Hart leads long list of great baseball minds

Dan O'Dowd and Mark Shapiro.

Paul DePodesta, Josh Byrnes, and Chris Antonetti.

As general managers, O'Dowd (Colorado) and Shapiro (Cleveland) run major-league teams. As assistant general managers, DePodesta (Oakland), Byrnes (Boston), and Antonetti (Cleveland) are one step away from reaching the pinnacle of their chosen profession, and all three are considered solid candidates to one day become GMs. And to those names, we could add Neal Huntingdon (like Antonetti, an assistant GM for the Indians) and Ben Cherington (Director of Player Development for the Red Sox).

What do these men have in common? They all worked for the Cleveland Indians, under then-GM John Hart, in the 1990s.

DePodesta -- one of the central characters in Michael Lewis' brilliant new book, Moneyball -- joined the Indians in 1996 as an intern in the baseball operations department. Less than three years later, in October of 1998, he was promoted to special assistant to the general manager. A month later, A's GM Billy Beane hired DePodesta away from the Tribe.

Byrnes spent six years in Cleveland, starting as a baseball operations intern in 1994. Four years later, still only 27, he became the Indians' scouting director. Following the 1999 season, he followed O'Dowd to Colorado to serve as assistant GM. And last December, he took the same position with the Red Sox.

Antonetti actually got his start as an intern with the Expos, but after two years in Montreal took a job in the Indians' baseball operations department, replacing DePodesta in 1999. Less than three years later, Antonetti was promoted to assistant general manager.

With DePodesta, Byrnes and Antonetti all prime candidates to take the next step, it's entirely possible that within the next few years, four or five (or more) of MLB's 30 general managers will have come of age in Cleveland.

But that's not really so amazing. In the sports world, it's common for successful executives to spawn other successful -- or at least well-placed -- executives. No, what's amazing is that nobody talks about it. Everybody knows that DePodesta works for Beane, and that Rangers assistant GM Grady Fuson used to work for Beane. But how many people know that DePodesta, Byrnes, Antonetti, Shapiro, and O'Dowd all used to work for Hart in Cleveland?

After the 1988 season, both Hart and O'Dowd joined the Indians: Hart as assistant GM, O'Dowd as farm director. Three years later, Hart took over as general manager.

"My background was field development," Hart recalls. "But as I noticed the evolvement of the game, I realized that while there were a lot of strengths I was going to bring, if we wanted to have the best organization, we needed to have people around that offered another skill set. When you're in that position, you worry. You want to be good. And at some point I said to myself, 'Here's where we want to be. And if we want to get here, this is what I need. I can't do this by myself.' "

As the new general manager, one of Hart's first hires was Shapiro. "I knew that Mark had great leadership skills," says Hart, "in addition to being a Princeton graduate and very bright. But what I wanted to do with Mark was get him to where he was in a leadership position, to where he could go lead a farm department. And the great thing was to get him around the baseball people, the guys that had made a living in the game for so long, the Johnny Goryls and the other 40-year guys. Mark picked it up. He just got it, and the baseball guys established a great confidence in Mark."

Two years after joining the Indians, Shapiro took over as farm director. But Hart wasn't finished stocking his organization with the best and the brightest. With a great deal of help from Shapiro and O'Dowd, Hart went back to work.

"We looked for guys who had a passion for baseball," Hart says, "guys who had played at some point or had a feel for the game. Maybe their skills only took them to college, but they were guys with a passion who would add a dimension to our organization that others didn't."

In other words, guys like DePodesta and Byrnes.

"John (Hart) is a very good leader" DePodesta says. "I think that's probably his best quality. He allows for a tremendous amount of autonomy with everybody that works for him. He doesn't meddle in anything. When he asks for something, he doesn't tell you how he wants it done. He just asks for it, you give it to him, and he'll look at it. Also, I think that John -- and this is part of being a good leader -- is a great listener and he'll listen to anybody. He's not going to walk around espousing sabermetrics, but at the same time, if I put a 10-page report in front of him, though he might just flip to the back page to read the summary, he is curious about the outcome. I always really admired that about John, that he'll listen to anybody."

Everybody knows about DePodesta, who's now been Beane's trusted lieutenant for nearly five years. But everybody doesn't yet know about Byrnes. That's not going to last much longer, though.

"I think the reason everything is traced back to Cleveland, is because of Josh," DePodesta remembers. "Josh got there two years before I did, and when I got there, he definitely indoctrinated me. We were using 'sum' -- that's what we called OPS then. That was back in '96, and it was a pretty significant piece of our analysis. We were breaking everybody down by position, by batting order, all these different ways.

"I think Josh brought that, but the reason I think it blew up because of him is that when I got there, as Josh moved up, all of his responsibilities were thrust onto me. And virtually every time, he would drop it off at my desk and say, 'This is what I did last year. You can use it as a guide, but I want you to do it better.' "

Byrnes had learned much from Hart. "John always had an open door," Byrnes remembers, "and he gave a lot of responsibility to the people who worked for him. He was a great listener and a great processor of the information. And he was a great communicator, too. He can interact equally well with a scout who's been around for 50 years and a young guy with all sorts of strange ideas."

Speaking of young guys with strange ideas, four years after Byrnes' arrival and two years after DePodesta's, Antonetti joined the Indians. "I came over from the Expos in December of 1998," says Antonetti. "Paul was one of the people I interviewed with -- I also interviewed with Dan and Mark -- and I wound up taking Paul's spot."

When it comes to Hart, Antonetti echoes DePodesta and Byrnes. "One of John's most exceptional attributes is his willingness to listen to different perspectives. And not only listen, but really filter in those different perpsectives as part of the big picture. He had something very much like an entreprenurial spirit. He actually had a couch in his office, and his door was always open. He encouraged people to come in and talk, before or after the game."

"The culture was set from the top," Antonetti continues. "Whether it was lunch or dinner or both, we were talking about baseball with a great passion, and I certainly learned a lot and benefited from it. Again, John is just an exceptional listener, and it was genuine listening. He's an interesting person. He's a voracious reader, and reads on a wide variety of topics. He just craves information."

And what does Hart think about all the success of his ex-employees?

"I'll tell you what, I love every one of those guys. I really do. They were a big part of our great success in Cleveland, every one of them. Obviously, I'm competing with some of them, but I couldn't be happier for them. All of those guys, if you ask them, they'll tell you that we gave them the ability to grow, and that sitting around late at night and talking baseball with a guy like myself, a little white in the hair but still thinks young ... those are good matches."

Moneyball is about an idea, that idea being the somewhat revolutionary notion that the way things always have been done in baseball isn't necessarily the way things should be done. While Hart almost certainly won't be remembered as any sort of revolutionary, it's a pretty safe bet that Hart, the voracious reader who craves information -- will devour Moneyball in a sitting or two. And it's an even safer bet that Messrs. DePodesta, Byrnes, and Antonetti will zip through the book the first chance they get. Because while they already know about the idea, they're too bright to think they already know everything they need to know. Just like John Hart.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.