In 1998, the Cleveland Indians trotted out a nightly lineup featuring Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, David Justice and Sandy Alomar Jr. But in terms of its ripple effect on the baseball industry and, now, its infiltration of an entirely different sport, the most loaded roster of all was the one assembled on the fourth floor of the executive offices at the ballpark then known as Jacobs Field.
At one time or another during and immediately following that '98 season -- a year in which the Indians won their fourth of five consecutive division titles but fell flat in their bid to avenge the nightmarish ninth-inning sequence of events that cost them a World Series title the previous October -- the following men were under the Indians' employ:
• John Hart, general manager
• Dan O'Dowd, assistant GM
• Mark Shapiro, player development director
• Josh Byrnes, scouting director
• Paul DePodesta, advance scout
• Ben Cherington, advance scout
• Neal Huntington, assistant director of Minor League operations
• Chris Antonetti, baseball operations assistant
If you're scoring at home, that's eight current or former general managers, including three eventual club presidents and one future "chief strategic officer" for the Cleveland Browns.
"I don't know what it was like to work at Apple or any of the tech firms in their heyday," said O'Dowd, "but I'd imagine it was a lot like that. It was a creative think tank, and it was invigorating."
For years, people in the industry have marveled at what a unique collection of talent Hart, the curator of an extension of executives that serves as the front-office equivalent of the Paul Brown coaching tree, and O'Dowd, his assistant, had surrounding them in those days when Cleveland was a bona fide baseball destination.
And now, with DePodesta quite literally -- and quite surprisingly -- branching off and bringing his advanced analytical model to the NFL, this tree is no longer confined to a single sport.
Hart's tree, in fact, extends further. In 2001, his last year with the Tribe before leaving for the GM job with the Rangers, the Indians hired Ross Atkins as an assistant farm director and Mike Hazen as an advance scout. They are now the general managers of the Blue Jays and Red Sox, respectively. In Texas, Hart mentored a young Jon Daniels, who would go on to help guide the Rangers to back-to-back AL pennants in 2010 and '11. Hart is now president of baseball operations for the Braves, where he's helped John Coppolella in his transition to the GM chair amidst a dramatic rebuild of the farm system.
"It's refreshing," said Hart, "because I've remained close with all of these guys. It was a very close-knit front office. We had guys in at 2 in the morning after a tough loss and talking philosophy and baseball. I think there was a genuine affection for everybody. It was a young group, and even I was still finding my way. It's so amazing to have that level of talent around you every day."
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Under Hart and O'Dowd, the Indians revolutionized the way baseball front offices organize and operate.
It was in the early 1990s that O'Dowd and Shapiro wrote the 15-page white paper -- submitted to Hart and then taken up the ladder to owner Dick Jacobs -- that outlined the plan for arbitration-avoiding player extensions that would allow the small-market Tribe to build a sustainable contender. That's a model often cited as a game-changer in the way clubs are constructed.
But it runs deeper than that. As rudimentary as it may sound now, the Indians were one of the first teams to create personalized player plans -- as opposed to a "one size fits all" approach -- for guys in their Minor League system. They were one of the first teams to implement video advance scouting systems. They were one of the first teams to use "sum" -- or what has since come to be known as OPS -- in their evaluations at a time when the game, at large, was still very much married to the holy trinity of batting average, home runs and RBIs. And in time, the Tribe's minds would concoct a data analysis program, known as "DiamondView," that would update daily, identify statistical trends and guide decision-making. Now, such programs are considered essential evaluative tools.
So as the Indians became an American League powerhouse on the field in the 1990s, they also became a destination for the bright young minds coming out of college and looking for a way to break into the game. Upon arrival, these kids with no professional playing background were invariably first dispatched to the video room, where they were asked to break down teams and games.
"One of the things young people don't have a grasp of is how difficult it is to play the game," O'Dowd said. "But when you're an advance scout and see players at their best, you get an appreciation for the speed of the game. It gave them a good feel for evaluation, too. It would force them to make decisions on players, which gave them a foundation for the rest of their careers -- what they liked or didn't like."
Hart also made it a point to take his young underlings into meetings with manager Mike Hargrove and his staff, to give them the consistent opportunity to interact with the uniformed personnel -- on the good days and on the tough days -- so that they could form their own relationships.
"When I reflect on the amount of encouragement, empowerment and leadership opportunities that [Hart] gave me at 24 or 25 years old, I'm blown away," Shapiro said. "He was just a guy who found people he believed in."
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Hart knew the value of such encouragement, having himself benefited from the vision of Hank Peters. When Hart's brief professional playing career ended in the early 1970s, he became a Florida high school coach with dreams of one day managing in the bigs. Peters, then the general manager of the Orioles, gave him his first Minor League coaching opportunity, and, eventually, a big league opportunity as a third-base coach on the O's staff. But when Peters left the O's for the Indians' presidency in 1988, he asked Hart to join him not as a field coach but as his right-hand man in the front office.
O'Dowd, who had worked in the Baltimore front office, also joined the Tribe that year, and Peters, who had no designs on keeping the top spot for more than a few seasons, trained Hart and O'Dowd to succeed him. Hart would serve as the Tribe GM for 10 seasons. O'Dowd, who now serves as an MLB Network analyst, would leave after '98 and take the Rockies' top job a year later.
In the winter before the 1992 season, the Indians were like every other Major League club in that they received a letter from a young man who had spent the previous two years working in construction in Southern California and retail in New York but desperately wanted to get into baseball. Hart and O'Dowd knew Mark Shapiro's father, the sports agent and Baltimore-based attorney Ron, quite well, and so they brought the kid in for an interview. Ten years later, Shapiro succeeded Hart in the GM role before eventually graduating to the club presidency and, this fall, becoming the president of the Blue Jays.
Byrnes was the next to arrive, in 1994, when the Indians were transitioning from the outhouse of Municipal Stadium to the sparkling new park where they'd surge up the standings. He was a Haverford graduate with a distinct passion for the game. Off to the video room he went, embarking on the path that led to the Padres' GM job and, now, the senior vice president position he holds with the Dodgers.
Long before he left baseball for football, DePodesta did the exact opposite. E.J. Narcise, a childhood friend of O'Dowd's who was in business operations with the now-defunct Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League, called O'Dowd raving about this unpaid intern who was working for him. And that's how DePodesta got his first break in the baseball biz.
From there, the system began to sustain itself.
"John let the horses gallop," O'Dowd said.
Shapiro hired Cherington, an Amherst grad who was quiet as a churchmouse but soaked up his surroundings like a sponge. He, of course, went on to head up the Red Sox baseball ops and win a ring in '13 before last summer's upheaval. Huntington (now the general manager of an inordinately efficient Pirates team) and Antonetti (who succeeded Shapiro as GM and then president) arrived after initial exposures with the Expos. In fact, DePodesta sat in on the interview process with Antonetti, who would wind up replacing DePodesta when the latter left for the A's.
"We overlapped for about a month or so during the transition," Antonetti said.
Contrary to that scene in "Moneyball," when Brad Pitt basically busts into the Tribe's executive offices and steals Jonah Hill from his cubicle, O'Dowd was actually Billy Beane's first target from the Tribe front office. But O'Dowd turned down the opportunity and recommended DePodesta. Knowing full well he was fourth or fifth on a deep roster in Cleveland, DePodesta was the first of Hart's kids to leave the family home.
"It's one of those things you get a sinking feeling," Hart said. "But we were doing so well and people want to take your guys."
Success affected the front office in other ways, in O'Dowd's estimation.
"The culture changed when we got really good," he said, "because everybody wanted something for themselves within that process, including me. It changed the dynamic of the relationships. Sometimes it's harder to manage success than failure. When you fail, there's this bond that ties you all together and creates something special. Once you get special, where do you go from there? I actually think Apple's going through that now."
Just as the Indians endured the difficulty of keeping an elite team together on the field after the sell-out streak ended and the robust revenues ran dry, they also saw the front office evolve. As evidenced by Toronto's hire of Shapiro to run both the business and baseball operations, Cleveland is still regarded in the industry as one of the more collaborative and well-organized offices in the game. A place worth poaching.
But we might never again see a group as jam-packed with GM prospects as that 1998 stash. Hart's family tree has surely left its mark on baseball, and DePodesta's bold move to the Browns is extending its influence to the gridiron.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and an MLB.com columnist.