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 its 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 rightfield 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
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
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
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 flipped 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
"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."
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
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.