CLEVELAND-You can assume that Chuck Tanner knows a few things about managing in the major leagues from his 18 years in the job from 1971-88 with the White Sox, Athletics, Pirates, and Braves, winning 1,352 games and leading the Pirates to the World Series title in 1979. On the basis of that experience, it stands to reason that he might be able to spot special qualities in a manager. The best evidence? He saw something special in Eric Wedge before most anyone else.
Wedge was the somewhat surprising choice to manage the Indians following the 2002 season. Third base coach Joel Skinner had guided the Indians through the final 75 games of that season after Charlie Manuel was fired, and seemed to be the favorite to keep the job on a full-time basis. Yet Mark Shapiro, who had just completed his first full season as the Indians’ GM, decided on promoting the Wedge, the manager of their Triple-A Buffalo affiliate, to oversee the rebuilding of a franchise that was coming off what had been perhaps the most glorious decade in its spotty history. Wedge was just 34, making him the major leagues’ youngest manger. He was also a virtual unknown to most baseball fans, except those who remembered he was a catcher of some promise in the early 1990s with the Boston Red Sox until injuring his throwing elbow.
Today, Wedge is front in center in the baseball world. With a three games to one lead over the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, his Indians are one victory shy of their first World Series berth since 1997. In recognition of his work this year, the Sporting News named him AL Manager of the Year earlier this week, and he is likely to win the official award from the Baseball Writers Association of America next month.
Back in 2003, Shapiro’s decision hadn’t show much, as the Indians went 74-88 while suffering through their first losing season in a decade. Things got worse the next season, when the Indians slipped to 68-94. Whether or not Wedge was responsible for a team that was retrenching, it wasn’t an auspicious start to any manager’s career.
However, there was one man in the Indians’ organizational who steadfastly believed that Wedge was the man to lead the franchise back to prominence. That was Tanner, who was then in his first season as a special assistant to Shapiro, a role he still holds. Tanner watched the Indians drop a pair of interleague games in 15 innings to the Pirates on consecutive nights in Pittsburgh in late June of 2003 before rallying to to salvage the final game of the series with an 8-5 win on a blistering hot Sunday afternoon at PNC Park. “He was a young manager with a young team, and it’s easy for things to go bad when you lose a couple of tough games like they did on back-to-back nights,” Tanner said. “It’s frustrating to play 15 innings two days in a row and have nothing to show for it. A lot of times a team will go through the motion the next day after a couple of games like that. But those guys were playing just as hard as ever. I knew right then that he was going to be a heckuva manager. You could tell there was something special about him in the way he held that team together and had it playing hard. You don’t see that kind of leadership from a manager that young very often. It was special.”
A month later, on Tanner’s strong, positive recommendation, the Indians stunned many around baseball by adding two options years to Wedge’s contract that kept him under their control until 2006. The Indians not only eventually exercised those options years, but also gave him a three-year extension this past July, a deal that will keep him in Cleveland through the 2010 season. “I was just left with the underlying sense that this guy’s going to be the right partner for me,” Shapiro said. “That he was going to be someone that’s going to care as much as I care, work as hard as I work and, if there was any way for him to ensure that we succeeded, he was going to find that path.”
Wedge had indeed succeeded despite hitting some more rough patches on that path beyond his rookie season. There were a large number of Indians fans who thought Wedge shouldn’t have been their club’s manager this season. After falling behind by 15 games on July 25, they nearly overtook the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central in 2005 before six losses in the final seven games ended those playoff hopes. Despite great expectations in 2006, the Indians then skidded to a seemingly improbable 74-88 last season despite outscoring their opponents 870-782. While Shapiro did allow Wedge to come into this season without the safety net of a contract beyond 2007, he steadfastly backed the manager throughout Indians fans’ winter of discontent.
Wedge responded by leading the Indians to their first post-season appearance 2001 as they rallied past Detroit with a 36-20 finishing kick to win the AL Central. Indians players say Wedge has been a large part of their success this season as he has evolved with more experience. Wedge was a bit of a hothead in his first few seasons, regularly getting into arguments with umpires and always seeming to have a look on his face that made it appear he were ready to explode. Though hardly ancient at 39 and still a tough guy who won’t be crossed, Wedge has also mellowed and loosened his hold on the reins.
“He’s definitely not as tough as he used to be,” said left-hander C.C. Sabathia, tonight’s Game Five starter against Josh Beckett. “His first year, nobody could get away with anything. Now, he let’s us get away with a few things. He’s lightened up but we also know he’s the boss and everyone in this clubhouse respect him.”
“He is really the perfect manager for this team,” catcher Victor Martinez said. “We have a good group of guys who are professionals and we know how to go about our business. He’ll give us a little kick when he thinks we need it, but he encourages and tells us not to worry about anything except going out and playing the game.”
That is indeed Wedge’s philosophy of managing. “I really believe you can overmanage or interfere,” Wedge said. “The thing I’ve learned is when things are going bad, it’s the manager’s job to step up and take the blame from the media and the fans. When things are going well, you sit back and let the players take the credit, because they are the ones who ultimately win the games. My job is to keep things in order and set a positive tone on a daily basis. I try to make the environment as good as possible for our guys to perform at their best.”