Hart putting his winning formula to work in Atlanta
Twenty one years ago, the Cleveland Indians were on the verge of opening their brand new ballpark, Jacobs Field, and they had a young team on the verge of contention. Looking to put the finishing touches on that team, general manager John Hart targeted two veteran players to round out his roster -- the great pitcher Dennis Martinez and the Hall of Fame hitter Eddie Murray -- and his tactics in closing those deals were, in the right moment, brilliant in their deviousness.
The wind happened to be blowing in the day Martinez visited the new facility.
"That's how the wind usually blows here," Hart told him.
It happened to be blowing out on the day Murray visited.
"It usually blows out here," Hart said, straight-faced.
All these years later, the memory still draws a chuckle from Hart.
"I was like a used-car salesman," he said with a laugh. "I was selling that hard!"
Hart is back at work this winter. With the assistance of GM-in-training John Coppolella, he is reshaping a Braves team that hasn't won a postseason series since 2001 and, frankly, needed some long-term guidance.
The Braves, Hart knows, could contend in 2015. The game's competitive parity blurs the line between contender and also-ran. But perhaps more importantly -- and more realistically -- a big goal here for Hart, the club's newly installed president of baseball operations, is to field a roster worthy of the World Series by 2017, when SunTrust Park opens.
This is not how Hart expected to be spending his winter. An avid golfer and family man, the 66-year-old was living what he called "the perfect life" in semi-retirement. Hart was content to stay in the background as a special advisor, do his occasional analyst duties on the MLB Network and let a young whippersnapper like Coppolella handle the challenging, time-consuming, high-pressure responsibilities of club construction.
Old friend and Braves president John Schuerholz, however, insisted this was a situation that called for Hart's experience and expertise. Between Schuerholz's persistence and Hart's own competitive instincts, there was no walking away from this opportunity.
And so Hart found himself driving to work at Turner Field one day recently, reflecting on what had been a busy but fulfilling first few weeks of his three-year contract with the club. To the surprise of nobody in the industry, Hart did not take long to make his mark on Atlanta. He made a trade that sent Tommy La Stella to the Cubs in exchange for reliever Arodys Vizcaino and -- equally of note -- about $830,000 in international bonus-pool funds. He followed that up with a blockbuster swap with the Cardinals, sending Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to St. Louis for Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins. Then, he signed Nick Markakis to a surprising four-year, $44 million contract.
At the dawn of the Winter Meetings, he knows he's far from finished.
"We've got a hole in our system," Hart said. "We don't have the impactful young players coming. We're a little bit hamstrung there, and I think therein is the balance that I'm trying to weigh here as we go forward. How much emphasis do we put on '15 and '16, knowing the emphasis [looming] on '17. I want to win and compete, and I think we've got a club that, with a tweak or two, we can be competitive. At the same time, you keep your ears and eyes open for deals that may be unpopular now, but, a year or two down the road ..."
Hart has always understood and embraced the big picture. This is evident not just in his transactions (his philosophy regarding giving long-term extensions to young players in Cleveland would be copied in many organizations in the ensuing decades, Atlanta included), but also in his willingness to empower those who follow in his front-office footsteps. The branches from Hart's "family tree" -- the young men who worked for him and grew to become powerful execs in their own right -- extend to Cleveland (president Mark Shapiro and GM Chris Antonetti), Pittsburgh (GM Neal Huntington), Texas (GM Jon Daniels), Boston (GM Ben Cherington) and elsewhere.
These days, it's Coppolella growing into a GM role that seems a certainty. The Braves, technically, don't have a GM at the moment. They have Hart, their president of baseball ops, and Coppolella, their assistant GM, splitting calls to other clubs -- with Hart, Coppolella and Schuerholz, coming to conclusions together. The 35-year-old Coppolella is learning first hand that all those rave reviews he heard about Hart prior to working closely with him are true.
"It comes down to who John is as a person and an executive," Coppolella said in an e-mail. "He's a family man who, by nature, is energetic and engaging. He's not only willing to empower others, but he's extremely loyal to his people. However, don't let the fun and loyalty confuse anything -- he's highly intelligent, has almost unparalleled experience and is extremely adept at reading situations and people."
Right now, Hart is reading a market and a game that has evolved quite a bit since he last did this nearly a decade ago with the Rangers.
"Obviously, the zeroes [at the end of paychecks] have changed," Hart said. "At the GM Meetings, I told some people, 'Boy, I thought I left you guys in a good spot. I come back, and the money has gone crazy!"
What hasn't changed, however, is the importance of proper evaluation -- be it of the scouting or analytical variety -- and proper value placement.
"It's about acquiring good players, having good people that work with you," Hart said. "It's about team building. It's still the things that always have drawn me into this."
Hart stayed immersed in the ins and outs of the game during his time away from a hands-on, front-office role. If anything, some of those close to Hart were surprised he was able to feel as fulfilled as he did for as long as he did while not in a direct team-building situation.
"He has an incredible network of contacts," Shapiro said, "and he maintained a high level of engagement so that he could be the best he could be at the Network. Everything John does, he does with great zeal."
Hart places particular emphasis on the importance of face-to-face interaction, which is why, shortly after taking the job, he arranged for all of the Braves' leadership teams -- from domestic scouting, international scouting, player development, professional scouting and the Major League staff -- to spend several days together in Atlanta to analyze the system from top to bottom. Free-agent possibilities and potential trade partners were identified, and an honest eye was given to a Braves system that needed reshaping.
Because of an increased emphasis on the next wave of talent, it will be years before we'll have a tangible understanding of how impactful Hart has been in these early days of his tenure. But with his golf clubs gathering cobwebs, he's gone after this endeavor with that aforementioned zeal ("He's 66 going on 26," according to Coppolella), and he's already demonstrated that he's not afraid to swing a deal he believes betters this organization in the long run.
Though it remained on the fringes of contention until September, the bottom line was this Braves club had a minus-24 run differential in 2014 and had two of its best players -- Heyward and Justin Upton -- entering their free-agent walk years. So something had to change. Under Hart, the changes have been immediate.
In one sense, Hart has done this before, constructing a ballclub he hopes will be worthy of a new ballpark currently under construction. This time, though, a lot more eyes are upon him.
"With the lean years leading up to it, we had no expectations in Cleveland," Hart said. "We flew under the radar. It's a little different here, and I'm cognizant of that. We want to put a competitive club on the field next season. But, at the same time, you realize '17 is coming."
And so the work is underway.
As for which way the wind blows out of SunTrust Park, stay tuned. With Hart, that's sure to be a developing story.