A New Ballgame
As Mike Hargrove tosses a bag of Titleist clubs into the crimson Ford F-150 pickup truck that he’s nicknamed “Retirement Red,” it’s clear that major league baseball is no longer in the driver’s seat. “My golf handicap was 15, now it’s down to 9,” he says with a grin. “I’m getting better.”
This is the first summer in a long time, he gleefully explains, in which he doesn’t have to worry about wins or losses, when to change pitchers or questions from annoying sportswriters. Last July, the former Cleveland Indians manager left baseball execs scratching their heads when he stepped down as skipper of the Seattle Mariners in midseason.
They wondered: Was Hargrove truly “losing his passion for the sport” as he had announced at the press conference following his resignation?
“When I said that, I misspoke,” he says quietly. “It was a very emotional time for me.”
Followers of the sport also pondered his sanity. Was he or a loved one ill? Was he depressed?
Quite simply, Mike Hargrove missed his family.
Throughout more than three decades of being affiliated with a major-league baseball team, Mike, 58, has looked to his wife, Sharon, 57, and their five children –– Kim, Melissa, Pam, Andy and Shelly –– for the sense of equilibrium necessary to offset the roller-coaster stresses that are part and parcel of pro sports.
He credits her for keeping him and the family on track throughout his career, which has meant living in 23 cities in 13 states and making, at Sharon’s last count, 100 moves. Through it all, she’s rarely missed a home game he’s played, coached or managed. (She still laments not being in the stands for Len Barker’s perfect game on May 15, 1981, when Mike convinced her and the kids to stay home because it was cold and rainy.)
“No matter what we did or where we went, we did it together,” Mike says. “Sharon and I emphasized that our home was a safe haven and that family mattered above everything else.”
But as the couple’s brood grew up, went to college, got married and began having children of their own, that all-for-one-and-one-for-all pact became harder to practice. “There are a lot of men in baseball who are lifers,” Sharon explains. “Baseball is their entire world. You couldn’t rip their uniforms off. Mike never became a lifer. He always kept a balance.
“Baseball has been very good to us,” she adds. “But the grind was becoming just too much.
“The honest truth is that 35 years in baseball was enough.”
The story of Mike Hargrove and Sharon Rupprecht starts in their hometown of Perryton, Texas, where the two became junior-high-school sweethearts after meeting at a football game.
Following their marriage in 1970, the couple’s journey to the big leagues began when Mike was drafted by the Texas Rangers. He played for the Rangers and the San Diego Padres before being traded to the Indians in 1979. Twelve years later, he was named manager of the Indians and, in 1995, ultimately led the team to their first World Series appearance in 41 years. The couple bought a house in Richfield, and became fixtures in the community, supporting a host of local charities. Sharon made personal appearances and penned a column for Indians Ink magazine about what it’s like to be a baseball wife.
“In baseball, it’s very difficult to keep a family together,” says Mike’s former teammate Rick Manning, now an Indians commentator for SportsTime Ohio. “The fact that they were able to do that is really a tribute to Sharon. They are truly good family people.”
But the Great American Pastime is one that’s forever in flux. After losing in the first round of the playoffs in 1999, Mike was fired despite the fact that the Indians had won five straight division titles and made it to the World Series twice, an unprecedented run of success for the franchise.
It was, Sharon admits, a devastating time. “Although,” she adds, “I wasn’t ever angry. I’m such a firm believer everything happens for a reason. Maybe it was time for a change.”
Mike went on to manage the Baltimore Orioles, which he did for four seasons before being fired. In 2004, he accepted the Mariners managerial offer.
But with the career move to Seattle, it got harder for him to go the distance for his family. An extra trip he made to Cleveland early last summer to make up the snowed-out Opening Day series in April drove home the point that he needed to spend more time in Richfield. After the late-night flight, he was just too tired to play with his four grandchildren –– Madison, 4 ½, Drew, 3 ½, and Ashley and Kayla, 2 ½ –– despite their pleas.
And there was no time the next morning, either. It broke his heart to have to say no to them, but he had to get to the ballpark.
“I have always asked my players to give 100 percent mentally and physically,” Mike says. “I believe that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I couldn’t give my all to the sport, and I started questioning if it was fair to the players and fans for me to be there.”
As they have throughout every step of their relationship, Mike and Sharon began discussing their options on Father’s Day 2007. They knew that bowing out of professional baseball would enrich the time they spent with their immediate family members, all of whom live only 25 or so minutes away from the Richfield homestead. They also knew it would not be a cinch to do.
For two weeks, the couple agonized over the decision, talking about it for four- and five-hour stretches, taking five-minute breathers, then returning to the deliberation in the hopes of reaching a verdict.
“Much of our decision hinged on the pros and cons,” Sharon recalls. “It got so difficult that we created a ‘Stay or Go’ list that Mike filled in each evening, depending on how he was feeling.”
In the Mariners’ dugout, optimism reigned. The team was on a winning streak and jubilation was high.
But the cons of staying outweighed the pros.
Pitcher Jeff Weaver bounced back after being on the disabled list, an accomplishment Mike is particularly proud of. “I insisted he stay with the club, rather than be sent back to the minors,” he recalls. “His first start back, he pitched a lights-out game.”
Still, the cons outweighed the pros.
“Baseball is a game of highs and lows,” Sharon says. “It finally came to where the highs weren’t high enough, and you couldn’t pull yourself out of the lows.
“Mike was afraid he would be seen as a quitter,” she remembers. “We talked some more and I told him, ‘Mike, you have nothing to prove to anyone. You don’t have to do this anymore if you don’t want to.’ ”
That was all he needed to hear.
Mike handed in his resignation on July 1, prior to that day’s game with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Mariners chalked up their eighth consecutive win. Players and fans gave him a standing ovation, as he walked off the field for the last time.
The magnitude of what the Hargroves had done caught up with them around midnight.
“We cried for 12 hours,” Sharon says.
But the couple knew they had made the right decision. “I told myself that if I didn’t wake up the next morning and feel good about this, then it was a bad deal,” Mike says. “But you know what? I woke up, the birds were singing, and I was at peace with myself.”
Life was in balance once again.
A peek in the Hargroves’ basement cements the fact that Mike’s ardor for the sport has not cooled. It’s a baseball lover’s paradise, filled with plaques, trophies and autographed baseballs that commemorate unforgettable moments –– including the baseball he hit off Oakland A’s pitcher Rollie Fingers in 1974 (his first major-league hit), and the lineup card from July 6, 1991 (his first game as Tribe manager).
Sentimental keepsakes range from tickets to the last Indians game played in Cleveland Stadium, to a photo of him and son Andy wearing matching jerseys at the 1997 All-Star Game at Jacobs Field.
On August 16, one more milestone will be achieved when he’s inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame.
And although the Tribe is still part of his life, the playing field is different now.
“We follow the Indians, but don’t stop to watch the Indians,” Mike says with a smile.
Instead, the two don helmets and hit the road on their Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic motorcycle. Over the past year, they’ve admired the panoramic views of redwoods along the Oregon coast; toured Napa Valley, California; traveled to Brown County, Indiana (“They have the best biscuits I’ve ever eaten,” Sharon says); and stopped by Floyd’s Barbershop in Andy Griffith’s Mayberryesque hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina (where Mike got a 45-minute, $7 haircut). They relish quiet evenings spent watching the sunset from the porch of their cabin in Taos, New Mexico.
But, as it’s always been, there’s truly no place like home. Every Sunday, three generations of Hargroves congregate in Richfield for summer barbecues on the back deck. Sharon and Mike enjoy their role of doting grandparents so much they’ve created a locker room with wooden cubby space for coloring books and board games. “This is how it should be,” says Sharon.
Mike readily agrees, although he hasn’t completely closed the door on the sport with which his name is synonymous. This summer, he signed on to manage the Liberal BeeJays, the semi-pro team he played for in the 1970s, based in Liberal, Kansas.
“When it comes to baseball, I never say never,” he says.
But for now, it’s tee time.
12:00 AM EST
August 5, 2008