From intern to general manager, that’s the story Mike Chernoff told Park Synagogue’s men’s club on Nov. 16 about his 13-season rise with the Cleveland Indians, where he helped lead the team to the World Series earlier this month.
Aaron Goldhammer of ESPN Cleveland interviewed Chernoff, shortly after nearly 150 guests finished eating steak at the group’s annual Sports Banquet and Steak dinner at Park Synagogue East in Pepper Pike. Goldhammer, a member of Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike, first asked Chernoff about how baseball was a bonding experience for his family while he was growing up in Livingston, N.J.
"I really connected to my dad through sports ever since I was about 6 years old. We had baseball catch once a month and we kept our tradition going, so I still do it with him," Chernoff said. "In fact, before game 6 (of the World Series) he flew in. We went in the batting cage around 7, pregame, and had our little catch.”
Chernoff, a member of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, described why he is so committed to the team that in over a decade, he has never strayed.
“(Paul Dolan) has created this culture where he empowers baseball players and staff to learn from our mistakes, to build a culture that we want,” Chernoff said. "We've always taken the approach, 'how do we push ourselves a little bit harder?'"
Chernoff discussed Indians manager Terry Francona, who was named American League Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
He “looks super disorganized,” but “prepares like nobody I’ve ever seen,” Chernoff said.
For example, he said before they interviewed Francona for the job as manager, they emailed him about 50 questions just to help him prepare, not expecting a response. Francona sent 20 pages of answers back within hours.
“I actually saved it and I wrote at the top of it, ‘Tito’s philosophy’s on baseball,’” Chernoff said.
Goldhammer called out Rabbi Joshua Hoffer Skoff, senior rabbi at Park Synagogue who was in the audience, relaying that they were together in Israel when the Indians traded for Andrew Miller in July.
"I want you to know that Rabbi Skoff stopped service in our hotel in Jerusalem, mid-Aleinu, and said, 'we just traded for Andrew Miller,'" Goldhammer said, which drew audience applause.
Although the conversation naturally veered toward team injuries that mounted toward the end of the season, the audience broke out in laughter over Chernoff’s explanation of the finger injury Trevor Bauer got working on a drone. Chernoff was driving his son Brody, 6, to school when he got the news.
"I was on speakerphone in my car when I heard Trevor cut his finger on his drone, and Brody is screaming, 'Did it fall off?'" he said, laughing.
However, Chernoff had reason to remain optimistic. He told a story about eating meatballs in the clubhouse just before the Indians defeated Toronto on a walk-off home run by Tyler Naquin.
"I eat the meatball and we end up winning the game. So like three other times, I kept going down to the clubhouse and eating meatballs," Chernoff said. “I should have had a couple more during Game 7.”
Although Chernoff said losing the World Series in the 10th inning of Game 7 to the Chicago Cubs was difficult, he was proud of the team’s determination and resilience.
“We lost, and it’s really painful, it hurts, but at the same time there is so much to be proud of. There is so much the community embraced,” he said.
"I think there is a building optimism in this city that I hadn't seen in the 13 years I've been here. And there is a lot of hard economic times and pessimism here. People get defensive about it, but it's real and you felt it. In some ways it has been really helpful to hear messages from the community and to think about how you may play a small part in building a more optimistic future.”