This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history. For an explanation, please see this post.
For the 32 seasons before John Hart was promoted to general manager in September 1991, the Cleveland Indians never finished closer than 11 games from first in a full season. And they certainly didn’t appear to be making progress; in 1991 the team lost 105 games, finished last in the league in runs and ninth in runs allowed, and drew the fewest fans in the league for the third year in row. Hart had his work cut out for him.
Cleveland had brought Hart to the big leagues after several years managing in the Orioles minor league system. When the Indians fired manager Doc Edwards late in the 1989 season, the team named Hart, then the third base coach, to finish out the final 19 games. Hart moved to the front office after the season, working closely with GM Hank Peters, and was instrumental in acquiring Carlos Baerga.
Hart got the top job two years later, and made the most of the talent he inherited. He smartly recognized that Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Charles Nagy, Sandy Alomar and Baerga could form the basis of a pretty good team, and held on to all of them. He bolstered his nucleus with some great trades, picking up Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Paul Sorrento, and Jose Mesa, and veteran free agent signings, including Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez, and Orel Hershiser.
The team began making steady progress, winning 76 games Hart’s first two years. In the strike shortened 1994 season the Indians were in second place at 66-47 when the season ended. The next year they romped through the regular season, finishing 100-44, at .694 the fourth highest winning percentage of any team since World War II. The Indians won their first two playoff series and the pennant before dropping a close six game World Series to the Braves, three losses coming by only one run. Hart was recognized for his efforts by winning the Sporting News Executive of the Year Award in both 1994 and 1995.
As Hart’s team was jelling in the early 1990s, he considered ways to bring some payroll stability and predictability to the team’s finances. Salaries were escalating dramatically through both arbitration and free agency. Hart crafted a strategy to approach his young players years in advance of free agency and offer long term contract extensions to buy out the uncertainty of future salary increases. Hart first offered such deals to Baerga and Alomar, both represented by high-profile agent Scott Boras. The agent advised against the extensions, but both players chose to sign. With these two young leaders in the fold, Hart successfully did the same with Belle, Lofton, and Nagy. This strategy has gained adherents over the years, and it is now common to see teams, particularly those in smaller markets, negotiate long term extensions with players who were already under the team’s control for several more years.
Hart gained another advantage a few years into his tenure. A new ballpark, now known as Progressive Field, opened in 1994 to critical and popular acclaim. The team soon began a streak of 455 straight sellouts and jumped to second in the league in attendance. The new revenues allowed Hart the freedom to chase higher priced free agents and he generally spent his money well.
From 1995 through 2001, the Indians claimed six of seven division titles, making it back to the World Series in 1997, when they lost a heartbreaking Game Seven to the Marlins. To sustain the team’s competitiveness Hart continued to make some solid moves, adding David Justice and Marquis Grissom by trade, Roberto Alomar as a free agent, and Bartolo Colon, an amateur free agent signing from the Dominican Republic.
Less successfully, Hart used many of his best prospects in an attempt to plug holes by trading for veterans. In these years Hart dealt such players as Sean Casey, Danny Graves, Jeromy Burnitz, Brian Giles, and Richie Sexson, often in order to acquire a veteran player who proved less productive than the player he gave up. A comparison to the Atlanta Braves of the same period is instructive. The 1994 Braves were the best team in baseball and handed starting jobs to two rookies: Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez. Within a couple of years, Chipper and Andruw Jones also claimed key roles on the team. This on-the-fly rebuild allowed Atlanta continued success into the 2000s, whereas the Indians fell back.
At the end of the 2001 season, after an extraordinary decade in charge, Hart resigned, and planned to take a year off to recharge his batteries. But when Texas owner Tom Hicks offered Hart a three-year contract at $2 million per year, possibly making him the highest priced GM in the game, he accepted the new challenge. Hicks had lavished the largest contract in baseball history on Alex Rodriguez the previous season only to finish 73-89. Hart believed the team was closer to contention than it appeared and signed free agents Chan Ho Park and Juan Gonzalez to expensive contracts. Both players nosedived, and the team again struggled.
Hart recommitted the team to the younger players and the farm system, but success remained elusive, and in 2003, despite the success of youngsters Mark Teixeira, Michael Young and Hank Blalock, the team continued to tread water. Moreover, Hicks’s investment firm was running into financial difficulties, boosting the appeal of a younger, cheaper team. After the season Hart swapped Alex Rodriguez for Alfonso Soriano to free up payroll. The team jumped to 89 wins in 2004 but still missed the playoffs. The gains were fleeting, however, and in 2005 the team fell back to 79 wins with a payroll that had dropped to ninth in the league from second in 2003. Hicks and Hart agreed after the season that the GM would step down, signing a long agreement to keep him with the Rangers as a senior advisor.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Hart will get another shot at team building. In November 2013 Atlanta president John Schuerholz hired Hart, a close friend, as a senior advisor for the Braves. Like the Indians many years before, the Braves intended to lock a couple of their young stars up to long term contracts. Soon after Schuerholz dismissed Frank Wren late in the 2014 season, he and Hart agreed the latter would become president of baseball operations and assume the general manager’s duties.
Mark Shapiro, his successor in Cleveland, once said, “One of John’s greatest attributes in Cleveland was his own personal gut feeling for talent evaluation.” It will be interesting to see how Hart does in the more corporate, dynamic, and complex front office world of 2015. He was one of the best in the game during his Cleveland years, and Braves fans are hoping that he can recapture some of that magic.
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To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.