WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) -He's got that rugged exterior, a guy's guy. He's old school, favoring John Wayne westerns over reality TV. He admires Bobby Knight and gave his newborn son the middle name of Cash, a nod to Johnny, the man in black.
Almost everything about Eric Wedge says throwback.
He does drive a late-model Jaguar, however, not a pickup truck. But hey, everyone needs to pamper themselves a little.
About to enter his sixth season with the Cleveland Indians, Wedge is at the top of his game.
``He's one of the best we've got,'' Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said Wednesday before the Braves faced the Indians. ``Eric's a baseball guy. He's bright, smart, a great communicator. This game is crazy, they could have been world champions last year, like us a few times. I think he has done a remarkable job. I like him a lot.''
Cox isn't alone. Wedge's fan club reaches well beyond Cleveland's clubhouse and front office, stretching across the Indians' fan base, which has seen the 40-year-old evolve from unproven minor league manager to reigning AL manager of the year.
Wedge won the award after leading the Indians to 96 wins and a Central Division title in 2007. But other than putting on a tuxedo and accepting a trophy during an awards ceremony in New York two months ago, he has tried to distance himself from the distinction.
During the Indians' winter press junket, Wedge asked Indians broadcaster Tom Hamilton not to refer to him as ``manager of the year'' during luncheons and dinners. Also, Wedge requested that the team not put his picture on the cover of the media guide. He wound up on the inside flap.
``That's typical him,'' said hitting coach Derek Shelton, who has been on Wedge's staff since 2004. ``He doesn't want to be glorified in any way.''
The praise doesn't suit Wedge's style. First, because it's in his past, and because it's contrary to the team-centered attitude he preaches daily.
That hasn't changed since 2003, when Wedge took over a rebuilding Indians team that won only 68 games in his first season. Wedge, a former catcher in Boston's organization, arrived in Cleveland with a my-way-or-the-highway reputation. But while his no-nonsense style may have been effective with impressionable minor leaguers, the big boys tended to tune him out during one of his fire-breathing outbursts.
In time, Wedge learned to tone things down. He grew to understand that a pat on the back worked as well as a kick in the rump.
``The first couple years he had a young team and he had to stay on top of everything we did,'' C.C. Sabathia said. ``We didn't have any leeway with anything. Now Wedgie gives us some freedom. The biggest thing is that he lets us police ourselves and let's us run the clubhouse ourselves.''
Most of the time.
One of Wedge's objectives when he came to Cleveland was to create a roster full of selfless players willing to put team goals ahead of individual ones. He seems to have done that with this group, although they'll occasionally need a reminder.
Following a particularly ugly loss at home last season, Sabathia recalled sitting by his locker waiting for a Wedgie tongue lashing. It never came.
``I was like, 'Oh, no, we're going to get it,''' the Cy Young Award winner said. ``I thought he was going to go off. But he just walked in, took kind of a lap around the clubhouse and left. You knew exactly what he was thinking. Last year, when things weren't going well, he really didn't say anything. And, it worked.''
Following Wednesday's 4-1 loss to the Braves, Wedge chuckled when he was reminded about giving his team the silent treatment.
``I remember that,'' he said. ``Sometimes the best thing you can do as a manager is to just shut your mouth and stay the hell out of the way.''
Wedge first began loosening the reins on his players toward the end of the 2006 season. Then, at the start of '07, he consulted with several of his veterans like Sabathia, Victor Martinez and Casey Blake and told them to take more ownership of the club.
If a player needed to be spoken to, Wedge felt the message would have more impact if it came from a teammate. Not that he wouldn't step in if need be, but Wedge felt the Indians were far enough along in their development that he could empower them.
``It was the first time I really let go, and first time I felt they could really do it,'' he said. ``There were a few times I was going to have meetings but somebody basically trumped me, which I like.''
Wedge's biggest challenge this season will be getting his club one step farther than they went in '07, when a 3-1 lead in the ALCS against the Red Sox vaporized in New England's chilly autumn air. He won't stand for complacency, and he won't allow them to look back either - not with the All-Star-laden Detroit Tigers prowling around.
On the first day of training camp, Wedge gathered his players to deliver a motivational speech that all but a few had heard before. He touched on some familiar themes: respect, consistency and preparation.
And like only Wedge can, he spoke with conviction.
``Wow,'' said infielder Jamey Carroll, who came over this winter in a trade from Colorado. ``He obviously has some passion. He feels strongly about things. He gets you fired up - in a good way.''

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