October 16, 1999
A Surprise in Cleveland
Mike Hargrove is out of a job
Mike Hargrove's abrupt dismissal--"Hey, we could wait to fire you and keep it discreet, but we'd rather rub salt in that wound and embarrass the heck out of you now"--will cause a lot of head-scratching around baseball over the next few days. But while Hargrove arguably deserved to go after five years of early playoff exits, it appears that he's getting the axe for some questionable reasons.
On the one hand, Hargrove clearly hastened his own demise with some questionable roster shuffling and player usage this October. The Bartolo Colon debacle actually has its origins in the exclusion of Chris Haney from the Tribe's postseason roster. Hargrove had to use Colon in Game 4 because his scheduled Game 4 starter, Jaret Wright--a strong indication that Hargrove didn't expect the series to even reach Game 4--pitched in Game 3 in relief of the injured Dave Burba.
Injuries happen, and they're not really predictable. However, all of the other seven teams that reached the postseason included an emergency starter on their postseason rosters, guys like Terry Mulholland, Tim Wakefield, Hideki Irabu and Scott Elarton who could start if a Burba-like episode occurred. With Haney healthy and many active relievers like Steve Karsay and Steve Reed decidedly not healthy, Hargrove's choice was very odd and unfortunate.
Similarly, his decisions in Saturday's Game 3, in which he left Wright in too long, left Ricardo Rincon in too long and sat around while the game and series got out of hand, had to infuriate Indians' management, particularly with the benefit of hindsight. Much of this was reminiscent of his obstinate use of Jose Mesa in the ninth inning of the 1997 World Series finale.
On the other hand, judging Hargrove by his failure to win a very unusual series this fall is hardly fair or rational. Managers, like players, should be judged over significant time periods, rather than on their worst five-game (or three-game) performance. Just as one can rip apart Hargrove's tactics in the ALDS loss, one could easily find times when Hargrove's machinations have won games that perhaps his team didn't figure to win without him.
Furthermore, Hargrove had to play the hand he was dealt: John Hart must shoulder the blame for assembling the worst division-winning pitching staff since...well...since the Rangers' staff this year...but still a really lousy and thin staff. Rincon and Reed were both ineffective due to injuries, but Karsay's woes were predictable, and Mike Jackson was hardly a bastion of health early in his career. Hart's failure to grab middle-relief talent in July, when it is usually widely available at a relatively low cost, was at least as culpable in the team's loss to Boston.
Many other Tribe problems also trace their origins elsewhere, even though Hargrove eventually had to deal with the results. Jaret Wright was wrecked coming up through the organization, and Bartolo Colon's fitful progress may also arise from minor-league overuse. Frequent acquisition of veteran chaff--Marquis Grissom, Travis Fryman--in exchange for the organization's wheat, and a related unwillingness to develop young talent at the major-league level--particularly Enrique Wilson--have left Hargrove with a revolving door of less-than-useful hitters. The only deal that brought in something he really needed, a real starting pitcher, netted Dave Burba at the cost of emerging star Sean Casey. Hargrove's continued ability to win 90+ games per year in light of the organization's maneuvers should earn him more credit than he apparently received from the Indians' management.
What happens next will be quite interesting. The Indians aren't likely to hire anything less than a marquee name, and there aren't many of those available who are also good managers. If the new hire stumbles, much as Jim Leyland did this year in Colorado, the team may wish it still had Grover on board--and probably won't think to turn the microscope upstairs instead.