Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 21: Catching Up With Mike Hargrove

As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.

Countdown to Opening Day – 21 days

The Indians’ #21 jersey will never be worn again, as the team retired the number for their Hall of Fame pitcher, Bob Lemon, in 1998. The last player to actually don the number was pitcher Greg Swindell during the 1991 season, but the last person to wear it was former Tribe manager Mike Hargrove.

Grover wore #21 on his back for all 12 years of his playing career – including the seven he spent in Cleveland – and then again for the first seven and a half years he spent as a manager. He surrendered the number and switched to #30 nearly two decades ago in the middle of the ’98 season when the Indians raised Lemon’s number up into the mezzanine section at Jacobs Field. The uniform switch occurred almost a decade and a half after Hargrove hung up his playing spikes as well.

“I was afraid you were going to ask me what I’ve been up to since my playing days ended,” Hargrove said with a laugh. “I can’t remember that far back.”

His playing days officially stopped in 1985 after Hargrove played 107 games with the Indians that summer. It was the last of seven seasons that he spent as a player with the Tribe after playing five years for the Texas Rangers and then a half season with the San Diego Padres. The Padres traded the former Rookie of the Year to Cleveland in June of 1979 for outfielder Paul Dade.

Leaving the sunny shores of San Diego for the imperfect weather of Cleveland may have been a letdown for some ballplayers, but not for Hargrove.

“At the time, I was in San Diego and things weren’t going particularly well for me there. I needed a move, so I was very excited to be coming to Cleveland.”

Hargrove became an instant success for the Indians, batting .325 for the rest of the ’79 season and then eclipsing the .300 mark for the next two years as well. A hitting and walks machine, Hargrove garnered some MVP votes in the summer of 1981 as he led the American League with a .424 on-base percentage. Hargrove credits his meticulousness for his run of Major League success.

“I figure the key to doing anything consistently well is staying mentally focused on what you’re doing, 100%,” Hargrove said.

There were those who found Grover’s preciseness to be a bit of a nuisance, however, as Hargrove’s persnickety pre-pitch routine as he batted earned him the nickname, ‘The Human Rain Delay’.

“There were parts of my uniform, like the sleeve on my shoulder, that would hang up…I hated that,” Hargrove remembered. “I hated having a crease between my batting glove and my bat, so I’d straighten that out. I didn’t want there to be anything in my mind thinking about how something was uncomfortable. I wanted to concentrate on baseball.”

An injury early in Hargrove’s minor league career started the legend of The Human Rain Delay and the seed only grew and grew from there.

“I damaged a nerve at the base of my thumb when I was in A-Ball. That’s where it all started,” Hargrove said. “I built a guard for it and I had to make sure that it was tight. It really kind of developed into a pre-pitch routine. It just happened to be every pitch.”

As for the people and pitchers who were irritated by the first baseman’s routine, Hargrove really didn’t care then and he couldn’t care less now, either.

“It worked for me,” Hargrove said with a shrug. “It really didn’t take as long as a lot of people like to make it out to be.”

Once Hargrove’s seven seasons were finished in Cleveland, he turned his attention to coaching. Looking back on his playing career, Hargrove has an All-Star appearance and a Rookie of the Year Award to remember fondly – and one sticks out as his favorite for good reason.

“The Rookie of the Year, probably. That was an all year thing,” Hargrove said.  “(Hall of Famers) Paul Molitor and George Brett were rookies the same year that I was. I had one year better than them, but they had careers much better than me.”

The 1975 All-Star Game was not without its memorable moment for Grover, however.

“I pinch-hit in that game,” Hargrove said. “It was a tie ballgame and I hit a ball a little bit off the end of the bat for an out. I was so nervous that at bat, that I couldn’t stop my eyes from blinking on that first pitch. Once the first pitch was over, I was OK.”

Hargrove turned to coaching once his playing career ended, spending several seasons in the Indians minor league system. In July 1991, manager John McNamara was fired after a dismal 25-52 start and Hargrove took over the last place Indians. Although there was a slight improvement in record over the rest of the summer, the Indians still finished with a record of 57-105, which marks the most losses in franchise history and the worst winning percentage since 1914.

Having a young nucleus of players like Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar, Albert Belle and Charles Nagy, things started to shift in a positive direction under Hargrove’s watch during the 1992 season. The Indians showed signs of life after a trade for rookie center fielder Kenny Lofton and the momentum only grew from there as the Indians were definitely on the up-and-up.

It took a bit longer for Hargrove to realize that something very special was brewing on the shores of Lake Erie, however.

“I first had an inkling of it in the second half of 1993. Then, 1994 we had really closed the gap on the White Sox before the strike hit. We all felt like it was going in the right direction at that point.”

After finishing just a game out of first place in 1994, Hargrove’s squad knew they had the right formula heading into 1995.

“There was an aura in the atmosphere at spring training that we knew how good we could be. We were going to do everything we could to prove that we belonged.”

The Tribe proved they belonged by lighting the world on fire in 1995 as they reached the postseason and the World Series for the first time in over four decades. The Indians’ dominance continued through the 1999 season when Hargrove was fired despite five consecutive Central Division titles and two World Series berths, the other coming in a loss to the Marlins in 1997.

With a string of such consistent success, does Hargrove have a favorite season or memory from his time as the Tribe’s Skipper?

“Probably not,” Hargrove said. “Honestly, probably not. Each season, each game, or each series have its own special thing.  As far as one game, maybe game six of the (1995) ALCS in Seattle, when Kenny Lofton came around from second on the wild pitch.  Maybe Tony Pena‘s home run in 13th inning in the (1995) ALDS. They were all special. It wasn’t just one or two guys who carried the ball club. Everybody did their part to make it work.”

After Cleveland let Hargrove go in ’99, he was quick to sign back on as a manager for the next several seasons. He spent time in Baltimore and Seattle before returning to Cleveland in more of a front office advisor role that he continues today.

“I went from here to Baltimore and then Baltimore to Seattle to manage,” Hargrove said. “I resigned in ’07 and then came back here and my title is Special Advisor to the President. I’ve been, basically, a sounding board for Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti and Tito Francona. I go to spring training for two to three weeks and get into uniform, which is always enjoyable. I really just hang around and watch ball games.”

Even with his love of the game still at a superior level, Hargrove has little interest at this point in getting back into uniform as a manager ever again.

“Probably until about two or three years ago, I entertained the thought,” Hargrove remarked. “But I’ve found if you are retired long enough, getting back into a regular schedule doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. At this point, I’ve decided enough is enough. I got to manage for 16 years, that’s a lot longer than most people get to do it.”

Photo: Topps

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