'79 again? Peters hopes so for Indians

October 28, 1995|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Hank Peters redeemed his name with the Cleveland Indians. Now, the Indians might provide redemption for the biggest disappointment of his career.

Remember '79.

That's what Peters told John Hart, Dan O'Dowd and Co. before leaving Cleveland to return home to Baltimore after Game 4 of the World Series.

They worked together for the Orioles once, and then they went to Cleveland, laying the groundwork for the Indians' first Series appearance since 1954.

Peters, 70, is retired now, but he reminded Hart and O'Dowd of how the Orioles collapsed against Pittsburgh when he was their general manager in '79.

And two members of that Orioles team, Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray, preached the same gospel in the Indians' clubhouse.

"I gave the front-office people a pep talk about what can happen in a 3-1 series," Peters said yesterday. "We didn't think there was any way on the face of the Earth we weren't going to win."

The Orioles were in almost the exact position as Atlanta entering Game 5. Their Cy Young pitcher, 23-game winner Mike Flanagan, was taking the mound, just as Greg Maddux did Thursday. And Jim Palmer and Scott McGregor were scheduled to pitch at home in games 6 and 7, if necessary.

What happened?

The Orioles lost three straight.

And now history might be repeating, with Martinez, of all people, starting tonight against Tom Glavine in Game 6 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

It would be the perfect ending to the Indians' storybook season, and the perfect epilogue to Peters' career.

Hart, the GM, gets most of the credit for the Indians' success, and O'Dowd, the farm director, also receives his share.

But it was Peters who hired them, persuaded owner Dick Jacobs to invest millions in player development, and made the breakthrough trade for Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga.

He joined the Indians in 1987 after getting fired by late Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, and stayed until '91.

This team is the result of what he started.

"It's given me a lot of satisfaction," Peters said. "A lot of things I believe in, I couldn't do with the Orioles at the end because Ed Williams had different ideas.

"Don't think I'm placing all the blame on Ed Williams. That's not the case. I knew his thoughts because of his health and physical condition.

"I couldn't sit down and say to Ed Williams, 'Ed, we're going to have to go through a few lean years while we rebuild.' His intent was today, not tomorrow."

Williams was dying of cancer, and famously impatient even when healthy. Jacobs was his polar opposite.

His franchise had a tortured history. He wanted to rebuild properly. He gave Peters wide-ranging authority as club president and GM.

These things take time -- the Indians averaged 91 losses per season during Peters' tenure. Fans and media were critical, unable to detect any progress.

"This franchise was terrible," O'Dowd said. "Hank took all the needles and bullets for everyone. He protected me, and John and the owner of the ballclub."

Peters' goal was for the Indians to be competitive by the time Jacobs Field opened in 1994. And he did it the old-fashioned way, through scouting and player development.

Since '87, the Indians' minor-league budget has increased from approximately $4 million to $9 million. Peters doubled the number of scouts, expanded the system from four to seven teams and started a Latin American program.

Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez are farm-system products; so are Charles Nagy, Julian Tavarez, Alan Embree, Chad Ogea and Herbert Perry.

The increased minor-league depth also enabled the Indians to trade for Kenny Lofton and Jose Mesa, players Hart all but stole. But the biggest trade, the one that signaled the Indians' rebirth, occurred Dec. 6, 1989.

Joe Carter to San Diego for Chris James, Alomar and Baerga.

"Hank made that trade," O'Dowd said. "There were three or four clubs interested, and that's the choice he made. He's the one who played blind man's buff with [San Diego GM] Jack McKeon over Baerga."

McKeon wasn't Peters' only obstacle. Carter, a potential free agent, told Peters he was willing to sign long term only with certain teams. He ruled out both Bay Area teams, and his future club, Toronto, among others.

"I knew from a bargaining standpoint that if that came out, I would be dead," Peters said. "I had to go through the charade of talking to everyone, trying to play one off the other, all the while knowing I could only get serious with a few teams."

St. Louis offered potential free agents Vince Coleman and Willie McGee, but Peters wanted young players, so that deal made no sense. California proposed Devon White and Jeff Manto. Kansas City also was interested.

But Peters kept coming back to San Diego.

To Baerga.

"He was adamant -- he wanted Baerga," recalled McKeon, now a senior adviser with Cincinnati. "I had a lot of objections from my people. We kept stalling and stalling, trying to convince him to take someone else."

"I just told Jack, 'No Baerga, no deal,' " Peters said.

McKeon finally relented, figuring that Baerga would be stuck at second in San Diego behind Roberto Alomar. The Padres later traded Alomar, too, but that's another story.

Today, Baerga is not only an All-Star, he's also the Indians' emotional leader.

Tonight, he'll be one of the players trying to force Game 7, trying to revive the memory of '79, trying to even the score for Hank Peters, once and for all.

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