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10/17/07 2:55 PM ET

Wedge a perfect fit for surging Tribe

Skipper has club one win away from capturing AL pennant

CLEVELAND -- The walls in Eric Wedge's office are littered with the type of token motivational posters you'd find for sale in a SkyMall catalogue. They attempt to inspire the reader with nature shots and definitions of words like teamwork, focus, perseverance and conviction.

But providing a welcome respite from the corny mental catalysts are the items pinned to a bulletin board in the corner near Wedge's desk.

If you're looking for rugged, kick-in-the-gut inspiration, you could do a lot worse than to check out the John Wayne calendar that hangs from that board.

And if you're looking for some insight into the 39-year-old Wedge's coaching influences from his Indiana roots, check out the newspaper article he's cut out and hung up about Bobby Knight.

Knight's name was brought up the other day, because "The General" had telegrammed Wedge to congratulate the Indians' skipper on his winning The Sporting News AL Manager of the Year Award. And one could hear echoes of Knight's edgy tone when Wedge outlined his beliefs in what a manager should bring to the table.

"It's about being consistent with who you are and being strong and understanding what comes with the territory," Wedge said. "Nothing upsets me more than people having a job and complaining about what comes with it. I don't understand that. If you don't like it, do something else. Otherwise, shut up."

When Wedge took over the Tribe's managerial reins in 2003, he knew what came with the territory -- losses. And lots of 'em.

The Indians were a team in strict rebuilding mode, and the focus in that first year was on player development, not division dominance.

General manager Mark Shapiro hired Wedge, who had been in charge of the Tribe's Triple-A Buffalo squad, because he knew he was putting his faith in a manager who shared his organizational beliefs.

"He knew our standards, our expectations and what we wanted a Cleveland Indian player to be," Shapiro said. "He was an outstanding teacher. I knew when I hired Eric, nobody would care more than Eric, nobody would work harder than him, nobody would be more vested than him, and, because of all that, nobody would be a better partner for me."

This was all well and good in 2003, of course. But what about when the grand plans of returning to postseason prominence panned out? Would Wedge still be the right fit?

That question seems to have been answered this fall.

Wedge's Indians, in an American League Championship Series battle with the Red Sox, are a lone win away from the organization's first World Series appearance in a decade. And Wedge's managerial moves have played no small part in their getting to this lofty state.

Just as many of his players are getting their first taste of the steaming glare of October, Wedge found himself to be the subject of national scrutiny in the American League Division Series, when, with his club holding a 2-1 advantage in the series, he put his faith in Paul Byrd for Game 4, rather than starting ace C.C. Sabathia on short rest.

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Wedge's decision was a statement, of sorts. The heightened importance of postseason ball wasn't going to force him into moves he wouldn't make in a regular season that saw the Indians rack up 96 wins.

And, of course, Wedge's belief in Byrd was justified, as the veteran put in a gutsy effort in the Indians' series-clinching, 6-4 win.

Where he once drew criticism from the second-guessers in the national press, Wedge ended up drawing raves in the industry after that win.

"The manager's really the only guy that knows the quality of his people," Yankees manager Joe Torre said after that game. "Eric Wedge is a fine young manager. We talked a little bit this spring, and I said, 'You're going to learn from [2006].' Not that he did anything wrong. It's just when your ballclub sort of tries to stop the slide, it becomes very difficult. But he certainly didn't take any negatives into the clubhouse with him. He's a special kid."

The Indians' fourth-place finish in '06 was a test for all involved with the club. As Shapiro analyzed ways to fix what was ailing that team, he had to ponder whether Wedge was still the right man for the job. This '07 season, after all, was the last guaranteed year on Wedge's contract.

But while the '06 finish was a disappointment, Shapiro acknowledged that he was just as at fault for many of the club's flaws -- namely, an unreliable bullpen -- as anybody. And in assessing Wedge's performance in his first four years at the helm, he saw maturation that has carried into '07.

"He's made adjustments every year," Shapiro said of Wedge. "Everything from bullpen usage, to the way he's communicated with the team, to his role in individual evaluations and decision-making."

Wedge's growth has run parallel to that of his young, core players.

The Indians under Wedge
Year Finish Record
2003 Fourth 68-94
2004 Third 80-82
2005 Second 93-69
2006 Fourth 78-84
2007 First 96-66

"You can say he has changed," said Sabathia, who first played for Wedge at Class A Kinston in 1999. "He's more lenient. He lets us get away with a little more as we got older. When we were a younger club, he was on us all the time about all the little things. Over the years, he's learned to back off and just let us play."

That's probably the most important lesson Wedge has taken from his experience overseeing the Indians. The John Wayne toughness and motivational quotes, he's found, only have resonance at the right times.

"These guys take care of themselves," Wedge said. "They police themselves. You go through so many different experiences over the course of a week or a month, much less years. You try to learn from every experience. I've probably learned more from these guys than they have from me, and I think that's the way it should be. When things are going rough, you should get out front and take the hit. And when they're going good, you should stay out of the way."

When it comes to player development, Wedge doesn't stay out of the way. Even though the group he first inherited has grown into the foundation of a division-winning club, he still makes it a point to put a face to the names of the next wave of talent coming up from the farm system.

First baseman Ryan Garko noticed that about Wedge from the time he met him in Spring Training a couple years back.

"He made a point of talking to us when we were Minor League invitees to camp," Garko said. "That's what's great about him. He's involved in the Minor Leagues. Even when I was pretty far away from the big leagues, he still cared about me as a person. He still knew my name and treated me with respect. That meant a lot."

The respect Wedge shows to his players extends to his daily meetings with the press, where he rarely calls his guys out. When he does -- as he did on Aug. 14, when the Indians lost a key game to the Tigers to fall a game back in the AL Central standings -- it's done with purpose. After questioning his players' toughness, without naming specific names, on that mid-August day, Wedge watched his team go 31-12 down the regular-season stretch.

"I've always appreciated Eric's loyalty," Byrd said. "Even after some rough starts that I've had here in Cleveland, he has always had my back. And those kinds of things get passed around, when people see how a manager treats his players. You start to gain respect for somebody, and you start to -- I don't want to say play harder -- but you really start to get the most out of your players when you have that kind of atmosphere."

It can safely be said that Wedge, perhaps on the verge of a World Series berth few could have possibly predicted at the season's outset, has gotten the most out of a club with a payroll below $70 million.

But he's never once taken credit for anything that's transpired this season.

Even when the Indians put the finishing touches on a victory, Wedge prefers not to step into fair territory for the postgame shaking of hands. Rather, he stands to the side, applauding a job well done.

"These are the guys that are doing it," Wedge said of his players. "They understand what it takes to go out there and play the way they're supposed to play, and give themselves every opportunity to win the ballgame.

"Every now and again, a manager has to give some direction, but ultimately it's about these guys."

Sounds like a message suitable for framing.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.