Klein Spent Two Tumultuous Years as Indians’ General Manager
Vince Guerrieri | On 30, Aug 2017
The Indians in 1985 were a team in turmoil.
The on-field product was mediocre, and ownership was going through a strained period. In addition to being gouged for rent from the Cleveland Stadium Corporation run by Art Modell, the ship was rudderless, owned officially by the estate of Steve O’Neill, who had died two years earlier. In his tenure as owner, O’Neill had staved off multiple offers for the team (New York City real estate tycoon Donald Trump had even made a bid for the team) for fear of it leaving town.
New team president Peter Bavasi – son of the legendary executive Buzzie Bavasi – was shaking up management of the team. Among his hires was a baseball lifer named Joe Klein.
Klein, who died last week in Philadelphia at the age of 75, had walked into an impossible situation. And try as he might, he couldn’t make it better.
Bavasi’s management style could be called “scorched earth.” Already viewed with suspicion for previous jobs consulting with cities who wanted a major league team, he excoriated the media for negative coverage of the Indians, guided longtime executive Gabe Paul off into the sunset, and announced the resignation of longtime scouting director Bob Quinn (Quinn said he was fired). He even did away with complimentary tickets, prompting Indians drummer John Adams (who had been comped for years) to tell the Los Angeles Times, “I hope Bavasi buys a free agent with the $2 he gets from my tickets.”
Bavasi’s management philosophy was to hire a team of executives to make him effectively obsolete, and that included Klein, who had spent seven years in the Washington Senators’ farm system, and then joined the team as a minor league manager and executive before being named general manager in 1982. After two seasons at the helm in Arlington, he was fired, and spent the 1984 season as a special assistant to Kansas City General Manager John Scheuerholz.
In fact, Klein was a hot enough commodity that after he’d been hired as the Indians general manager, Major League Baseball wanted to interview him for director of the Major League Scouting Bureau. But his most notable transaction in his first season as Indians general manager left fans fuming. He traded away Bert Blyleven for four players, the most prominent of which were all-name team member Rich Yett and Jay Bell. The Indians lost 102 games that year, and fan reaction veered from rage to apathy, with attendance cratering out at 655,181 – the lowest in a decade.
But what a difference a year makes. The following year, the Indians won 84 games and were in third place as late as July. Larry King said the team was one pitcher away from the World Series. Hosannas were being rained down on Bavasi and Klein. This rebuild finally worked.
At the end of 1986, the O’Neill estate sold the team to Cleveland real estate developers Dick and David Jacobs. As 1987 dawned, Bavasi left with the Indians in what he thought was a good place. The Indians appeared poised for bigger and better things – as evidenced by the infamous Sports Illustrated “Indian Uprising” cover, and slightly less well known Sport Magazine story that called them the Erie Sensation.
Roberto Dias of United Press International wrote, “Observers a decade from now will credit Bavasi for helping turn the Indians from a perennial loser into a respectable team.” The results came, but the credit would go to someone else.
But those 1987 Indians ended up losing 101 games, and the pitching staff registered the highest ERA in team history. The die was cast, and on December 18, Klein resigned rather than accept a demotion from new team president Hank Peters, who was hired by the Jacobs brothers after being fired by the Orioles. Klein remained active in baseball, serving as the Tigers’ general manager for a forgettable stretch in the mid-1990s and was an executive in the Atlantic League from its inception in 1997 until his death.
Upon his departure from Cleveland, Klein said, “This is going to be a winning organization. Not being a part of it will be hard, but I’ll get the satisfaction from watching from afar.”
He was right, but the bulk of the credit should go to his successors.