A Tribe Reborn, a new book by George Christian Pappas is subtitled "How the Cleveland Indians of the '90s Went From Celler Dwellers to Playoff Contenders," and that nicely sums up what the book is about. Pappas interviewed a number of former Indians players, managers, and scouts, along with announcers, beat writers, and front office employees past and present to piece together how the franchise was transformed into a powerhouse, and what it was like to be a part of those efforts. Most of the book takes place between Dick Jacobs' purchase of the team in 1986 and his sale of the team in 1999.
The book is filled with a number of interesting stories, many of which I'd never heard before. Among my favorite chapters in the book are those on the scouting of Jim Thome (in which former Indians scouting director Tom Couston works covertly to keep his interest in the man who would become Cleveland's all-time leading home run hitter a secret) and the background and hiring of former General Manager John Hart (which is excerpted below).
Pappas is only 22 years old, which makes the book an impressive accomplishment, given the amount of access he was able to obtain, and the stories he was able to get people to tell him. If there's a flaw to Pappas' reporting, it's one that probably takes more experience to overcome, which is that the players and other figures who are interviewed tend to come across in a bit better light than those who were not. No one is painted as a villain (I guess maybe Art Modell during a short stretch), but the less flattering portrayals belong to figures whose own account of things is absent, while Dick Jacobs is portrayed probably too favorably.
Those are minor quibbles though, and they don't really detract from the proceedings.
The book works as a way for younger fans to learn more about players and teams they may only remember from highlight reels, for fans my age (34) , who can remember a few of the bad years before things got turned around, the book does a lot to flesh out stuff I was too young to care about at the time (like how the GM was, or how a player was acquired). For fans old enough to have been more tuned in throughout the 80s and early 90s, some of what's covered may be fairly familiar to you, but I'm sure there will be some stories you haven't heard before too.
Also of note, the foreword is written by former Tribe General Manager Hank Peters, who oversaw the beginning of the turnaround.
We can only hope the Indians are now on the verge of something even half as successful as those years were, and if you're looking to connect (or reconnect) with that era, you'll probably enjoy this book.
A Tribe Reborn is available now, and can be found online at:
George Christian Pappas works in baseball operations with the Tampa Bay Rays and has contributed to many media outlets, including the St. Petersburg Times and CBS Sports. Pappas has covered and worked in baseball for the New York Yankees (baseball operations) and ESPN Radio (writer and analyst). A Tribe Reborn is his first book. He currently resides in Clearwater, Florida.
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The John Hart Experiment
Hank Peters was tired. Whenever he felt drowsy, the general manager would close his door, put his feet up on his desk, and close his eyes for twenty minutes in the middle of the day. That was his secret to lasting four decades in baseball. But less than a week before his sixty-fifth birthday, in the beginning of September 1989, the Indians' 65-78 record put them in second-to-last place in the American League East. In addition to feeling tired, Peters was growing frustrated. Whenever that would happen, he called Tom Giordano into his office.
"We're going to have to make a move at the major-league level," Peters said.
That meant the skipper, Doc Edwards, was about to become unemployed. Doc had been the bullpen coach when Joe Klein, the former vice president of baseball operations, tapped him to replace Pat Corrales midway through the 1987 season. His managerial style was a welcomed change, compared to that of his predecessor. Pat Tabler, the Indians' lone representative at the '89 All Star Game, had told reporters that Doc was the type of manager whose door was always open; something which sat especially well with his players. Corrales, in contrast, was an oppressor who required his players to wear helmets when they took batting practice and outlawed card games in the clubhouse.
In any case, Doc Edwards' hire didn't result in any significant improvement, and after a year and a half, it led Peters to make a managerial switch.
"Tell Doc we're not bringing him back, and get some names together," he told Giordano.
Giordano already had an immediate replacement in mind; somebody within the organization that he had been grooming long before he and Hank ever arrived in Cleveland.
* * *
Tom Giordano discovered John Hart on a scouting trip to Florida while working with the Baltimore Orioles in 1982. Giordano's daughter taught physical education at Colonial High School in Orlando, and she kept telling him about the competitive baseball teams at Boone High School. Hart, who coached the Boone Braves, led the team to a State Championship in 1981. Giordano's scout in the area, Jack Sanford, raved about the school's catcher, Ron Karkovice, and said he should watch him play.
Understand that Giordano was very particular about traveling to evaluate players for Baltimore. There was a chain of command that needed to be followed. His scouts reported to assistants, who reported back to him. They ranked prospects and players on lists, and he went to scout them in order of his preference. Boone's backstop was a six-footer with a strong, athletic build. He topped the list the assistants submitted, so Tom and Jack went to see him play at a night game in 1982.
They got to the field around four o'clock, long before any other spectators arrived. A noise coming out of the locker room caught Giordano's attention: the sound of baseball spikes crunching on pavement. He looked toward the dugout and saw the team, led by its manager, marching to the field. These high school ball players looked like professionals. Their uniforms were spotless. They took a lap around the field and circled their manager for a word before breaking into calisthenics and warm-up exercises. They had the right throwing mechanics. They played pepper games. Pepper games! You hardly saw that anymore. Hart threw batting practice exactly the way they did in pro ball, forcing his players to spray the ball to all fields with situational hitting drills.
Once the game started, the manager positioned himself in the third-base coaching box, a la Los Angeles Dodgers skipper Tommy Lasorda. He relayed elaborate signs to base runners as they established their leads. His first-base coach waved his arms for batters to make the turn for second even on base hits, calling for the runners to retreat only after the ball was fielded cleanly.
The game ended and Sanford asked Giordano what he thought about Hart's catcher. Karkovice played a good defensive game, but he didn't hit well enough to be considered as one of his top choices. But Giordano was more interested in meeting the manager.
Surprised, Sanford asked, "Pray tell, boss man, why do you want to meet that young fellow?"
Giordano was impressed by Hart's baseball abilities and his maturity, and it turned out that there was good reason for it. John Hart had been an All-American at Seminole Junior College and caught in the Montreal Expos organization for three years before returning home to pursue a degree at the University of Central Florida in history and physical education. He wanted to stay around baseball after finishing school, and so he took the coaching job at Boone. Giordano tracked him down after the game and asked him to meet for lunch the next day.
At their appointment, Giordano told him, "John, I don't have a job open at this time for you, but I'm tremendously impressed with your baseball abilities. You are a people person, and you need that, especially if you are going to work with young players."
Giordano continued. "So this is what I have in mind. I'm going to offer you something."
John looked at him, intrigued.
"I've never heard of any scouting director ever offering this kind of a deal. I'm offering you a guaranteed two-year contract. That means if I make a mistake on this, you're still going to keep earning money for two years, non-negotiable."
John had to think about the man's offer. He had a family of his own in Florida, and Baltimore was almost 1,000 miles away. He had already turned down offers to return to professional baseball in the past, and, in fact, ended up turning down Giordano's initial offer to become a scout for the Orioles. But for the last six weeks of the school year, after he had fulfilled his base- ball obligations at Boone, John Hart attended games with Jack Sanford to evaluate players who weren't his own. Sanford vetted Hart and reported his thoughts back to Giordano. When the Orioles had an opening for a manager at their rookie-ball team in Bluefield, West Virginia, they offered the position to Hart. He and his wife, Sandi, met with Giordano for dinner and finalized the deal.
In his first season as a minor-league manager, Bluefield won the Appalachian League title, a feat it had not accomplished in eleven years. The Orioles promoted John to their A-level affiliate in Hagerstown, Maryland, where he stayed for two years. His next stops were at AA and AAA for two more seasons. He even did a stint in the Dominican Republic before earning a promotion to become the third-base coach for the major-league team. By then, Giordano had already followed Peters to Cleveland.
* * *
The Indians had already come calling to interview John Hart before, but Baltimore owner Ed Williams denied him permission to talk to the club, promising him that he was on tap to take over as the Orioles' next manager. But Williams died that summer, which cleared the way for Hank Peters to invite John to join the Cleveland organization for the 1989 season.
"I remember thinking, at that time, that Hank was going to want me to manage the club," recalls Hart. After all, that's what he had been used to doing. Instead, Hank offered him a position as a front-office assistant, where he would have input on the players, the hiring of staff, and setting the vision for what the Indians would put on the field. Peters encouraged him to take it.
"With your ability to communicate and your field background, this is going to be great. I can teach you the other pieces of it," he said.
John agreed to move to Cleveland, where he found himself working for the first time in a front office. When he arrived at Municipal Stadium, he stopped at his secretary's desk and introduced himself. Ethel LaRue was mild-mannered, astute, and very good on the phone. She was a seasoned baseball secretary.
"Ethel, I've never worked in a front office. I don't even know how to work the phone system," Hart said.
She gave him a reassuring laugh and said, "When these buttons ring, you tell me what to do."
He could handle that.
In Cleveland, John also found himself working again under Tom. He sent Hart around the majors as a special assignment scout; a role that allowed him to grow familiar with front-office circles and gave him a chance to develop contacts in every city around the league.
But John Hart was only Tom Giordano's short-term solution for Hank Peters to fill the big-league field manager's role. There would be a point at which Peters was no longer going to be the general manager, and Giordano didn't want the job, either. He was only a year younger than Hank, and even after taking extra vitamins, his eyesight wasn't as good as it once was. He had no interest in the position. John, on the other hand, would make an exceptional fit in that role.
"John is credentialed for any job you want to give him," Giordano said. "He's proved it in our system, and in Baltimore, and even before that in high school. He's impressed me. And he's going to come in and ask me, ‘Damn it, T-Bone, why won't you give me a shot to manage?' Come next season, the answer is going to be no."
Hank stared from across the desk, contemplating Giordano's every word.
"Henry, you're the general manager. When John is assigned, it's coming from you." He continued, "You called the other GMs, introducing him as the advance scout. He's been talking to them, finding out what they need. He's done a good job. Now get off that damn wagon. Everything is set for you: John Hart is the fellow after you go."
And just like that, Hank Peters and Tom Giordano called in John Hart with 19 games remaining in the 1989 season and asked him how he felt about managing the club until the end of the year. As they expected, he was eager when he delivered his response.
"Oh, yeah, absolutely!" Then Giordano cut in.
"This is with the understanding, John, that it's only until the end of the year. Even if you win every game, you're not to come in here and telling me that you want to be interviewed. Your job is not on the field any longer."
Hank continued, "John, this is right up your alley. You're going to have a lot more input on the baseball piece of it because you can not only get the players. You can hire the staff, set the vision for what you want to see on the field."
John didn't need any more convincing, and he quickly accepted. He was issued a uniform and headed straight for the dugout. The Indians went 8-11 during that 19-game stretch, after which John handed the control of the lineup card over to John McNamara, and took over as the director of baseball operations for the club. There he would remain until Peters' retirement in September of 1991, at which point he would be tapped to succeed Hank as the Indians' next general manager.