Orioles Team President Options: Profiling John Hart
In the wake of Dan Duquette’s departure, the Baltimore Orioles are looking to reorganize their front office – potentially on a drastic level. In fact, word is that they might hire two people to run things, a EVP / GM-type in Duquette’s role and a President of Baseball Operations to oversee everything.
It’s a model that has worked in places like Chicago (Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer of the Cubs) and Los Angeles (Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi of the Dodgers) and shows promise with the White Sox (Ken Williams-Rick Hahn) as well.
Baltimore Sports and Life has profiled four options (Amiel Sawdaye, Josh Byrnes, Mike Elias, and Jason McLeod) as possible candidates at EVP.
I’ve profiled Farhan Zaidi as a potential option at President, a seemingly unlikely candidate who I personally believe would be good for the franchise.
My colleague John Perrotto has looked at Mike Chernoff, and Doug Melvin.
Now I’m going to take a look at a candidate who ‘feels’ like a potential O’s hire, but who also comes with a bit of baggage – John Hart.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Hart, who turned 70 in July, is a baseball lifer with oodles of experience in practically every aspect of the game. He’s also known as, at least until recently, as a good guy to have as the public face of your franchise – always amiable to the media and always available, a good promoter of your team.
Hart was a player, a star catcher at Seminole Junior College who spent three years in the Montreal Expos organization. Hart hit .223 with a .532 OPS in 235 games and reached Class-AA.
He later became a minor league manager in the Orioles system and advanced all the way to the majors as a coach. He got his big break, though, with the Cleveland Indians when they hired him as a special assignment scout in 1989. By fall of 1991 he was the team’s general manager.
It was a rapid rise, but one that paid off, as that’s where Hart first flexed his muscles as a talent evaluator. Hart quickly built the Indians into an AL power. By his fourth season as GM they were in the playoffs, and they would reach the postseason six times in a seven-year stretch, reaching the World Series twice (losing in six games to the Braves in 1995 and in seven games to the Marlins in 1997).
Among the players drafted on Hart’s watch were Richie Sexson, Dave Roberts, Jaret Wright and Sean Casey. He also traded for a 24-year-old Kenny Lofton, a 26-year-old Omar Vizquel, a 20-year-old Carlos Baerga and a 23-year-old Sandy Alomar, Jr. He also made what turned out to be smart free agent acquisitions for his pitching staff, inking both Dennis Martinez (41 at the time) and Orel Hershiser (36) to cost-effective details. Hershiser would be MVP of the 1995 ALCS.
But aside from talent evaluation, he pioneered an innovative strategy for small and mid-market franchises to follow, locking up pre-arbitration talents to long-term deals. This strategy was born from watching the Pittsburgh Pirates lose their stars – including Barry Bonds — to free agency and growing tired of arguing against his own players during arbitration hearings.
Hart also had an eye for executive talent. Here is a list of people he hired to that Indians front office: Dan O’Dowd, Mark Shapiro, Josh Byrnes, Paul DePodesta, Ben Cherington, Neal Huntington, Chris Antonetti. Not too shabby.
“Mark Shapiro, Dan O’Dowd… We would start growing with different guys,” Hart told Fangraphs before the 2017 season. “People came at it from (different perspectives). For me it was ‘How do we become a cutting-edge organization?’
“We’d sit up there in my office in the early years in Cleveland and shut the door at 2 a.m. and be throwing it all out on the table dreaming about being great, relative merits of a player, ‘Why do you like this guy more than this guy?’ Antonetti, Jon Daniels, Shapiro, that’s how we rolled.”
After a decade of success in Cleveland, he jumped for the GM job in Texas. The Rangers didn’t make the playoffs in his four years there, but they showed improvement soon after and made back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010-11.
Hart’s last project came in Atlanta, where he was hired by friend John Schuerholz after his Rangers contract expired. Hart became interim GM there after Frank Wren was let go in 2014. He was President of Baseball Ops a year later, starting the rebuild which has led to the Braves’ sooner-than-expected resurgence. It also, however, led to the scandal that followed.
In late 2017, an MLB investigation found that the Braves had violated rules regarding international signings and the domestic draft, and the punishment was stiff. It turned out the team was circumventing signing rules by giving signing bonuses as packages to multiple players. Players would receive reduced bonuses, but would receive additional money through their agents that had been given to other players in the package.
General manager John Coppolella was not only forced out, but banned for life, and special assistant Gordon Blakeley was given a one-year suspension. Both men resigned.
On top of that, the Braves lost 12 international signees, including star shortstop prospect Kevin Maitan, and were given severe restrictions on international signings during 2019-20 and 2020-21 periods.
And yet Hart somehow skated on the whole thing despite being President of Baseball Operations. The Braves demoted him to special advisor, which is often a figurehead role anyway. Less than a week after he was stripped of power, Hart resigned.
In the aftermath, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported that the investigation had concluded that Hart and Schuerholz had been unaware of the transgressions. Crasnick’s source reported that Hart’s management style was “disengaged.”
If you believe that, it at least exonerates Hart of wrongdoing. But it also makes you wonder, for one thing, how a man in his position of power was so unaware of what was going on, and secondly, if that’s the kind of guy you want to hire to run your franchise.
Do you really want to hire a “disengaged” 70-year-old to lead a massive rebuild project? The pedigree is there, it would be wise for the Orioles to do their homework in other areas to make this plunge.
Perhaps it would be different this time around. Perhaps Hart would be excited to be involved in such a challenging project. Perhaps he wants to change the way he went out. But the Orioles should tread carefully and do their homework before heading down that path.
Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!