Commentary

The disciples of John Hart

Originally Published: October 11, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

John Hart, senior advisor for the Texas Rangers, hopped a flight to Arizona this week. The agenda called for him to talk to scouts, meet with general manager Jon Daniels, and check out the organization's young talent in the Arizona Fall League and the instructional league.

He also plans to tune in to the American and National League Championship Series, where three graduates of the John Hart Baseball Academy and Executive Finishing School will be striving to attain the ultimate goal.

Excuse Hart if he feels as if his professional life is flashing before his eyes.

His former right-hand man, Dan O'Dowd, is riding a late-season wave with the resurgent Rockies. But first Colorado must get past the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are run by Josh Byrnes, a former front-office assistant in Cleveland at the height of Hart's regime.

He was secure and confident enough to say, 'There are good people out there who can make us better. I'm going to empower them to do it.'

--Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro on John Hart

And the Cleveland Indians, the franchise Hart guided to six postseason berths and two World Series appearances from 1995 through 2001, will try to end 59 years of championship futility against Boston. General manager Mark Shapiro, yet another Hart protégé, is the man in charge in Cleveland.

That means three of the four general managers still playing consider Hart a mentor and lifelong influence. Which makes you wonder: How did he miss Theo Epstein?

"I can't even put into words what it means," Hart said. "I'm very proud of all these guys. I've been through this seven or eight times, so I know how tough it is to get there."

In much the same way that Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid and other NFL coaches attribute their success to the late Bill Walsh, Hart's disciples credit him for recognizing their potential and giving them a chance and an opportunity to grow.

"John influenced me a great deal then and even now," Byrnes said. "There's no question he's had an enormous impact on my career in baseball."

Master builder

The past few years have been a trial for Hart. He left Cleveland to work for Texas owner Tom Hicks in 2001, and eventually became a lightning rod for dissatisfaction in Arlington. Hart's tenure with the Rangers was marked by a 311-337 record, two fourth-place finishes and a pair of thirds, some regrettable free-agent signings (most notably, $65 million for Chan Ho Park) and the trade of Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees.

Hart stepped aside two years ago and now keeps a low profile in Texas, but he remains a target for abuse among the local media, who delight in poking fun at him for his cushy job and nondescript legacy. Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Randy Galloway, Hart's foremost critic, refers to him as the "Empty Golf Shirt."

The fans look much more fondly upon Hart in Cleveland, where he took a perennial laughingstock and turned it into a baseball powerhouse in the 1990s.

It's hard to grasp the obstacles Hart encountered when he succeeded Hank Peters as Indians general manager in 1991. When Hart worked as third-base coach in Baltimore in the late 1980s, opposing teams dreaded visits to Cleveland, with its bad spring weather and minuscule crowds at decrepit Cleveland Stadium.

"In Baltimore, guys used to joke that if the plane is going to crash, it was better to have it happen on the way in than the way out, because you can at least avoid spending four days in Cleveland," Hart said.

Hart, impeccably dressed and glib, came across as the embodiment of the polished, new-age executive. In reality, he was a baseball guy to the core. He broke into pro ball with the Montreal Expos as a catcher in 1969 and managed at several stops in the minors. He's seen enough rickety buses, bad-hop infields and midnight stops at McDonald's to last a lifetime.

Upon arrival in Cleveland, Hart saw the game changing, competitively and economically, and wanted lieutenants who could embrace the future. He coveted bright young minds from nontraditional backgrounds, and gave them the freedom to express opinions and do meaningful work.

"He was secure and confident enough to say, 'There are good people out there who can make us better. I'm going to empower them to do it,'" Shapiro said.

O'Dowd, who began his career in Baltimore, was the first in line. Smart, inquisitive and intensely competitive, he joined the Indians as farm director and graduated to the role of Hart's top assistant before leaving for Colorado.

You could always walk into John's office, plop down on the couch and look up three hours later and say, 'I have to get back to what I was doing,'" Byrnes said. "He liked the camaraderie of the group and encouraged us to be involved and interact with him.

--Arizona GM Josh Byrnes on Hart

Shapiro, whose father, Ron, was one of the game's top player agents, worked briefly in real estate in Southern California before joining the Indians. When he came on board in 1992, the franchise had pretty much hit bottom. The 1991 Indians finished with a 57-105 record and hit a pathetic 79 home runs -- 28 by the team's mercurial left fielder, Albert Belle.

"It was the most maligned organization in professional sports," Shapiro said. "The only thing the Indians were known for was the movie 'Major League.'"

Consider the setting for Shapiro's job interview: Hart sat in Gabe Paul's old Cleveland Stadium office, behind a desk once used by Bill Veeck, with marks from old cigarette butts ground into the wood. It was so cold that Hart kept a space heater in the corner of the room.

But when Shapiro heard Hart and O'Dowd outline the organization's "Blueprint for Success," he was enthralled. He returned home and found a voice mail from Hart offering him a job, and jumped at the opportunity.

"I left there thinking, 'Those are guys I want to wake up and work next to every day,'" Shapiro said.

Hart made some astute moves in Cleveland, acquiring Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel in trades, and wasn't afraid to take risks. The Indians avoided salary arbitration by negotiating long-term deals with Jim Thome, Charles Nagy, Manny Ramirez and other young players before the practice was fashionable.

Hart's timing was perfect. The Indians became a powerhouse just as they moved into Jacobs Field, and enjoyed the mother of all honeymoon periods. The team set a record of 455 consecutive sellouts that still stands.

The esprit de corps in Cleveland's front office was forged in the workout room, where Hart and his assistants arrived at 6 a.m. each day and hit the treadmills and stair climbers until they were drenched in sweat. Then they'd shower, go upstairs and log 16-hour days.

Hart loved to assign projects to his young assistants and let them go to town, and he made brainstorming sessions a rite of passage. "Couch time," the young executives called it.

"You could always walk into John's office, plop down on the couch and look up three hours later and say, 'I have to get back to what I was doing,'" Byrnes said. "He liked the camaraderie of the group and encouraged us to be involved and interact with him."

Hart also had the fortitude to make tough decisions. In 1995, Belle, Carlos Baerga and Lofton were integral parts of Cleveland's World Series team. Two years later, when the Indians returned to the Series, all three had been traded or left town through free agency.

A fruitful tree

The John Hart front-office "tree" encompasses more than the three LCS general managers. Neal Huntington, the new GM in Pittsburgh, spent nine years in Cleveland. Paul DePodesta worked for the Indians before moving on to Oakland, the Dodgers and San Diego. And Chris Antonetti, Shapiro's top assistant, is widely regarded as a GM-in-waiting.

Shapiro has a history degree from Princeton, Byrnes went to Haverford, Huntington is an Amherst graduate and DePodesta went to Harvard. Those academic pedigrees might seem a little highfalutin for the old guard, but Hart found a way to marry the two approaches in Cleveland. Nothing got done until John Goryl, Tom Giordano and the veteran baseball men had their say.

"This isn't Sabermetrics," Hart said. "I wanted our guys to hear what the manager says and how tough it is in that dugout, because I've been there. I wanted them to respect the old scout in the blue Plymouth who's going from one city to the next trying to find the next young superstar out of high school or college. They all got schooled on old baseball."

Hart, 59, remains an old ball guy at heart. While he enjoys a relaxing round of golf and a glass of wine over dinner with Sandi, his wife of 37 years, a part of him misses the competition on the front lines. He's under contract with Texas through 2013, so it's hard to envision when that might happen again.

"There may be another run in there at some point," Hart said. "Who knows? But I'm not lobbying for anything. I'm the most undercover guy you've ever seen."

How undercover? Shapiro desperately wants Hart to attend an ALCS game at Jacobs Field, but Hart keeps resisting because he doesn't want to take the focus off where it belongs.

"I don't want to be in the way, and I don't want to be a jinx," Hart said. "As I told Mark, this is his moment and his time. I'm very content to live vicariously through what's going on."

Shapiro, befitting the well-trained general manager, has contemplated his options and come up with a fail-safe Plan B to get John Hart to Cleveland.

"I'm going through his wife to make sure he gets here," Shapiro said.

Hart will get there. You can book that.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer