It’s been a pretty good time to be a fan of the Cleveland Indians lately. The Tribe completed a 22-game winning streak in September, the longest streak Major League Baseball has seen in a century. They cruised to their second straight AL Central division title, beating the Minnesota Twins by 17 games and clinching home-field advantage until the World Series. In the process, they topped 100 wins for just the third time in their history and became the favorites to go one step further than they did last year and bring Cleveland its first World Series title in 69 years.
At the helm is Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti, who’s one of the most respected minds inside the game. Antonetti has been with the Indians for 18 years now, and he’s helped the team get through two different rebuilds to return to being a true championship contender.
Since Antonetti became the president of baseball operations in 2015, all the Indians have done is win. In two seasons with him at the helm, Cleveland has a record of 187-124, a level of excellence built by some savvy moves in the team’s rebuilding years.
Here’s what you need to know about Antonetti.
1. He’s a Behind the Scenes Guy — And He Likes It That Way
Ask around the Cleveland organization, and you’ll get a consistent response that Chris Antonetti is the smartest voice in the room on all of the Indians’ key decisions…from everyone except Antonetti himself.
When he won Baseball America’s award as MLB’s executive of the year in 2016, Antonetti was quick to credit everyone who he considered an instrumental part of leading him to success. While his colleagues appreciated the sentiment, it was clear that they weren’t buying it.
“I don’t think people realize how good he is,” Indians manager Terry Francona said last year, “because we haven’t had the biggest payroll here. I think our whole organization follows his lead and I think that he’s so modest that he would never take credit for that.”
Whether he takes the credit or not, Antonetti’s been a large part of his team’s success. While working as Mark Shapiro’s assistant in the years leading up to the Indians’ rise, Antonetti was a large part of constructing the Indians’ roster — a roster that Antonetti would eventually use to beat Shapiro in the 2016 ALCS when the latter jumped to the Toronto Blue Jays. With a rotation built off the duo’s trades and player development in Cleveland, Antonetti’s Indians took the series in five games.
2. He’s A Natural-Born Negotiator
As the Indians’ president, Chris Antonetti went to work with the 17th-largest payroll in Major League Baseball in 2017. At $124 million, the Indians aren’t exactly paupers, but their payroll is less than half of the payroll of the Dodgers.
However, Antonetti hasn’t needed to spend like the Dodgers or the New York Yankees to get results. He’s always been an expert at playing the negotiation game, dating back to when he was working in his parents’ car wash business as a kid. Back then, he and his three brothers earned their money doing the small jobs that made the car wash run smoothly, and Chris Antonetti would always be the one to work out the details of what he and his brothers should be paid.
“If certain things had to be done, if the towels needed to be folded, he would negotiate a price for what he and his brothers would get folding towels,” his mother Ann told the New Haven Register. “(He’d say), ‘A case of towels costs so much, you sold so much, we folded so much, this is what we should get paid.’ And if the price went up, there should be an adjustment.”
Antonetti’s making much more expensive deals these days, but he hasn’t lost that knack for successful negotiations. Since he first became Cleveland’s general manager after the 2010 season, the Indians have failed to win at least 80 games just once in seven campaigns.
That success is no accident, and the Indians’ 2016 trade deadline emphasizes Antonetti’s next-level thinking. Most teams who are buyers at the trade deadline opt for short-term rentals, but Antonetti decided if he was going to deplete his farm system, he wanted more than two months out of what he got in return. The result was that the Indians’ trades made them contenders in 2016 and left them well set up for another run at the title in 2017, with Andrew Miller among the pieces still in Cleveland.
3.He’s a Student of Hall of Fame Basketball Coach John Thompson Jr.
Chris Antonetti realized pretty early that he didn’t have the natural ability to make it as a professional athlete. However, his decision to pursue a business administration degree at Georgetown University allowed him to learn from one of the greatest coaches college basketball has ever known.
In 1996, Antonetti served as one of the student managers for Thompson’s men’s basketball team, giving him a first-class seat to watch a Hoyas squad led by Allen Iverson make a run to the regional finals. Along the way, Antonetti noticed how Thompson focused on much more than just basketball with the Hoyas, and he’s taken a similar philosophy with the Indians.
“I learned so much from him,” Antonetti told the Indians’ website. “He spent as much time or more time talking about life decisions than he did basketball. Basketball was secondary. Life skills and the importance of boys growing into men and those responsibilities was the focus of it.”
Ironically, his old basketball coach was an Indians fan long before Antonetti arrived in Cleveland, having grown up watching Hall of Famer Larry Doby with his father. Antonetti’s success has only strengthened Thompson’s support for the Tribe — and he’s proud of what his former manager has achieved.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Chris is in this position,” Thompson told the Washington Examiner. “He was dependable as hell. We made a lot of demands of our basketball managers, and he was one of the better ones. And you needed a thick skin to do that job with what we put them through. You knew you could count on Chris.”
4. He’s Turned Down Other Opportunities to Stick With the Indians
The philosophy that has guided Chris Antonetti throughout his career is a simple one: do the best job you can with each job you have and hope the next opportunity will be there. But just because the next opportunity came along didn’t mean he had to take it.
Case in point: In 2007, the Indians came up one win shy of going to the World Series, falling in the ALCS in seven games to the Boston Red Sox. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the Cardinals fired their longtime general manager Walt Jocketty following a losing season. Every indication suggested Antonetti was the Cardinals’ man, but he ultimately pulled his name from consideration for the job because he believed in the Indians’ plan.
A year later, the Seattle Mariners’ fan base hoped he’d make the move to the Northwest. Again, Antonetti chose to stay. It’s hardly a surprise, considering that his wife Sarah is from Cleveland and he actually met her through former Indians VP of player personnel Ross Atkins. But beyond his family ties to Cuyahoga County, Chris Antonetti has always shown loyalty to those who give him an opportunity. At the beginning of his career, he turned down a job offer with the Miami Heat to stick with the Montreal Expos, who had once hired him for an unpaid internship that included selling ice cream, parking cars and driving the wife of the Expos’ farm director to the hospital when she went into labor with her husband on a scouting assignment.
In fact, Antonetti has only backed out of one job in his professional career: He quit his job with the Expos when they wouldn’t give the Indians permission to interview him.
5. He Was Working In Baseball Before Graduating
When he graduated from Georgetown, Chris Antonetti headed to the University of Massachusetts to pursue a degree in sports management. It ended up being the move that started him on the road to the Indians’ front office.
Back then, UMass professor Glenn Wong served as the Red Sox’s expert on salary arbitration cases, determining a proper value for players that chose to go to arbitration with the team. As a reward for success in his class, Wong would allow his top students to assist him in preparing arbitration cases. Antonetti instead put those negotiation skills to good use to get his foot in the door.
“It’s not too often that kids come in and argue their case,” Wong told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “As soon as I took him on, I saw immediately how good he was and how interested he was in that work.”
Antonetti was an important part of the Red Sox’s arbitration battles in 1997, and when the Expos called Wong looking for an intern a year later, the professor didn’t hesitate. Based off his work ethic and his ability to speak his mind without offending others, Antonetti was on his way toward his current position — a remarkable path for someone who never planned on becoming a GM or team president.
“I really look at it as being fortunate to work in an industry and do something I’m passionate about,” Antonetti said. “I never look past the current opportunity I have.”