Making push for Hart may shove O's in right direction

April 20, 2001|By John Eisenberg

RIGHT AWAY, before the speculation even begins to sprout, let's list the reasons why outgoing Cleveland Indians general manager John Hart can't become the Orioles' next baseball architect.

No. 1, he fired Orioles manager Mike Hargrove in Cleveland just 17 months ago. Initiating a second marriage so soon after a divorce could be tricky, although the two chatted amiably and at length on the field before yesterday's game at Camden Yards.

More importantly, No. 2, Hart would demand the authority to make most of the moves he wants, a right Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos seems unwilling to grant any baseball operative. At the very least, Hart is going to go where he has the owner's respect, and Angelos' innate skepticism about "baseball professionals" is well-documented.

But having said all that, there's a single, definitive, opposing reason why, in spite of it all, the Orioles should pursue Hart as if he were holding a winning lottery ticket:

It would be a terrific move.

Just what the club needs to brighten its future after three straight losing seasons with a fourth on the way in the name of rebuilding.

Hart, 52, was in the Orioles' organization as a minor-league player, minor-league manager and major-league coach in the 1970s and '80s, and he has used a lot of what he learned from former Orioles GM Hank Peters to guide the Indians' renaissance over the past decade. He announced two weeks ago that he was turning his job over to assistant GM Mark Shapiro and becoming a consultant, but he's far too young and energetic to stay out of the game for long. His name has surfaced already as a possible hire in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers dumped former Orioles assistant GM Kevin Malone yesterday.

"I have no agenda beyond helping the Indians go as far as we can go this year," Hart said yesterday at Camden Yards. "It doesn't surprise me that there will be speculation [about his going elsewhere]. But we'll let the end of the year take care of the end of the year."

He wouldn't comment on the possibility of returning to Baltimore, but he did say he'd borrowed liberally from the Oriole Way in constructing the successful Cleveland model.

"Plowing money into the farm system, developing a sense of family - we've certainly looked a lot at what the Orioles were about for, lo, those many years," he said. "And just because they haven't won for a couple of years doesn't mean they aren't still one of the jewel franchises."

They're at a low ebb now, of course, regarded in the industry as a jewel in desperate need of polish. Syd Thrift has been Angelos' chief baseball point man since Frank Wren was fired in October 1999, and let's just say some of his moves have worked out better than others, not that it's an easy job with Angelos shadowing him.

But either way, Thrift, 72, seemed to set a vague timetable for his own departure last summer, when he hinted that someone else in the GM's role would benefit from the clubhouse purge he orchestrated. So it's fair to speculate about the possibilities. And it's safe to say now, already, that none of those possibilities would be more qualified than Hart.

The Dodgers are almost certain to go after him aggressively as they try to rebound from Malone's disastrous tenure, which ended when he challenged a fan to a fight in the stands in San Diego last weekend. What was he thinking?

Malone had previously not only made numerous questionable personnel decisions for the Dodgers but also behaved erratically, to say the least. This spring, he told a radio interviewer he wanted to be known as "Dodger Boy." Ooooh-kay.

Criticized for not hiring Malone as Pat Gillick's handpicked replacement in 1998, Angelos now gets to say he called that one right. Of course, he also fired the guy he hired as Gillick's replacement within a year, so the victory trumpets shouldn't blare too loudly. (Here's a worthy debate topic: Would Malone have been fired here as Gillick's replacement before he was fired in Los Angeles?)

In any case, if the Orioles did decide to match the Dodgers' play for Hart, his choice would come down to two high-revenue, formerly stable organizations in need of stability and a strong management hand. That's Hart. He is smart, a forward thinker, a risk taker. He hasn't delivered the World Series title Cleveland covets, but his teams have won two American League pennants, five division titles and consistently contended through the steady diet of change that is inevitable today.

"I've been [in the front office] 13 years; that's long enough," he said yesterday. "I'm proud of this organization, and I feel I'm leaving it in great shape."

It's funny how things work out. When Edward Bennett Williams fired Peters after the 1987 season, he called Hart and told him to prepare for a major future in Baltimore. "EBW told me I'd probably be the Orioles' next manager," Hart said. When Peters went right to Cleveland and asked to bring Hart along, EBW refused to grant permission. Hart spent 1988 with the Orioles as a major-league coach, experiencing 0-21, then was freed to go to Cleveland when Williams died.

Thirteen years later, the Orioles would benefit from bringing Hart back with a big title and a free rein. Now, all they need to do is realize it.

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