Shapiro knew the direction

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

BOSTON – There were always those stretches of highway, those uncomforting signposts warning him to go back, to reconsider.

Mark Shapiro might have too, had it not taken so long to smooth and pave that road, had it not made so much sense then, had he not believed so much in it now.

And, still…

Those 94 losses in 2003. The fall to fourth place in 2006, just when everyone seemed to be getting it. First the bullpen would go bad and then the defense, then it would all fit and almost nobody would show up at the downtown ballpark.

"There definitely were a lot of nights that drive home was a long drive," he said, "and you question it."

On the night the Cleveland Indians would return to the American League championship series after a decade away, eliminating the New York Yankees and setting the game's cornerstone franchise afire, Shapiro killed an hour watching batting practice from the visitors' dugout at Yankee Stadium.

He has been general manager of the Indians since late 2001, when John Hart left for Texas. Since then, the Indians have had their moments of hope and pain, of good baseball and bad. But, there had been nothing like clearing out Yankee Stadium on the second Monday of October, nothing like putting a team on the field over four games that was not only better than the Yankees, but significantly better.

"It's not easy," Shapiro said, "and it's extremely fragile."

Excusable errors in New York and Boston are devastating in Cleveland, where Grady Sizemore had to become Grady Sizemore, and Travis Hafner had to hit, and Fausto Carmona couldn't ever be 1-10 again, and the fall-back closer, Joe Borowski, had to pitch the ninth, no matter what.

Shortstop Jhonny Peralta had to broaden his range at shortstop, because Shapiro couldn't just go out and buy another shortstop who could hit like Peralta. And Victor Martinez had to assure the Indians he really did want to be a catcher, and work at it and play like it, or Shapiro was going to have to develop more switch-hitting catchers who would bat cleanup.

Sizemore and starter Cliff Lee came to the Indians in a larger trade for Bartolo Colon in the summer of 2002, in the midst of a 14-month period in which Shapiro and his assistant, Chris Antonetti, acquired 23 players, most within a year or two of their 21st birthdays. Reliever Rafael Perez was signed out of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic that summer, two years after Carmona signed from the same city. Third baseman Casey Blake, who was well older than most of the additions, and Hafner, in a lopsided trade with the Texas Rangers, arrived in 2002. First baseman Ryan Garko was drafted in 2003.

So, from 2001, the season of the Indians' last division winner, only C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Kenny Lofton have significant roles, and Lofton played for eight teams between then and now. In little time, Shapiro had turned over a roster of Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Juan Gonzalez, Roberto Alomar and Travis Fryman, a rotation that, along with Sabathia, featured Chuck Finley, Charles Nagy, Jaret Wright and Colon.

"We were either going to get it done," Shapiro said, "or we were going to go down with people we believe in as people and as players."

Broken down and rebuilt in less than six years, the Indians flew Wednesday from Cleveland, bound for a cool, gray evening in Boston.

That jet carried an organizational plan gone right, that of pitchers and position players reaching their early production years together, soon enough to help, and soon enough to come at a reasonable cost.

They'd gone into first place in the AL Central in mid-August and a month later had put away the last of the division. Recovering from their 2006 fall from contention, the Indians had bettered themselves in their bullpen, which, Shapiro said, had been "life-shortening for me" in 2006, and cleaned up their defense. Carmona began spring training as the Indians' sixth-best starter and ended the season as one of the best starters in the league.

The Indians had turned themselves around in a season. And it only took six years.

"What was hard," Shapiro said, "was the blank stares along the way."

Many of the people of Cleveland, he said, at least the ones he kept running into, didn't know what to make of it. He tried to explain the plan, what the final product might look like, what raising a team in a smaller market meant, the necessity of it and value in it.

Still, he said, "The blank stares."

Followed by the long drives home.

"Probably Chris Antonetti bore the brunt of it more than anyone else," Shapiro said, "since I can't talk baseball with my wife."

From his office in Cleveland, packing for the trip east, Antonetti laughed.

"You have those moments all the time," he said. "We still have those moments now. It was exceptionally difficult and there still was a good deal of luck involved. There's a lot of nights staying up, thinking, 'I hope this works.' "

What to Read Next