Indians manager Eric Wedge goes to the mound to remove Paul Byrd during Game 4 of the ALCS at Jacobs Field.
CLEVELAND - It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most enticing of job offers.
He'd be managing a team essentially being rebuilt from scratch, relying on a roster of kids from Buffalo, Akron and that baseball hotbed, Mahoning Valley. The payroll would be meager, the all-stars were long gone and the only big-name free agents he'd see were on other teams. The losses would be frequent and probably lopsided.
Oh, and all of this would be for a passionate fan base hardened by decades of disappointment.
A real dream job, that one. And yet Eric Wedge signed on as the Cleveland Indians' manager anyway.
"I was actually excited about it," he said. "Obviously you knew what was going to be ahead. I knew it was going to take a lot of toughness from a lot of people to be able to handle that. I just tried to surround myself with the best people I could, stay as consistent as we could with the players - which is extremely important - and just stay true to the path.
"And you have to be patient. You can't take shortcuts. There's no secret ingredient to doing it outside of consistency, having a plan and everybody staying on the same page."
Five years after Wedge took over the Indians, they're a game away from the World Series. They lead the Boston Red Sox 3-1 in the AL championship series, with Game 5 tonight at Jacobs Field.
It's a remarkable yet largely unsung turnaround, and there's no telling where Cleveland would be had general manager Mark Shapiro hired anyone but Wedge.
A former catcher who spent parts of four seasons in the majors with Boston and Colorado, Wedge isn't flashy or overbearing. He's straightforward, focused and patient, and he holds tight to the lessons he learned from his parents about the value of hard work (when Wedge was introduced as Cleveland's manager, his parents missed the news conference because it was a work day).
But his imprint is on every inch of the Indians clubhouse.
"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."
For much of the 1990s, the Indians were one of the American League's premier teams. They were division champions six times in the seven-year span from 1995 to 2001, and won the AL pennant in both 1995 and 1997. They put up monstrous offensive numbers with players like Albert Belle, Jim Thome, David Justice and Manny Ramirez, while Bartolo Colon, Dennis Martinez and Charles Nagy kept opposing teams off balance.
But with a small-market payroll and few high draft picks, Cleveland was stuck in that impossible spot between contending and rebuilding. So Shapiro made the difficult decision to dismantle the Indians and rebuild around a core of young, homegrown players. Even Thome, the fan favorite and face of the franchise, left as a free agent after the 2002 season.
"The [manager's] job that we had at that point was not a simple job of just managing the team," Shapiro said. "I needed someone to dig in, become my partner and understand more than just getting the most out of 25 players. Understand how we were going to build, what the inherent challenges were in our marketplace and that the way we were going to do it was going to be unconventional."
And "Wedgie" was the perfect fit.
Though only 34 when he was hired, he seemed - on the surface, at least - to be a no-nonsense, old-school manager. This, after all, is a guy who counts Bob Knight as a role model, and has a John Wayne calendar in his office.
Yet he also has an uncanny ability to see what his teams and players need, and adapt. When the Indians clubhouse was full of kids, Wedge kept a tight rein, operating as if he were still in the minors. But as the team has gotten older and more mature, Wedge has mellowed too.
"These players have evolved and I've evolved right with them," said Wedge, who's also become a father since taking over the Indians. "You have to work off the team, it's not the other way around."
The Indians lost 94 games in 2003, their worst season in more than a decade. Though they made a run at the top of the AL Central in '04, it was brief and they wound up finishing below .500 again. Crowds at the once-rocking Jake dwindled. Cleveland fans are a long-suffering bunch, but even they had their limits.
It would have been understandable had it all worn on him, but Wedge never lost sight of the bigger picture. This was a long-term project, and developing players for Cleveland's tomorrow was every bit as important as what the Indians were doing on the field today.
"Some days are better than others, but there was never a time that the consideration even came into mind to give into the fight. Ever," Wedge said.
The perseverance paid off in 2005. Playing the best baseball of anyone in the majors, the Indians almost caught the Chicago White Sox and were still in the wild-card race on the final weekend. Though they missed the playoffs, they finished with 93 wins - an almost complete reversal from their record just two years earlier.
But youngsters are wildly unpredictable, and the Indians were no different. Expected to contend in the AL Central last year, they finished a distant fourth thanks to an offense that came and went, poor defense and a disastrous bullpen.
This year, though, that rock-solid foundation Wedge had so carefully built finally emerged. The Indians moved into a tie for first in the AL Central just 17 games into the year, and never dropped lower than second again. They took over first place for good on Aug. 15 and finished on a tear, winning 31 of their last 43 games. Their 96 wins tied Boston for best in the majors.
Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta have developed into two of the best young players in the game, and C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona are Cy Young candidates.
"The two most important things to me are to respect the game and be a good teammate. These guys exemplify that," Wedge said. "What I love about this organization is it's all about the players.
"And that's the way we operate. We don't just say it, we actually play it that way."
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