John Hart’s Giving Tree of Innovation

KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Everyone wants to speak with John Hart.

On a sunny day in late March at the Braves’ spring-training facility, Hart is seated in the driver’s seat of an E-Z-GO golf cart near the nylon netting of the on-field cage during batting practice. He employs the cart to travel around the sprawling facility. He loves spending time at its back fields, where the game’s No. 1 farm system, according to Baseball America, resided this spring. But at the big-league field his ability to watch pre-game work is compromised by a constant flow of visitors.

Bo Porter, a front-office assistant, is seated next to Hart in the passenger seat of the cart when Charlie Leibrandt approaches and speaks with Hart about a recent golf outing. Several current Braves players approach, as does a reporter (me). He makes time for everyone. No one is hesitant to greet the club president. There’s no halo of space — or a sense of need for space — around him.

“I like people. I’m an encourager by nature,” Hart says. “I really am.”

Perhaps that’s the foundation of his success: availability and amiability. I spoke with Hart this spring in the midst of his third rebuild project as an executive. His first, in Cleveland, was a major success, and he later put pieces in place for a turnaround in Texas. All that eludes him in a professional career spanning nearly four decades is a World Series ring.

It’s quite possible that encouraging, enjoying people, listening, being approachable — that they’re all keys to fostering the sort of collaborative environment and innovation for which Hart is responsible. It was under Hart that pre-arbitration contracts were pioneered, along with the modern front-office structure, in the early and mid-1990s in Cleveland. The game’s first proprietary database was built there, and all those Ivy League GMs who are running the show these days? Hart started that trend, too. He’s the creator of something akin to baseball’s version of the Bill Parcells Coaching Tree, having hired an unparalleled number of front-office staffers who became general managers.

Said Braves general manager John Coppolella, whom Hart hired in Atlanta: “I think you can very easily make a case for John Hart to be in the Hall of Fame. If you think about the influence he’s had. There are, what, 10 GMs who have worked for him? He can really hand power to people.”

***

Hart did not take a traditional path to a major-league front office, certainly not one common in today’s game. Hart rose from the field.

Born in Tampa, Florida, in 1948, Hart attended Seminole Junior College, where he was an All-American catcher. He played for three seasons in the Montreal system before he returned to college at the University of Central Florida. He coached high-school baseball for several years in Florida before he joined the Orioles as a minor-league manager in 1982. He rose through he Baltimore system, becoming the club’s third-base coach in 1988. He was on a track to manage in Baltimore, until he received a call from former Orioles GM Hank Peters.

Peters was fired at the end of the 1987 season but was quickly hired in November to become the president of the Indians. In the following winter, Hart, managing in the Dominican winter league, took a call from Peters who asked him to fly and meet him in Miami.

Hart met Peters in an airport lounge at Miami International Airport and Peters asked him there to join him in Cleveland, and to trade the path to manager for that of general manager.

“He said ‘I want to train you, and I want you to take over. I’ve watched you all these years I think you have the goods to be the GM,’” Hart recalled. “As Hank said, this is the ultimate baseball job. As the manager you will always be subservient. [Peters said,] ‘As GM you will hire your staff, create your culture, put your draft in place.’ He said ‘I’m going to help you with contracts, scouting, running the front office.’ It was a big world.”

Hart wasn’t sure if he wanted to leave the field. He flew back to the Dominican and asked for some time to mull the offer. “That day I called a couple friends of mine and they said ‘Are you crazy? You didn’t say ‘Yes?’” Hart recalled.

Hart agreed to join Peters in 1989. And after the 1991 season, the then-43-year-old Hart took over as the Cleveland general manager. The pioneering began.

“I looked at it like this: ‘How are we going to succeed here?’ Here’s my strengths, here are my limitations,” Hart said. “I looked at it and said if we’re going to be good here I can’t do it by myself. No way. Any success we had in Cleveland and Texas, it was a team effort. There was never an ego. We all are somewhat ego-driven — you want to succeed — but it was one for all, all for one.”

Hart has also prized young talent, and still does. Consider the top of BA’s organizational talent rankings and the five-year trends:

Much of Cleveland’s success was tied to scouting-and-development success stories: drafting Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome (a 13th rounder) in the 1989 draft and trading for Kenny Lofton, then a raw athlete with baseball upside. But there were creative new practices put in place that remain part of the game. Hart was confident in scouting abilities but he wanted to be surrounded by bright minds who could help him with contracts, research, and analysis.

“Mark Shapiro [hired in 1991], Dan O’Dowd… We would start growing with different guys,” Hart said. “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?’ [Indians president of baseball operations Chris] Antonetti, [Texas general manager] Jon Daniels, Shapiro, that’s how we rolled.”

The young executives called it “couch time” according to an ESPN profile by Jerry Crasnick.

That collaboration, those conversations, led to creativity. There were the pre-arbitration contracts, created after the front office watched the Pirates lose their stars to free agency following the 1991 and 1992 seasons, after Hart lost an appetite for arguing against his own players before arbitrators.

“‘Let’s get creative. Let’s go guys. What do we got?’” said Hart of his thoughts on contracts.

The Indians followed by locking up a dozen pre-arbitration players to long-term deals.

There were the beginnings of the first proprietary database, as Hart wanted information on opposing organizations easily available to him at the winter meetings.

“If we are going to make a trade with Cincinnati, I want to know where they are economically, what contracts they don’t like. I want to know who their prospects are,” Hart said. “We’d have a binder on every club that these guys jumped in and put together.”

Shapiro later led the effort to digitize that information, and add to it, creating what is believed to be the first proprietary database in the sport: DiamondView. And Hart kept adding to his collection of first-generation quantitative analysts. Harvard-educated Paul DePodesta was hired in 1996 as an advance scout, and was, as Hart once described, “fourth on the depth chart” when Billy Beane hired him to join the Oakland A’s in 1999.

Consider the 1998 Indians front office, characterized as a “dream team” by Anthony Castrovince in a piece on those years in Cleveland.

• John Hart, general manager
• Dan O’Dowd, assistant GM
• Mark Shapiro, player development director
• Josh Byrnes, scouting director
• Paul DePodesta, advance scout
• Ben Cherington, advance scout
• Neal Huntington, assistant director of Minor League operations
• Chris Antonetti, baseball operations assistant

“I don’t know what it was like to work at Apple or any of the tech firms in their heyday,” said O’Dowd, “but I’d imagine it was a lot like that. It was a creative think tank, and it was invigorating.”

And for the young executives Hart identified and gathered, he offered them an education.

“Being that guy that came at it from a different way than most GMs, I came at it from a field view,” Hart said. “I can go in the clubhouse and I feel very comfortable. I can go plop in the manager’s office and know exactly what he is thinking. I can sit there where a player or coach is and I got it.

“I looked at them and realize they were not as comfortable in the locker room or the clubhouse. I made sure, I’d take them by the hand, and have them meet with the manager. They’d sit next to me [during advance meetings with manager]. I made sure two, three years into [their careers] that they were going to be in a position to manage people, whether it be in scouting or player development. They were going to get that field piece.”

They were going to get an education.

****

Hart is 68 now. It’s unclear if this will be his last project. If it is, and if it’s a successful one, Coppolella might be the last general manager he directly hires and molds.

Coppolella’s hiring was not too different from how Brad Pitt, portraying Beane in the film version of Moneyball, identified Jonah Hill’s composite character by plucking him out of an office cubicle in Cleveland.

When Hart led the committee to select the Braves’ next general manager, he could have looked anywhere but he stayed inside the office, selecting Coppolella, who turned down a job with Intel in 2000 to become an intern with the Yankees. He stayed with the Yankees through 2006, joining the Braves as their director of baseball operations.

“I could have gone out and gone wherever,” Hart said. “I saw this guy in a back cubicle. I talked to him, met with him, and I go ‘Hmmmmm.’ I said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I want this guy.’ He’s bright, he’s creative, he has a tremendous work ethic. John is extremely creative and a tireless worker. This guy is special. Again, I made a good draft pick.”

Like in the early days in Cleveland, Coppolella and Hart have conversations that drift into the early morning hours. Those conversations have produced creative moves. In an NBA-style deal, they absorbed the contract of Bronson Arroyo to acquire pitching prospect Touki Toussaint from Arizona. They eventually flipped one year of control over Jason Heyward into Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte. They’ve aggressively added projectable prep arms in the draft when other clubs have shied away, showing unusual risk tolerance.

“Every morning as I drive to spring training, I will call John,” Coppolella said. “As I drive home, I will call John. It’s constantly talking the game. ‘What if we did this? What if we did that?’ It’s constantly talking the game, constantly finding ways to get better. He will always pick up the phone. We’ve had conversations where we’ve been on the phone for hours. I talk to him more than I talk to my wife. It’s one of those things where… He has great instincts whether it’s with trades or with people… He takes time to hear people out. A lot of people are too busy or think they have all the answers. John has all the answers, but he wants other people to talk to him and learn.

“It’s not like I say something to John and he says ‘No, no way,’ [but rather] ‘Well, let’s talk it through. He’s very easy to approach. He has a great way about him. He’s a great leader. He’s just awesome. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s a guy who is going to stay there until 3 a.m, trying to figure out a roster move. He’s a worker. He’s totally invested. He wants to be great… John is the best boss I’ve ever had.”

Hart has the respect of his subordinates. That fact was apparent in the T-shirts that were created earlier in his tenure in Atlanta, when the club’s situation was bleak. The front of the T-shirts read ‘No Money? No Prospects? No Problem.’ On the back of the T-shirts was a photo of Bobby Cox, John Schuerholz and Hart.

“Some teams have shirts that say like ‘Trust the Process’,” Coppolella said. “For us, it was, look, we don’t have any money, we’re over budget, we don’t have any prospects, we’re dead last in the [prospect] rankings. Really all the credit has to go to John Hart, because, No. 1 he listened. No. 2 he took the bullets for us. He was a guy who whenever we came up with the ideas, he was the guy who, based upon his credibility, [sold plans to ownership].”

The Braves now have the No. 1 farm system, a new stadium, and appear headed for a turnaround, perhaps the third Hart will lead. But more lasting than the franchise makeovers is the tree of execs he grew. The tree has led to new innovations, to other successful organizational turnarounds, and to perhaps fostering the next wave of leaders. Perhaps that’s the legacy.

“He’s done a lot to help people,’ Coppolella said. “You talk about total contribution to the game, he’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer.”

We hoped you liked reading John Hart’s Giving Tree of Innovation by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Ivan_Grushenko
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Ivan_Grushenko

Very cool! Seems similar to the early 1990s Yankees but then even more.