Indians add by subtraction GM Hart's equation of unloading Lofton, Belle proves a plus

October 21, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- There is the possibility of rain, and even snow, when the World Series resumes tonight at Jacobs Field. It can get intemperate in a hurry on the banks of Lake Erie, where even the weatherman was unsure that this Indians summer would last so long.

The fact that the Cleveland Indians are playing host to their second Fall Classic in three years is something of an upset -- or a series of them. They came from behind to steal the Division Series from the favored New York Yankees, then they showed the Orioles a thing or two about teamwork in the American League Championship Series. They even staged a mini-comeback against the Florida Marlins in Miami on Sunday to gain the home-field advantage in the best-of-seven series.

Indians fans have a right to revel, just as they had a right to wonder last spring whether the franchise's recent renaissance was going to be a temporary thing. In the space of three months, the club let Albert Belle, who might be the most intimidating offensive force in the game, move to its chief American League Central rival, then traded away premier center fielder and leadoff man Kenny Lofton.

If that didn't create enough uncertainty, the Indians soon lost starting pitcher Jack McDowell to a serious arm injury and would have to survive a series of pitching setbacks to win a very thin division.

Perhaps if the Indians had stumbled along the way and finished behind the Chicago White Sox, the decision to let Belle and Lofton get away would be viewed today as among the great front-office blunders of all time, but general manager John Hart threw himself in front of baseball's breakneck salary spiral and came away looking like a very, very smart guy.

He pre-empted Belle's dramatic departure by acquiring power-hitting third baseman Matt Williams and moved decisively to trade Lofton in advance of his option year to assure that the Indians got something in return.

"Albert was a big part of this organization," Hart said, "but only one part of our turnaround. No player is bigger than the organization. We felt that we would be better off to spread that money around to bring in the players we have brought in here."

Belle went for the money and got a five-year, $55 million contract from the White Sox, a deal that Hart said at the time was "bad for the industry."

Lofton reportedly turned down a long-term deal worth about $8 million per year, so the club traded him to the Atlanta Braves in the mega-deal that brought David Justice and Marquis Grissom to the Indians.

Hart might be too polite to say so, but he has to be savoring the club's presence in the World Series, especially with the White Sox dropping out of contention in September and the Braves falling in the National League Championship Series.

The Indians didn't have a great 1997 regular season. They had only the ninth-best record in baseball. But they're still standing and they have an excellent chance to win their first world title since 1948.

It is a different club than the one that reached the World Series in 1995 and came up short in the playoffs last year. Hart gave it a personality transplant. Gone is the hard edge that came with the volatile clubhouse combination of Belle and Lofton, replaced by a group of more upbeat and accessible veterans.

"In '95, the Indians should have been the story," Hart said, "but the perception of some players on the club and their relationship with the media made it tough for the media to get close to the club. I think that perception was real. It was probably justified.

"Don't get me wrong. We had fun in '95. But we now have become a team that -- because of the ease of communicating with the players -- their stories are able to come out."

This is as close as Hart is going to get to saying that Belle and Lofton poisoned the clubhouse and created a series of unnecessary distractions that prevented the club from reaching its full potential.

"I don't wish ill on anyone," he said. "That's just not my style. I don't want them to play well against us, but Albert was a part of some of the greatest moments I'm going to have in this game."

The Indians took the money they would have had to pay Belle and Lofton -- about $20 million per year combined -- and spent it to extend the contracts of Justice, Grissom, Williams and Jim Thome, locking up nearly half of the offensive lineup beyond the millennium.

Still, it has not been a smooth season. The Indians suffered a series of pitching injuries that eventually pushed Hart into a pair of midseason pitching deals that turned out to be of marginal benefit to the club. He acquired John Smiley, who would break his arm late in the season, and Jeff Juden, who never established himself in the Indians' rotation after getting off to a great start in Montreal.

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