Indians GM Mike Chernoff: A Journey That Began with the Thunderbolts

Big league careers always start somewhere far away from the bright lights and glamor of the
Major Leagues. For Cleveland Indians General Manager Mike Chernoff, that big league career was
launched in 2001—the one season he played second base and shortstop for the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts. It was just the second season for the Tbolts, that at the time, played in the now-defunct Clark Griffith Baseball League. Chernoff came to the Thunderbolts through his close friend, Princeton teammate, and 2001 Thunderbolt teammate, Jon Miller. Miller grew up in Washington and attended Sidwell Friends before heading to Princeton. “Jonny knew someone affiliated with the Thunderbolts,” Chernoff recalled, which lead to his securing a roster spot in 2001.

“I remember having a lot of fun,” the Princeton ’03 grad said of his Thunderbolt days, “and coming off a college season, never having played in a wood bat league before, I remember how much more professional it felt to play a full 40 games and extend out the season. When you’re in college, (you’re) looking ahead to the minor leagues and how cool that would be. It was much more of aprofessional minor league environment, and I remember having a lot of fun.” Chernoff played the infield for four years at Princeton and in those four years, the Tigers won three Ivy League championships. Chernoff compiled a .244 average at Princeton; hitting .280 in his sophomore season, after which he joined the Thunderbolts. After being named Indians GM in 2015, the Princeton Alumni Weekly described Chernoff as an, “undersized middle infielder from northern New Jersey (who) was no home run hitter. Instead, in tight games, the righty had a knack for dunking hits just over the head of the opposing team’s first baseman…Chernoff uncorked so many of these hits that Princeton head coach Scott Bradley dubbed
them ‛the Chernoff special.’ ”

It wasn’t a “Chernoff special,” but a base hit to left field that culminated in one of his greatest nights as a T-Bolt. It came on July 9, 2001, when the old Montgomery Gazette reported that in a 12-inning thriller, “Mike Chernoff's RBI single to left off Bethesda reliever Chris White (later an Indians prospect) gave Silver Spring-Takoma a 3-2 win…against the Bethesda Big Train at Blair High.” Chernoff believes that players in college, where aluminum bats dominate, benefit greatly by playing in a wooden bat summer league. “Players gain a ton of experience. In college, you’re balancing academics with baseball, and you’re only allotted a certain amount of time to play. In the summer, you’re ultra-focused on baseball, trying to improve over that time. You’re playing every day, so you gain a huge amount of experience.

“I think the wooden bat helped me as a hitter. You have to be a lot more precise with where you’re hitting the ball. I broke my first four bats, I think, and then I learned how to square up the ball a lot better after that.” He added that, at the time, he had to pay for his own bats, a valuable lesson for a future GM. While Chernoff spent his evenings playing baseball with the Thunderbolts, he spent his days on Capitol Hill in Washington as an intern in the office of former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli. (D-NJ).”

I was interested in politics and I was living with a bunch of college guys at Jon Miller’s apartment,” he recalled. “Having gone to Princeton, I recognized that while I would have loved to have played in the minor leagues, I was trying to set up a career at the same time.” The setup began after Chernoff’s graduation from Princeton when he interned with the New York Mets. “I built some connections through the Mets to the Indians. I had another connection at the time; Mark Shapiro was the Indians GM who was also a Princeton guy.” There were additional family connections to Cleveland, and in 2003, Chernoff was hired by the Indians as the sole analytics guru at a time when baseball analytics was beginning to blossom. He stayed with the Indians, moving up to Director of Baseball Operations and Assistant General Manager, and on October 6, 2015, was named General Manager, becoming one of the youngest GMs in baseball. As a General Manager, Chernoff is deeply involved with all aspects of the game from player contracts, analytics, and winning the World Series, to ideas on how to make the game move faster. Some of these new ideas, like pitch clocks and limits on mound visits, are being tested in the minor leagues. A more controversial suggestion being discussed is to begin each extra inning with a runner on second base for the batting team. “My wife likes that one, it means I get home earlier,” he quipped. But he doesn’t know yet whether that particular rule is right for the game. But he points out baseball has to be open to change and debate new ideas that could encourage fans to stay engaged in the game. While fans love to engage with their favorite Major League teams, Chernoff appreciates the role local teams like the Thunderbolts play in their communities. “I loved my experience with the Thunderbolts, largely because of that. I was a 20-year- old college student at the time. Kids from the community are coming out and asking for my autograph; they’re looking up to me. They’re not just looking up to major leaguers, they’re looking up to the people right in front of them. “It made me feel wonderful, and I felt a greater responsibility to do the right thing and act the right way and play the game hard because of that. Hopefully, they could see right in front of them in a very accessible way, potentially a group of role models…playing the game hard and respecting the game and bringing it a little bit closer to them than a Major League environment would have.”

One lasting takeaway for Chernoff from his time with the Thunderbolts, was, surprisingly, his T-shirt collection. “I still have a George Mason T-shirt, a William and Mary T-shirt, and a Lander T-shirt. We all used to bring our college baseball shirts and trade them with the other guys. I still have them in my closet.”

Acquisitions from other teams? Making trades with his peers? Holding on to valuable assets? Sounds like excellent preparation for a baseball General Manager, which for Mike Chernoff, began 17 years ago at Blair Stadium when he played the infield for the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts.