braves, John Schuerholz, made a trade that slapped baseball out of his spring stupor. Hart sent centerfielder Kenny Lofton, one of the game's most dynamic players, and promising lefthanded reliever Alan Embree to the Braves for former All-Star outfielders Marquis Grissom and David Justice and $425,000. There was compelling logic to the deal for both teams. Grissom, 29, and Justice, 30, were in the middle of multiyear contracts that guaranteed them $27.7 million—money Atlanta can now spend to keep pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who become free agents after the 1997 season. The Braves were also creating a spot in right-field for 19-year-old prodigy Andruw Jones, who could move to centerfield next year if Lofton, 29, another free-agent-to-be, doesn't re-sign. While the trade stunned the city of Atlanta, primarily because Grissom is a native son in addition to being a solid citizen and solid player, it seemed to be coping better than Cleveland.
Maybe Cleveland fans don't remember what Grissom and Justice did in the 1995 World Series: Grissom was the leading hitter (.360), and Justice launched the Series-clinching home run, ruining the Tribe's first appearance in the Fall Classic in 41 years. Last year Grissom, a four-time Gold Glove winner, batted .308 with 23 home runs, 74 RBIs and 28 stolen bases from the leadoff spot. The oft-injured Justice, who played in only 40 games in 1996 because of a dislocated right shoulder but who now appears healthy, has averaged an RBI every 5.3 at bats over the past four seasons.
Or maybe Cleveland fans had an understandably impassioned attachment to Lofton, who not only hit .317 with 14 homers, 67 RBIs and a major-league-leading 75 stolen bases as the Indians' leadoff hitter, but who also won his fourth Gold Glove. On top of that, Lofton has been an active member of the community, working with the inner-city baseball program called RBI. Whatever the reason, the deal received mixed reviews from the print media, from the talk-radio barkers and from several hundred fans who phoned the Indians.
Cleveland has a selective memory. The city seems incapable of forgetting April 17, 1960, when general manager Frank (Trader) Lane sent popular charismatic slugger Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn—a deal that signaled the start of Cleveland's decline. But fans can't recall the depressing seasons just before Hart took over in September 1991, when the franchise had little revenue, a moribund farm system, a mausoleum for a stadium and a club beginning its fourth decade of hopelessness. Says Hart, "We really were a laughingstock." Hart, owner Richard Jacobs and assistant general manager Dan O'Dowd made baseball matter again in Cleveland. They put together a team that had the best record in the major leagues over the past three years (265-154) and twice extended the season into October, all of which should have given Hart enough currency to sell a deal of this magnitude. But a man who should be bulletproof has, for the third time in eight months, had to dodge slugs from those sniping at his personnel decisions.
The irony is that a franchise that had picked itself off the dung heap in the early 1990s with a commitment to stability, has been built, broken up and now rebuilt—of the 23 Indians who played in the Series against the Braves, only nine are still with the organization—all the while remaining a powerhouse. "The first lesson I learned is that stability leads to flexibility because it's a lot easier trading players who have multiyear contracts," says Hart. He took a maverick approach when he became G.M., signing a number of the team's best young players, including Lofton, second baseman Carlos Baerga and outfielder Albert Belle, to long-term deals, in part to save money later on by avoiding the arbitration process. "I was also naive enough at the time as a young, aggressive general manager to think these guys would say, 'Geez, we were taken care of before we proved anything. We want to stick around.' That just isn't the way it works." Now Hart has Justice signed through 1998 and Grissom through '99 for what the Indians consider reasonable salaries.
While all but 15,000 of the 3.5 million tickets available at Jacobs Field have been sold for '97, Hart still runs the risk of alienating the fans because of the departure of Baerga, Belle and now Lofton. "John's been out there pushing the envelope," says pitcher Orel Hershiser, the only key Indians player who can be a free agent after this season. "Kenny was a huge favorite, but the whole tradition they're trying to build here is a connection to winning, and no one person is bigger than that. That's what I learned when I was with the [Los Angeles] Dodgers."
Baerga was a cornerstone of Hart's strategy. He grew on Cleveland. Too bad he kept growing. Last season Baerga's .267 average with the Indians seemed to be just a notch above his ballooning weight and was 38 points below his career average. Says Hart, "I could have done the easy thing and said, 'Well, that's Carlos, we'll work it out. We can't do anything because everybody loves him.' " Instead, on July 29 Hart shipped Baerga, along with reserve infielder Alvaro Espinoza. to the New York Mets for infielders Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino. The deal not only freed $9.4 million in salary the Indians had committed to Baerga through 1998, but it also made baseball sense: Baerga batted just .193 in New York and Hart Hipped the two former Mets in a package for the San Francisco Giants' slugging third baseman Matt Williams. Williams was obtained on Nov. 13 as protection lest the free agent Belle, the resident American League churl and RBI king, didn't re-sign with the Indians. A week later, in fact, Belle—whom the Indians had offered a five-year, $40 million package before and after the 1996 season—accepted a five-year, $55 million contract from Cleveland's principal Central Division rival, the Chicago White Sox.
"This was the first winter our fans have had to come to grips with these things," Hart says of losing players to free agency. "It had all been Camelot. We came riding in on a white horse, making good trades for Lofton and [shortstop] Omar Vizquel, developing players like [rightfielder] Manny Ramirez and [first baseman] Jim Thome. We still want core players, guys our fans can identify with through the prime of their careers, but this isn't a club that will be signing guys if it comes down to [matching outside offers to] the last dollar."
While Hart insists that not trading Belle before he left as a free agent was no gaffe—"The way we got fair value with Albert was the 99 wins last year and getting to the postseason again," Hart says—he wasn't going to let Lofton get away for nothing. In late January the Indians offered Lofton a five-year, $43.25 million extension, but he wouldn't commit. "I didn't know if Kenny was bluffing or not [about seeking Belle-type numbers after 1997]," Hart says, "but I couldn't afford to take the chance. You develop intuition in this job, and mine told me that Kenny was ready to go."