Indians' General Manager Leads Remake on the Lake
Painful Overhaul Of Powerhouse Reaches Fruition
Thursday, October 11, 2007; Page E04
CLEVELAND -- When you rip apart somebody's baseball team, there are going to be consequences, and for Mark Shapiro that meant dreams haunted by the faces of Cleveland Indians fans, their mixture of hurt, disdain and betrayal filtered through Midwestern restraint into blank stares. In those lean years, when he was gutting the grand, old Indians roster until it was a flimsy shell, those faces told Shapiro he'd better know what he was doing and made him ask himself: Did he?
"It was the hardest part of the experience," said Shapiro, the Indians' general manager. "Being passionate about what you're doing, and believing in it, and having most people look at you with blank stares -- it felt like we were letting people down. That was the hardest part."
It is clear now, even to the most skeptical of those blank-starers from the first half of this decade, that Shapiro indeed knew what he was doing.
The team he constructed atop the ruins of the late 1990s Indians mini-dynasty surged to the American League Central title this season, vanquished the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs and on Friday night will open the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.
Lefty C.C. Sabathia and right-hander Fausto Carmona, homegrown symbols of the Indians' successful farm system, will start the first two games in Boston and represent the finest 1-2 rotation combination in the playoffs.
Shapiro's creation, the 2007 Indians, is a model of economy, functionality and ingenuity -- the type of roster-building folks in baseball refer to as "doing it the right way." Their payroll of roughly $62 million, kept low by ignoring the elite free agent market and building through their own formidable player-development system, is less than a third of that of the Yankees, and Yankees GM Brian Cashman recently equated Shapiro's rebuilding job to "artwork."
At one time, however, Indians fans would have referred to it as something else entirely. When Shapiro, only 34 at the time, took over for mentor John Hart at the end of the 2001 season, the Indians were at the end of a glorious seven-year cycle in which the franchise won six division titles and two AL pennants and sold out a record 455 games at Jacobs Field.
But Shapiro knew the cycle was coming to an end and, given the sorry state of the farm system, could not be sustained without risky spending on free agents. The smarter route, he decided, was to rebuild -- a tough sell for fans who had become used to winning every year.
Within a year, Shapiro had traded all-star second baseman Roberto Alomar and ace Bartolo Colon -- the latter trade, with the Montreal Expos, bringing back a minor league center fielder named Grady Sizemore -- and allowed slugger Jim Thome to depart via free agency. A smaller trade at the end of 2002 netted a power-hitting prospect named Travis Hafner.
The immediate results were predictable: The Indians went from 91 wins in 2001 to 94 losses in 2003, and attendance plummeted from 3.2 million to 1.7 million. And everywhere Shapiro went, those blank stares were there to greet him.
"It was a course that a group of us believed in, and that kept us united," Shapiro said. "But at the end of the day, that drive home is a lonely drive."
By 2005, the Indians seemed to have finally arrived at the other side of the process. They were a week away from making the playoffs as the AL wild card, until a 1-6 collapse in the final week knocked them out. The next season, with every expert in the known universe predicting the Indians to win the Central, they went backward, going 78-84.