Spring-loaded outfielder Coco Crisp drains a sports drink and slams the empty bottle in a clubhouse trash can. Though the receptacle reaches only to his waist, Crisp leaps in the air, exaggerating in the manner of a professional wrestler delivering a boot to the knee of a dazed opponent.
Otherwise, all is quiet an hour and a half before a game versus the Minnesota Twins, the first in the season's last homestand. The Twins are fighting for a division title that Cleveland conceded more than a year ago, when General Manager Mark Shapiro traded pitcher Bartolo Colon for prospects. The misnamed Era of Champions was over.
The signs of a rebuild are evident in the faces in the clubhouse. Exotic facial hair associated with men in their early and middle 20s stripes cheek and chin. A number of players read letters from admirers. Crisp, seated at a clubhouse table, pulls a baseball card from a stack of correspondence, signs it, then blows dry the signature to keep it from smudging. "One down, 30 to go," he says without a hint of drudgery.
When the Indians were among the league's elite, it would have been unusual to see this many players sitting on stools, unfolding sheets of notebook paper. Fan mail tended to collect in large piles, unopened. Yet today's Tribesmen are still appreciative of celebrity; they tear into the envelopes as if they contained checks.
The magnitude of the rebuilding project was perhaps best revealed at Yankee Stadium in July. The Indians fielded a starting lineup that collectively made $2.75 million. The Yankee lineup made $82.8 million.
New York took all four games. Cleveland left town 14 games out of first place.
Still, for Shapiro, no drubbing this season has been as painful as last summer's Colon trade. He had been in charge of baseball operations not yet nine months when his original idea -- to compete and retool simultaneously -- flopped. Montreal, by twist of its queer fate, was offering three excellent prospects in exchange for Cleveland's ace. The Indians' minor-league system, Shapiro knew, went hungry from years of low and misspent draft picks. He considered the possibilities from behind the gray walls of his fourth-floor office in the Indians' executive building. "All of a sudden, I'm sitting here going, I got to get a plan. I got to be better than Detroit," he says.
Fans, perhaps edgy from how joyless the pursuit of a world championship had become, howled when the deal was announced. You mean we finally get a No. 1 pitcher and you trade him away? Shapiro absorbed the abuse. He didn't like it any more than the paying customers did. He had risen from a cubicle in a hallway at the old stadium only to preside over the Indians' decline. "That hurt me," he says. "I'm not used to that. I've been winning for a long time. I don't like doing anything but winning."
But from that distasteful moment, Shapiro and his staff have pointed the Indians on a course to play .500 baseball next year and perhaps contend for a title the year following. This season has produced a Rookie of the Year candidate, a .321 batting average from a center fielder who isn't eligible for free agency for another four years, and dozens of solid starts by starting pitchers ages 25 and younger. More talent is on the way. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor-league teams posted better records this year than did Cleveland's affiliates.
"I firmly believe we will be out of rebuilding mode next year," Shapiro says.
For many reasons, fans can believe too.
If only the season could have ended on August 28, a night the Indians put down the meek Detroit Tigers, 8-3. Jody Gerut, the season's best surprise, hit two home runs. Young Cliff Lee, one of the players received for Colon, struck out seven batters. The win, while just the team's 60th, guaranteed the Indians a record above .500 for the month of August. A club that many nights fielded eight rookies takes its ecstasies where it can.
Alas, a month of games remained on the schedule. The Indians proceeded to lose 8 of their next 10.
In the midst of the swoon, Shapiro took a call from manager Eric Wedge, who was with the team in Detroit. The conversation was not cheery. The team had lost the night before, and players were disappearing into the maw of a long season. Omar Vizquel needed another surgery. Right fielder Ryan Ludwick needed a doctor to look at his knee. The morning paper carried an account of how mercurial center fielder Milton Bradley allegedly fled police after a traffic stop.
Shapiro told Wedge to hang tough. Not much could be done from Cleveland. "We're playing with our guns not fully loaded right now," Shapiro said later.
Shapiro speaks to his manager every day, sometimes for as long as an hour after games. "It allows me to decompress," he says. "It allows me the ability to kind of let go of my emotions, either from losing or winning that night. By the time I wake up the next morning, I'm ready to go."
He keeps a busy schedule. The day begins usually before dawn. He might have time to exercise during lunch. Before games, his wife, artist Lissa Bockrath, brings their one-year-old son to a Jacobs Field suite for playtime. Wife and child usually leave at 8:30 p.m. Husband stays past midnight.
Yet Shapiro keeps time for friends. He called Scott Pioli, the New England Patriots' director of player personnel, at 6 a.m. on the Monday following the first game of the NFL season. The Patriots had lost badly, and Shapiro offered an encouraging word to his old pal (they met while Pioli worked for the Browns under Bill Belichick). "Mark at the core is a solid human being," Pioli says.
Shapiro, 36, is Princeton-educated and did not play baseball at a serious level, but he grew up around the game. His father, Ron, is a Baltimore sports agent who represented Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray. When Ron Shapiro first visited his apprenticing son in Cleveland in 1992, maybe 500 fans sat in the stands and snow blew in from the lake. "I did scratch my head that day," Ron says.
As sad as that sight was, the organization, led by General Manager John Hart, had a plan. Before the 1992 season, the club signed Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga, and Charles Nagy to long-term contracts and acquired Kenny Lofton by trade. Workers, meantime, dug a new stadium. The movie Major League was beginning to look like prophecy, not satire. Shapiro devoted himself to the task. "I loved what I did," he says. "My home was a place where I slept."
The Indians, of course, would eventually clinch two pennants and sell out the new park for 455 straight games.
Shapiro took over from Hart after the 2001 season and made an audacious move soon after, trading Roberto Alomar for Matt Lawton and two prospects. In making the trade, Shapiro acknowledged the lack of talent in the minors. He also showed a disinclination to coddle divas. Alomar is quick to flare at managers, teammates, umpires, and scorekeepers. "We don't like high-maintenance players," Pioli says, describing attributes he shares with Shapiro. "We want people who have a great deal of pride and commitment in their chosen professions. That's what we look for in players; that's what we look for in coaches; that's what we look for in ourselves."
Fixing on the fly didn't work for Shapiro. The 2002 team fell out of first place on April 19 and never returned. "We're not in Camelot anymore," he said. Two months later, he traded Colon. By summer's end, Paul Shuey, Chuck Finley, and Ricardo Rincon were gone. Manager Charlie Manuel fired himself when Shapiro wouldn't commit to him long-term. Home attendance, once a franchise signature, fell to the middle of the pack.
Fans unaccustomed to fire sales blamed the new guys, Shapiro and owner Larry Dolan, who bought the team in 2000. They were seen as inept caretakers, unworthy successors. Even The Plain Dealer editorial page piled on. "If Larry Dolan cannot afford to own the Indians, he should sell the team to someone who can," the paper said after the Colon trade.
Shapiro didn't pout or complain. Someone had to be accountable. And he knew what he was doing was right. "Sometimes, trading the best player on a team that isn't good enough is the best course of action," says Josh Byrnes, a Boston Red Sox assistant general manager.
Not as easily realized was how decrepit the organization Shapiro inherited had become. It wasn't obvious at the time, but the Indians were plain mismanaged.
In July, the Toronto Blue Jays traded outfielder Shannon Stewart to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for another outfielder, Bobby Kielty. Judging by the box scores, the trade looked like a steal for the Twins. Stewart's batting average was almost 40 points higher than Kielty's.
Toronto General Manager J.P. Ricciardi hadn't lost his head. He made the deal because Stewart is a free-agent-to-be and sure to command more money than the $6.2 million he made this season. Kielty is a switch-hitting 27-year-old who has shown a little pop and the ability to get on base. And, by virtue of the collective-bargaining agreement, he's an indentured servant (salary: $325,000). "We've got this guy for the next four years before he can become a free agent," Ricciardi said after making the trade. "This is basically getting Shannon Stewart from the start all over again."
Ricciardi is among an ascendant class of baseball executives who use their heads and not their hunches to make decisions. In making the trade, Ricciardi put his resources to the best use. Stewart is a better baseball player than Kielty, but he's not 19 times better, as their difference in salary would indicate. In the world outside of baseball -- a sport that has kept with the times about as well as Viking warfare -- this concept is called "management."
Ricciardi is also a big believer in statistical analysis, as is his former boss, Oakland A's GM Billy Beane. They covet players with high on-base percentage, a statistic long advocated by writer Bill James, an empirically minded former boiler attendant who first published his challenges to conventional baseball wisdom in 1977. James grew frustrated that so many major-league organizations seemed to base personnel decisions on how guys looked in uniform. "If the people who run the Cleveland Indians were in charge of foreign policy, I'd enroll in night school and start studying Slavic languages," he wrote in 1984.
James and his stat-head ilk were largely ignored by baseball when it was led by guys named Whitey and Sparky. The game's financial structure -- baseball teams do not share their revenue to the degree they do in football -- finally led some executives to put aside their bias and accept the wisdom analysis could provide. "It was almost like forced intelligence," says Jonah Keri, a stock-market reporter who writes for Baseball Prospectus, a web and book publisher.
Oakland's win-loss record speaks to the merits of applied science (as does Michael Lewis's best-selling book on Beane & Company, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game). Over the last four seasons, the A's are 140 games over .500, while their payrolls have ranked among the league's lowest.
In contrast to the A's, the Indians operated for a long time as if money was no object. Laziness had set in by the 1997 World Series, which Cleveland lost to the Florida Marlins in seven games. The 1997 team was lucky to make the playoffs, having won a mere 86 games during the season. It was also aging quickly. Six everyday players -- Sandy Alomar Jr., David Justice, Omar Vizquel, Matt Williams, Marquis Grissom, and Tony Fernandez -- were 30 and older. Charles Nagy showed signs of wear.
James established long ago that players peak between the ages of 25 and 29. Recent years have seen players age a little better, but Barry Bonds is the freak exception; decline sets in at about age 32. But Hart ignored these facts.
In the years following the 1997 season, he gave fat, multiyear contracts to Lofton, Travis Fryman, Alomar, and Finley. All were on the wrong side of 30, and all underwhelmed during the lives of their contracts. Other veteran hitters Hart fetishized (Geronimo Berroa, Cecil Fielder, Julio Franco, Shawon Dunston, Harold Baines, Mark Whiten) did not seriously jeopardize the payroll, but their at-bats were no fun to watch, either. Worse, Brian Giles and Richie Sexson, sluggers on the verge of their prime, were traded for spare pitching.
Sexson was jettisoned during the 2000 season. Cleveland failed to make the playoffs that year, and Hart announced that the next season would be his last in Cleveland. Of course, before he left town, Ellis Burks, at age 36, signed a three-year deal. Hart's last payroll reached a staggering $92 million, and his teams hadn't advanced past the first round of playoffs since 1998.
Members of the organization past and present validate the Hart years by pointing to the string of playoff appearances. Hart himself used to highlight his brilliance by citing teams, like the Orioles, that spent more to be less successful. But it was a false pride, the kind that comes from comparing yourself to the dumbest kid in the class. Hart was a buy-high investor who put the team on a road to ruin.
At least one member of the organization felt cold winds at the Indians' back during the 2000 season, when a sixth loss in a row dropped the club in the standings. "There comes a time when you have to say maybe the window of opportunity is no longer open," said David Justice, who was traded a few weeks later to the Yankees, the season's eventual champion.
"We didn't appreciate the comment at the time," says Paul Dolan, son and counsel to the team's owner, "but I think he correctly understood what was happening."
Shapiro took control in November 2001 and, at first, behaved precisely like the man he worked under for nine years. Refusing to accept that Indians glory was a remnant, Shapiro committed $63 million to thirtysomethings Matt Lawton, Ricky Gutierrez, and Bob Wickman. Each became hurt and ineffective.
To his credit, Shapiro realized quickly that he had made a mistake by spending big on mediocre talent. New to the role, he had been "a little exuberant," he admits. "Six months later, people weren't making those deals. At that time, people were, and [Lawton's deal] became a bad contract in a matter of three or four months, regardless of how productive he was."
While he sees the error of his ways, Shapiro gives himself a bit of a pass insofar as the timing. The empiricists sounded the alarm at the time deals were made. ESPN.com's Rob Neyer, a Bill James disciple, predicted that "by the third or fourth year of the deal, Lawton will be fighting just to stay in the lineup." Baseball Prospectus called the Wickman contract "a waste of money." (Stat heads think saves are overrated and, by extension, overpriced.)
Nevertheless, Shapiro acknowledges that he screwed up. "It was hard," he says. "I am bitter about making a mistake. But they are not mistakes that are going to keep us from winning. There are enough lessons for me that I won't make the same mistake again and put us in a position where they do prevent us from winning."
Shapiro needed to fix his mistakes. By most indications, he succeeded fabulously. Baseball America, a publication that tracks prospects, rates the Indians' pool of minor-league talent as the game's best. "That's largely the result of what Shapiro and his staff have done," says Josh Boyd, a Baseball America writer.
They did their best work on the much-pilloried trade of Colon for Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore, Montreal's "three best prospects, beyond a shadow of a doubt," according to Baseball Prospectus's Keri. Lee was 6-1 at Triple-A Buffalo this year and looked tasty at the major-league level. Phillips struggled, but he's only 22. Sizemore may prove to be the real star. A former $2 million bonus baby, he was named the most valuable player of the Futures Game played on All-Star weekend. Akron Aeros fans watched him hit .304 with 13 home runs and 10 steals.
Keri says it's unusual for a trade to yield so much talent. "There has never been a deal like this since," he says. A franchise with an uncertain future, Montreal was willing to part with a lot. Concludes Assistant GM Chris Antonetti: "Had we waited a few months longer, had we waited until this year, we would not have had those same opportunities."
Shapiro also traded for Crisp (at least a decent fourth outfielder), Ludwick (87 homers in the minor leagues), Ben Broussard (his numbers average out to 20 bombs and 30 doubles, if he played the full season), and Travis Hafner (third-best slugging percentage among American League first basemen).
Gerut came with catcher Josh Bard in a 2001 trade for nowhere man Jacob Cruz that Shapiro executed under Hart's supervision. After starting this year in Buffalo, he hit 22 home runs and knocked home 75 base runners. "I love Jody Gerut," says Paul White, editor of USA Today's Sports Weekly. "I think he's Brian Giles. He's got all the elements . . . He's got some power, he's got some speed, and he's a better outfielder than Giles ever was."
The Hafner trade perhaps best illustrates Shapiro's progress. Hafner and a since-traded pitcher were obtained from the Texas Rangers in exchange for catcher Einar Diaz and righty Ryan Drese. On performance alone, it's a trade Shapiro wouldn't hesitate to make again. (Diaz's on-base percentage is below .300; Drese won two games.) But also consider that Diaz had signed a gimmick-laden four-year contract before the 2001 season. A player of Diaz's skills is lucky to have a job, let alone a four-year contract. "If he had traded Einar Diaz for some dryer lint and my puppies, that's a good trade," Keri says.
Shapiro, however, is not one to gloat. Relayed Keri's comment, he says, "Einar is a great guy, though."
It seems appropriate that Shapiro is undoing past mistakes by trading with Hart, who left Cleveland for Texas and continues to cling to the notion that wins cannot be had without exorbitant salaries. One of Hart's first acts as Rangers GM was granting a $65 million contract to Chan Ho Park, who had a 4.66 earned-run average when not pitching at spacious Dodger Stadium. The Rangers might as well have wrapped their stadium hot dogs in five-dollar bills. In two injury-scarred years in Texas, Park has won all of 10 games.
The Indians, meantime, have found that with the right tools, winning percentage need not be a direct function of payroll size. "We've got to be more open-minded than traditional baseball has been to creative statistical analysis," Shapiro says. "We've got to factor in how that can help us make better decisions.
"At the same time, we're not just playing Strat-O-Matic baseball here. We're dealing with human beings who have pulses and heartbeats and flesh. You can't just statistically put a stamp on a guy."
Shapiro and others in the organization warn against comparisons to Oakland, Toronto, and Boston, for which Bill James consults. "We have never acquired or drafted a player simply based on stats," says scouting director John Mirabelli.
Still, signs of the new thinking abound. Shapiro has in his office a magnetic board with the names on each 40-man roster. The Indians' section of the board goes four deep at each position. Significantly, the ages of the players are posted next to the names.
Age is the reason the Indians couldn't keep Jim Thome in town. Shapiro was not happy that the amiable masher left via free agency ("I want the guy to be here. He does stand for our mission"), but Philadelphia offered a six-year, $85 million contract the Indians were wise not to match. Thome turned 33 last month. "For this year, next year, maybe one more after that, he's going to be awesome," Shapiro says of Thome. "But in about three years, for three years at $13, $14 million?"
Shapiro then quotes -- ahem! -- a stat: One player in 50 remains productive past age 35. Thome, he says, "may be that one in 50, but can I risk that in this market?
"Your obligation is to maintain a big-picture vision and to always focus on what the ultimate goal is, which is to build and sustain a championship team. That's the ultimate goal. In the end, fans will be happier if you do that, and they'll find an identity with whatever players are here. They want to see us win."
Pitcher Terry Mulholland was drafted by the Phillies in 1984, about the time C.C. Sabathia started preschool. He turned 40 in March. With Burks injured, Mulholland has to wander over to the coaches' lockers if he wants to chat with people who grew up listening to the same music.
The last graybeard standing, Mulholland has enjoyed watching the tykes play. "These are good, young, talented baseball players, and they're good people, and they're fun to be around," he says. "They're very resilient. These guys have taken their share of beatings this year, yet they bounce back and play harder and are better for it."
Shapiro will be pleased to see Mulholland's words. The GM speaks often of winning the right way, winning with the right people. Very often. A conversation with Shapiro -- he's into mission statements and ingraining values and reframing standards -- is a little like reading Fortune before the dot-com bust. Lately, the organization has gotten in the habit of talking about its rebuilding plan as if it were splitting atoms on Mars. ("There's no tangible model to see how this has happened before," Shapiro says.) Yet as Josh Boyd of Baseball America puts it: "I think they're doing a good job, but I don't think they're reinventing the wheel."
Annoying tendencies aside, Shapiro is no phony. Those who know him describe him as "compassionate" and "genuine," adjectives not typically associated with front-office types. "Mark is the same person with Larry and Paul Dolan as he is with the person who greets him in the lobby in the morning or the person working in baseball operations emptying trash cans," Antonetti says.
Shapiro is credited as being organized but not a micromanager, confident but not egocentric. "I think he genuinely enjoys the success of other people," says Byrnes, the assistant Red Sox GM, who worked as an intern under Shapiro. Keri says it is to Shapiro's credit that he involves Wedge in the decision-making, "and he just doesn't say, 'Go down on the field and teach somebody how to bunt. '"
Says Wedge: "There are no surprises. We're always on the same page."
For Mr. Genuine, the off-season should be relatively quiet. All but a few spots on the 2004 roster are pegged. A 2006 lineup could be sketched with reasonable accuracy, for that matter. Flexibility is the new king. Nobody -- save for C.C. and fellow starter Jason Davis -- is indispensable, not even the club's leading hitter. "Milton Bradley is starting to get very expensive, but Grady Sizemore is coming, and he's legit," Shapiro says. "I'm not saying we'll go with Grady over Milton, but those are the kind of alternatives we need to have."
The glow on Shapiro's face at the mention of Sizemore would seem to suggest that a Milton Bradley Bobblehead Day next summer is at best a 50/50 proposition.
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