The disciples of John Hart
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
Master builderThe 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
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.