Mike Chernoff is one of a long line of baseball executives from the Mark Shapiro tree, but unlike most of them, he's trying to uphold the traditions built by Shapiro himself with the Cleveland Indians.
The 35-year-old enters his second season as the general manager with an eye on the World Series, where his team fell to the Cubs in Game 7 last fall.
MLB.com recently sat down with Chernoff in office at Goodyear Ballpark in the closing days of Spring Training to discuss Shapiro's impact on his career, how growing up around the world of sports radio influenced him and why the Indians won't suffer from a World Series hangover.
:: General manager Q&As ::
MLB.com: You played baseball at Princeton, but you have said you knew early on that college baseball was going to be pretty much where you maxed out. When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career on this side?
Chernoff: I definitely knew I was going to max out at the college level; I thought maybe it would have been in high school, but fortunately I got chance to play at Princeton. I don't think I realized that a career in baseball was possible until about junior year. My dad had been in sports and sports radio, so I had some access to the behind-the-scenes of sports, but I didn't really recognize the front-office component of a Major League team until I did an internship with the Mets between junior and senior year. It was in the marketing department, but I got to do some work for Jim Duquette in baseball ops, and that was the moment where I realized I didn't just like playing the game, I liked working in the game, too.
MLB.com: What did you learn most working under Mark Shapiro?
Chernoff: The thing I learned most is how important the people are. I started in 2003. "Moneyball" had just been written, and I had an economics and math background -- a playing background, too, but the sabermetric revolution, as it was happening, bringing a lot of those tools to the table and trying to integrate it into what we were doing.
I think the most important thing that I learned from Mark was, whatever it is that you're focused on -- whether it's the heavy scouting side or the analytic side, whatever it is -- the people always come first. The way that you build a culture, the way that you lead people, support people and ultimately treat people, that's what's going to lead to your success. It's not about any one of those tools. Mark did an exceptional job in building that culture here, and I feel like that is the legacy that we've tried to keep in place since he left.
• PODCAST: Listen to the full interview
MLB.com: So many people in decision-making roles around the game worked for Mark in Cleveland. You worked with a lot of those people. Does that make it easier to deal with other clubs when you have those preexisting relationships with other executives?
Chernoff: No doubt about it. It's fun to pick up the phone and call another team, because often there's somebody who I've worked with at that team. From the outside, it can maybe look like it would be harder if you know each other so well, but negotiating isn't adversarial. When we negotiate for trades or contracts or anything like that, the better relationship you have with the person on the other side of the table, the easier it is to figure out where you might have crossover. The deal ended up not working out in the end, but the deal for [Jonathan] Lucroy at the Deadline, working with David Stearns, it was an easy conversation to figure out how can we overlap on interest, because he and I are so close.
MLB.com: For a city that hadn't won in a long time, the Cavaliers won the NBA title last year and you guys got to the World Series. How have you seen the sports scene in Cleveland change over the past 12 to 18 months?
Chernoff: It was incredible to be a part of that. When the Cavs won, all of our baseball ops guys, Tito was up there in uniform in the upper deck because it went around our stadium, we watched the parade. There were over a million people watching it. It was hard not to feel this tremendous pride in Cleveland. Cleveland had been through a lot as a city. In the 14 years that I've been here, I've seen the economic hardship, seen what the city has gone through. I love the city.
People have a loyalty to it, but I don't know that that pride has been there since I started in '03. I think that really came out when the Cavs won, and it felt like that momentum just continued to pick up throughout our postseason run. One of the coolest things I saw, was when we played on the road in Chicago, 20,000 people were in the plaza outside our stadium watching our game. To me, that was the city really embracing the team and building on that momentum.
MLB.com: Your father, Mark, works in sports radio -- I interned for him, incidentally -- running WFAN [in New York] for about 25 years. Growing up around that sports radio culture, do you find yourself listening to it now?
Chernoff: Now that I'm an executive, I don't listen to it. I know well enough not to listen to it. No, I shouldn't say that. I think the thing that I learned that has really helped me is that the fans that call in -- whether positive or negative -- are the most passionate fans. Even when they are just killing our team, it's because they care so much. Having seen that firsthand at WFAN, it was a lot easier.
We've been through some tough times with the Indians in my time here. You realize that the fans that are getting all over you are not the enemy. They're actually the people who care most about the team, and the ones that you feel most responsible toward. It's helpful to view it through that lens because it can sometimes feel like you're being attacked when you hear some of those comments. You try not to have the emotional roller coaster and the ups and downs that fans of course have -- and should have. But you try to view it through the light of, "These are the most passionate people," and they only say it because they care so much.
MLB.com: Did your dad's job give you a better understanding of how to deal with the media once that became part of your job?
Chernoff: Yeah, I think it did. When you get to know radio personalities or media members as people as opposed to somebody just asking you tough questions, I think you gain an appreciation for why they're asking you tough questions and what your responsibility as a spokesperson for the team is. Some of that was through listening to my dad's station and hearing other executives go on, some of it has been here, watching Tito, who is exceptional at that and understands that you, as reporters, have a job to do. It's our job to help inform you and the fan base why we're making decisions. Nobody is coming after us or anything like that. I think it just allows you to view things through a little bit of a different lens and not feel the attack mode that some people maybe can feel from media.
MLB.com: The Indians got to the World Series last year without Michael Brantley, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. Did you ever wonder how things might have been different if any or all of them had been healthy?
Chernoff: I've thought a lot about that, just because there's a lot of time in the offseason to reflect on what happened. I think our team thrived because of the adversity we faced. There was a culture of, "Whatever happens to us, we're going to find a way to get over it; we're going to overcome the adversity." It's easy to say, "If you just plug in Brantley's offensive numbers, we would have been a better team." Or ,"If we just had Salazar and Carrasco in the rotation, we would have won the World Series." That may be true, but I also think our guys viewed those setbacks as opportunities. Josh Tomlin stepped up his game because he knew that he had a spot that he had to fill.
When you have a team identity where all anyone cares about is winning that night's game, guys do things beyond what their ability might otherwise let them do. So I don't know that it would have been any different. I hope they all stay healthy this year, and I hope the team comes together in the same way and can overcome the new adversity we're going to face. At the same time, I think what we achieved was really about getting past some of the challenges we faced throughout the year.
MLB.com: How crucial is Brantley's return this season? Does it almost feel like you added another free agent after he essentially missed all of last year?
Chernoff: It does. It feels exactly like that. There's a lot of spotlight on the Encarnacion signing and what his offense would do for our lineup. You're planning out the lineup thinking, "Take last year's team and plug in Encarnacion where we would have lost Napoli from." On top of that, add in Brantley, too. That's pretty good. The best part about it is just how hard Michael has worked. He's put in an unbelievable amount of time to get himself strong and get himself in a place where he can contribute. It was hard watching him through the postseason trying to find ways to help the team with an advance report or something like that, to be there for his teammates but not be able to play. We're all looking forward to having him back in the lineup this year.
MLB.com:Edwin Encarnacion signed the biggest free-agent deal in Indians history this offseason. What made him such a good fit for your team?
Chernoff: We had a big hole at first base, losing [Mike] Napoli both in the clubhouse and on the field. Edwin provides us with a different type of presence than Napoli; Napoli was a loud, go out and pull-guys-out-there type of guy. Edwin's got a great leadership presence and obviously an incredible bat to add to the lineup.
We don't often play in that range in the free-agent market. This was an opportunity where ownership made the decision to invest in the team and take the leap of faith. They felt like it was the right time to do that. We're adding a player that in a lot of ways complements our lineup tremendously and adds a huge amount of depth to us. We were in the top five in offense last year; hopefully that allows us to sustain that going forward.
MLB.com: You're the rare team that uses its DH as its leadoff hitter. Why is Carlos Santana the right guy for the top of the lineup?
Chernoff: Great on-base percentage, incredible patience at the plate. This is a guy who, despite the power that he has, walks as much as he strikes out. It's a bit unconventional, because he does have power and he can drive in runs, but our lineup is so deep that it allows for Tito to put him in that spot where he's comfortable and where Tito feels great about him getting on base.
MLB.com: Do you think the days of having to have a speedster at the top of your lineup are passing us by?
Chernoff: It depends on the team. There are days where we'll have a speedster at the top of the lineup, too. What we recognize is that especially when you've got a group of guys that hopefully can drive in runs in the two, three, four spots, you what a guy who is going to get on base in front of them. Whether it's a speedster, a power guy or whatever it is, Tito has used that spot exceptionally well to produce runs for the team.
MLB.com: People talk about the World Series hangover all the time, not only for the winners, but for the losers, as well. Do you have any concern about that at all?
Chernoff: No. I will say this: at the beginning of the offseason, I think we were all concerned about that. You're dead tired after the postseason run, you get that deep, then immediately you're going into free agency. You can feel it as you check in with players over the offseason; the pain didn't go away right away. But what we saw as we got into January and especially as we got into camp, guys weren't talking about 2016. There was this focus on, "How do we do the little things in Spring Training to put ourselves in a spot to get back to Game 7 of the World Series?"
In our individual player meetings, guys were asking Tito, "Hey, you've been through this before. What do we need to do to shift the focus and help the young guys see that the team last year was the 2016 team?" You don't just roll over the calendar and expect to be there again. The way we did it, the way we overcame adversity, that's who we want to be. How do we carry that part into 2017 and not just get stuck on, "Oh, it's just going to happen because we have a lot of the same guys coming back." From Day 1 of camp, we have seen a highly-motivated group that has moved on to 2017.