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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2001

Expect one last big deal from Tribe GM Hart

If this is late July, then it must be John Hart's favorite time of the year.

It's also the end of an era for Trader John in his capacity as one of the shrewdest and most successful wheelers and dealers in baseball as general manager of the Cleveland Indians. Hart is the architect of the blockbuster trade.

The major league trading deadline is later this week, and the Indians still need to add more quality pitching to legitimately push Seattle and the Yankees for the American League pennant.

Hart will step down as Cleveland's general manager to become a team consultant after the season. He'll never receive a better chance than right now to lift the Indians from playoff pretender to World Series contender.

The last-minute trade is Hart's calling card. We've come to expect such dramatics from the best GM in franchise history.

The question has always been when will Hart pull the trigger on another major deal. Not if. Will things be any different this year?

Hart's pursuit of an elite starting pitcher has been ongoing and frustrating. It's the only thing separating the Indians from baseball's elite.

In hindsight, everything is 20-20.

You learn from your mistakes, discover what you have to do to stay in the game and stay on top of the game.

Much has been made across this state of Hart's great trades, his bad trades. His uncanny ability to put a consistent winner on the field, his gnawing inability to win a World Series.

Hart has assembled enough talent to field an All-Star team over the years. I'm not going to fault him because that talent hasn't been able to win the big prize.

It's easy to criticize, much easier than it is to praise. We've spent so much time focusing on Hart's failings that perhaps we've been guilty of ignoring a foundation of substance.

My point? I know Hart has made mistakes. He's made bad trades. The deal for John Rocker, a trade that may have started as a figment of Hart's imagination before evolving into reality, could backfire.

But I also understand that Hart has been a great leader. He's accomplished more good than bad in Cleveland.

The Indians still need what Hart has to offer them. Just four years removed from the World Series (how quickly Hart's critics forget), Hart offers Indians players a sense of security, a strong belief that he will put them in position to have a fighting chance to win every year.

That's what's going to be missing in 2002 when assistant GM Mark Shapiro replaces Hart. It's safe to assume that Shapiro has learned from Hart. But until we see how Shapiro does on his own in the pressure cooker, we won't know.

With the trading deadline approaching in two days, Hart reminds me of a quarterback who has a free down to work with following a defensive penalty. He can try to make a big play, but if it doesn't work he gets to run the play over again.

Hart won't be a consultant for long. He's too good at what he does, and there are too many bad baseball teams lacking direction at the top. Hart will settle elsewhere next year.

Talented GM's have a natural pizzazz. It's not an act. You either have it, or you don't.

Hart has it.

John Harris is The Blade's sports columnist. Contact him by e-mail at jharris@theblade.com

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