Eric Wedge’s Managerial Career with Tribe Bookended by Rebuilds

By 2002, the Indians empire that ruled the American League Central Division for the better part of half a decade was done and dusted.

The Tribe had won the division in 2001, but were dispatched by the Mariners in the American League Division Series. By July, they were 39-47, and manager Charlie Manuel, whose contract expired after the season, wanted assurances he’d still be manager the next year. Manuel, who’d served as Indians hitting coach before succeeding Mike Hargrove as manager in 1999, reached an impasse with General Manager Mark Shapiro and was fired over the All-Star break.

“We’re in an awkward transitional period between having a team that we thought could contend to a club that will be rebuilding next season,” Shapiro said in a quote after the move in the New York Times.

Third-base coach Joel Skinner, who’d played for the Indians and managed in their farm system in Akron, took over as interim manager, going 35-41 for the rest of the season as the Indians finished third in the Central. Skinner was considered for the position, as was former Indians pitcher Bud Black. But the Tribe looked to their farm system – and 16 years ago this week hired a manager that was actually younger than some of his players.

Eric Wedge had a brief major league career as a catcher, playing in just 39 games before his knees failed him. His managerial career started in 1998 in Columbus, Ga., then home for the Indians’ Single-A team. He worked his way up the ranks and managed the Tribe’s Triple-A affiliate, at the time the Buffalo Bisons. He was named the Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year after 2002, and then was hired by the Indians officially on Oct. 29.

“Eric was just the right guy,” Shapiro said. “I knew that and felt strongly about it.”

At 34, Wedge was the youngest manager in the American League – and the second-youngest in Indians history, after player-manager Lou Boudreau. In fact, he was younger than two players on the Indians roster at the time: Ellis Burks and Omar Vizquel. There was talk that the Indians would hire an experienced bench coach as a counterbalance. In fact, one of the names that came up was former Phillies manager Terry Francona, then just a year removed from his time as an Indians special assistant (and a year away from being named the Red Sox manager). The Indians ended up hiring Buddy Bell.

Wedge was the hire the team was looking for going into a rebuild. He promised more intensity than the affable Skinner, necessary for a team that was going young. And for a time, it looked like it might work. After two sub-.500 finishes, the Indians caught fire in the second half of the 2005 season, but dropped six out of their last seven to just miss the playoffs. The following year, with expectations high, the Indians hovered around .500 until June, and then dropped out of contention.

They revived to win the division the following year, and dispatched the Yankees in the division series, but after going up 3-1 in the American League Championship Series, lost the next three games as Francona and the Red Sox advanced to win their second World Series in four years.

In 2008, again, with high expectations, the Indians faltered, and dealt ace and defending Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia. The following year, the Indians traded away catcher Victor Martinez and ANOTHER defending Cy Young Award winner, Cliff Lee – who went to the Phillies, by then managed by Manuel and defending World Champions.

Another teardown seemed at hand, and the Indians were looking for a different skipper. Wedge was fired following the 2009 season, his career record with the Indians 561-573, with winning records only in 2005 and 2007. Wedge managed the Mariners for three years, with no better fortune, and was identified as a candidate for the Yankees job after they fired Joe Girardi last year.

That job went to Aaron Boone – who ironically had played for Wedge for two seasons in Cleveland.

Photo: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

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