Indians' Hargrove overcoming a season of crisis management

August 07, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

Cleveland Indians manager Mike Hargrove is watching the future of his team take shape brick by brick. Before every home game, he drives by the new stadium that is rising downtown and reminds himself of the better days that lie ahead.

He can see things coming together on the field, too. His youthful team may be well down in the standings and its sub-.500 record might be disappointing under normal circumstances, but there has been nothing normal about 1993 -- not in the aftermath of the boating accident that killed relief pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews and seriously injured pitcher Bob Ojeda.

This year has been about coping, and Hargrove -- by all accounts -- has been instrumental in pulling his players through a perspective-shaking experience that none will forget. That may not be the reason that the club exercised its option to extend his contract through the 1994 season yesterday, but it wouldn't be a bad one. What manager in recent memory has faced a more difficult test?

"I would hope they wouldn't rehire me just because they feel sorry for me and the team," Hargrove said. "I think what the extension means is that they feel we are going in the right direction."

It is time to look forward. He's been saying that since early in the season, but it is far easier said than done. The questions still come day after day, and he is far too polite to blow them off, even though he long ago said that he wasn't going to talk about it anymore.

"I think things are back to normal," he said. "The whole thing is, what this club went through, you're life will never be the same because of it, though a lot less so than for the families involved. That's not all bad. It's back to normal, but not in the sense that you forget about it."

Nobody wanted to talk about anything as trivial as baseball at the time of the accident, but it was generally understood that the Indians could forget about competing in the American League East for a while. The club's lengthy rebuilding effort would have to be redoubled, and that was before the competitive situation worsened with the shoulder injury that has kept pitching ace Charles Nagy out for much of the season.

The emotional aftershocks of the tragedy have not subsided. Reliever Kevin Wickander had to be traded to the Cincinnati Reds when it became apparent that he couldn't deal with the constant reminders of the accident. Ojeda recovered from his physical injuries, but he has spent the past five months trying to overcome the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Against that backdrop, the Indians have been surprisingly resilient, remaining within sight of the division contenders. They would have to mount a serious winning streak to get back into contention, but that it is within the realm of possibility is a tribute to the job Hargrove has done.

"Mike has handled that all very well," general manager John Hart said. "He is a quality human being and a developing young manager. There was really never any doubt about him being back next year.

"Unless you've been here, you just don't know what this club has faced, but there also have been so many positives. We have some definite star-quality players here. We have fought through pitching injuries all year long. We have to be pleased that this is a very capable club . . . that our club has improved. We're a tough club to beat in spite of it all."

No one would have faulted Hargrove and the front office for writing this season off and working toward a better tomorrow, especially after the Indians dropped quickly to the bottom of the AL East standings. But the club arrived in Baltimore with a 24-16 record in the previous 40 games.

Hargrove gives credit to a player development system that has yielded enough promising young pitchers to fill out the pitching staff. They are learning on the job, as rookie Jeff Mutis did during a rocky three-inning performance against the Orioles last night, but they have the potential to grow along with the team.

"I was standing in the outfield a few days ago, and I looked to one side and there were five of our kids that we had drafted and developed and brought up," Hargrove said. "They aren't just here. They are kids we can send out there. That was a good feeling. I've been here since 1979, and in that whole time I'd never seen that many of our own kids at the big-league level who are competing and have big-league stuff. It gave me reason to think that there is serious room for optimism for this ballclub."

He thinks about that when he drives by the construction site of the new stadium. Next year, the Indians will begin a new era in Cleveland. Next year, they will get to start fresh. Next year, things truly will be back to normal.

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