The making of Mike Hargrove

Anyone who stopped fretting about Jerry Jones and Deion Sanders last week long enough to notice that some baseball games were going on may have realized they involved one of our own, Cleveland Indians manager Mike Hargrove.

You probably read accounts of how Hargrove held the young team together after two players died in a boating accident and a third perished in a truck wreck.

But when I saw Hargrove on national TV last week, gnawing on Tagamet in the bottom of the 11th, I thought of a golf course built on a city dump in an unforgiving stretch of the Texas Panhandle, where the wind doesn't give a shit about a coat and you could just about see all the way to Dallas if the earth wasn't round.

I spent one of the most enjoyable three-day weekends of my life a few years ago with Mike Hargrove and his wife, Sharon. I was in Perryton, a town of 8,500, to write a newspaper story about them--to visit, ask questions, and take some notes. I ended up eating Frito pie with them at a high school basketball game, drinking vodka soda and helping with the Christmas lights, and lighting a votive candle at the church where Mike often washes the dishes.

Among the many sports homes I have visited, the Hargrove family is remarkable for its Texas normalcy.

On the first night, I was scheduled to stay in a somewhat isolated hotel, several miles from the Hargrove home on a big hunk of country land.

I went to their house for Kentucky Fried Chicken. By the time the evening was done and it was time to drive back to my hotel, the Hargroves and their kids were insisting I call before I went to bed because they didn't like the fact my room was on the back side of the building.

You could tell they were heavy on daughters. As I fell asleep that night the phone rang. It was Mike. "If you get scared," he said, "just call and we'll come right out."

The next day, I played golf with the manager of the Cleveland Indians and three oil field buddies in that course built atop a city dump, and laughed as hard as I ever have with old friends. It was December.

On the way down the little crackling highway adjacent to the golf course and a steakhouse, we talked about how the Indians' ownership had pressured him to fire all his coaches--and how he was on the verge of getting the axe. Before we'd left the house, Sharon and I had discussed how men would play golf if there were pig doo-doo falling out of the sky. She told me about the hat she got him the day he became a manager--one of those "took that job and shoved it" gimme caps to keep in the back of his locker for whenever the axe fell.

Hargrove has played golf in Bermuda and at fancy places in Florida. But he prefers the dead Bermuda and Johnson grass of the Panhandle.

Sharon had stuck a big ol' frou-frou Christmas wreath on the grille of the truck that morning. Mike hadn't noticed it before pulling out, so there was this big man in that big truck with that big bow on the front, looking like a bird dog with painted toenails.

Jeez, he hates it every year when she does that.
As we pulled into the parking lot of Perryton's only golf course, Hargrove's usual gaggle of oil field buddies was trading work boots for spikes. The buddies' butts were poised on the edges of tailgates and pickup cabs, legs dangling over the side like little boys on bunks at bedtime. The trio quickly bundled up, each in one layer of windbreaker, one layer of sweatshirt, and one layer of hunting jacket.

In 10 minutes, balls were flying into what appears to be the prairie version of a sleet-laden Gulfstream.

They were looking for Mike's ball in what could loosely be called the rough. That would be the shorter dead wheat grass near the ditch in the highway, where the smoke from the steakhouse burns your eyes.

I maneuvered the golf cart with the Cleveland Indians sticker and the bad brakes into the grass, looking for the ball, which also carried his team's symbol.

Dewey picked up a ball lodged in a tangle of grass.
"Is this it?" he yelled.
"Does it have a little Indians' head on it?" asked Hargrove.

No, but they decided to pretend it was Mike's ball and play it from there anyhow.

Hargrove and his buddies play every winter day unless it is snowing or raining too hard to see. Tornado warnings don't daunt them, unless a hook-echo starts easing too close to the ground.

On this day, we were all blowing our hands, and the cold wind blew so hard Rooster said he couldn't see the ball through the tears in his eyes. I threw up my hands, departing after nine holes. This is just dumb to play golf in this stuff, I declared. They stayed, as always.

The wives back home thought I was nuts for going nine holes, and suggested a hot bath for healing.

That night Sharon and I showed up late at a high school gym where one of the girls was playing hoops. After she showed me the cement steps where she and Mike first kissed--she was under the porch light, he on the second step--we found Hargrove eating Frito pie with a plastic spoon and talking Perryton city politics and high school football.

The next night we were at a girls' high school basketball game, bad by even half-court standards.

Sharon was home making chili. Mike, a childhood buddy, and I were eating Blow Pops at courtside, and all telling jokes just tacky enough to raise eyebrows at a Baptist bake sale.

The locals were playing a team from Oklahoma because it's nearby, just 60 miles north; but this game was going on forever and the ref was calling every foul.

Some other dad walked in, wondering if anyone knew the Cowboys score. Suddenly a look of awareness crossed their faces. It was Monday night, and the Cowboys were playing. Damn.

The two buddies let out a simultaneous "shit fire," and started to ride the ref for calling all these fouls and slowing the game even more. With 20 seconds left and her team up by 18 points, the Oklahoma coach called a time out, producing groans.

"Obviously she doesn't care," said Hargrove, waving 20 rows down toward the opposing coach. "She has to drive all the way back to Oklahoma and is gonna miss the whole Cowboy game anyway."

When Mike Hargrove went to college, he had never played baseball. When he got to the pros as the 527th pick in the 1972 draft, the logistics of the game baffled him. "I didn't even know how the 40-man roster worked," he said. "I was so dadgum ignorant."

But he was the rookie of the year in 1974 with the Texas Rangers.
It is not clear what in his background could have prepared him to be a major-league manager after just two years managing in the minors. Or to lead his team through tragedy. Or, now, to guide it through a tough World Series.

But he managed it all. "He never lost control of this ball club," Indians pitcher Charlie Nagy told me.

For the longest time, Hargrove said, the least little thing could make him cry over his dead players.

Hargrove's youngest wondered how Santa would find the homes of the dead players' families if there were no daddies there anymore to put up the lights.

Late that night, Hargrove fell asleep in the master bedroom with his clothes on. Everyone left him there on the comforter set from JCPenney.

Sharon and I slipped through the house, where the only soundtracks were the tree branches asking the windows to let them in and the hum of the kitchen clock. We slipped a tape of the funeral into the VCR.

She put it on low so Mike wouldn't hear. Dear God, don't make him hear it again.

By the time they got the call about the third player dying in an autumn accident near Houston, Hargrove felt guilty because he didn't cry. "It was like I didn't have anything else left," he said. One big emotional dry heave.

The team you saw in the World Series was there largely thanks to this regular guy, who held together an entire organization doubled over in tears.

His dream, he told me, was always to come home and manage the Rangers. Then, after the deaths, he and Sharon began to see how they needed to be in Cleveland.

He had to stay there, so he could be there the last weekend in October 1995, when every other major-league manager--except one--has already gone home to hunt deer. It took a guy who prefers a golf course atop a city dump to carry the Cleveland Indians through hell and into baseball's luxury suite.

That winter day, the Hargroves sent me home to Fort Worth with a box of baking potatoes, and orders to call halfway to let 'em know I was OK.

Back home, hours later, it was raining. The phone rang. It was Sharon. It was raining harder out in Perryton.

But Mike and the guys were out playing golf.
"If pig doo-doo were falling from the sky," we both laughed.

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