PEORIA, Ariz., Feb. 24 -- The midlife crisis is over now. The goatee has been shaved off. The buzz-cut hair has grown back in thick salt-and-pepper locks. The Harley is parked in the garage back home in Cleveland. "It was either [get] a Harley or a girlfriend," Mike Hargrove says with a laugh, knowing his wife of 34 years, Sharon, would get a kick out of the joke. Anyway, he has no time for either now, since the old mistress, baseball, came back into his life.
The Seattle Mariners came calling for Hargrove in October, a year after he was fired by the Baltimore Orioles, with an offer to take over a team that had lost 99 games in 2004. The Big Texan, Ol' Grover, was back in bidness.
Mariners Manager Mike Hargrove, left, huddles with pitcher Joel Pineiro at spring training. Hargrove managed the Orioles from 2000 to 2003.
(Elaine Thompson -- AP)
"Being out of [the game] last year -- while I enjoyed the time off, probably too much -- I found I did miss being in it," Hargrove, 55, said Thursday morning at the Mariners' spring training camp. "When this opportunity came up, I was extremely glad. And I haven't been disappointed in any aspect of it."
The year off was a revelation for a man who had spent his entire adult life around ballparks. One of his daughters married, and another gave birth to Hargrove's second grandchild. He changed diapers. He spent his first Easter with the family. He watched Opening Day in Cleveland from a luxury suite. He learned how to use a hedge trimmer. He played golf. He bought a Harley and rode it all over creation.
"I got to be a normal person for a year," he says. "I had no pressure on me."
On Memorial Day weekend, Hargrove joined 40,000 other motorcycle enthusiasts at a festival in Red River, N.M., just another leather-clad biker dude gunning his engine in the desert.
"He loved it," Sharon Hargrove said. "Except that I made him wear a helmet. He was the only one there with a helmet on. He said he felt like a little kid."
He probably would not have turned down a managing job had one come along, but truth is, he needed the year off to get over the way things ended in Baltimore.
After four losing seasons, the Orioles' front office, which had never given him much of a team to work with, gave him the ax, saying they wanted someone with more fire. Hargrove is too tactful to say anything bad about the Orioles publicly, but it is not something one gets over quickly.
"It stayed with him for a long time," Sharon Hargrove said. "It was hard for Mike to leave. He felt like [the Orioles] were a bunch of young pups who were just about to grow up. And then when they started signing free agents. . . . "
Within months of joining the Mariners, Hargrove received two expensive gifts from ownership: first baseman Richie Sexson and third baseman Adrian Beltre, the types of young sluggers a team can build around. Total cost: $114 million.
Being with a franchise that is willing to spend money is a new experience for Hargrove. In Cleveland in the 1990s, he took over a young, talented team and helped turn it into a powerhouse that twice made it to the World Series, but always seemed to be a pitcher or two short. And then there was Baltimore.
"It's a very open and sharing culture here," Hargrove said of his new employers, saying all that needed to be said, in comparison, about the Orioles. "The resources are here, the willingness to spend. . . . Everybody I talked to about this job had good things to say about the organization and the city -- and I mean everybody. And that's not usually the case in baseball."
In Seattle, Hargrove is seen as the perfect antidote to Bob Melvin, who was fired after two years at the helm. Melvin, the thinking goes, was too soft and too timid to deal with a clubhouse split equally between aging stars and young, impressionable types.
"It wasn't [Melvin's] fault what happened," veteran second baseman Bret Boone said. "But when things go so bad in one season, the manager is going to be the fall guy. That's the way it's always been and always will be. Bob was a players' manager, a really good guy. But he was probably the opposite of a guy like Grover."
"Grover is good because he does well with veteran guys," said Sexson, who also played for Hargrove in Cleveland. "But from what I remember, he's exceptionally harder on younger guys. He's always been able to get the most out of younger guys, and that's why I think he's going to do really well here. [In Cleveland], he didn't let me slide one bit. He was constantly on me. Stuff that he might've let another guy do, I couldn't do. In hindsight, it made me a better player."
Despite last year's free-fall, the Mariners fancy themselves as contenders again in an American League West Division in which none of their competitors got appreciably better this winter. One thing Hargrove is determined to do is get electrifying leadoff man Ichiro Suzuki across home plate more often.
Last year, Suzuki set an all-time single-season record with 262 hits, yet somehow managed to score only 101 runs, only the 17th-best total in the league -- meaning he was stranded on base way too many times by the middle of the batting order.
"There were just a number of people in the Mariners' lineup last year who had off years," Hargrove said. "If you have three guys who have really bad years, you're going to have a bad season. But if you have three guys who have big years, then you're really going to have a big season. I want this to be a really big season."