Shapiro looks beyond bottom line DOLLARS AND SENSE

April 28, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

Contract talks with Kirby Puckett had ground to a halt and Minnesota Twins fans were marching on the Metrodome to protest the possible loss of the All-Star outfielder. A banner appeared in the upper deck: "Sign Kirby or we'll jump."

Tensions also were high at the bargaining table. Frustrated at the rejection of what he considered a below-market offer, Puckett had broken off talks and, after the season, was within days of signing a deal with the Boston Red Sox.

His agent, Baltimore-based attorney Ron Shapiro, was concerned. A grand master of conciliation who has staked his reputation on keeping franchise players with their franchises, Shapiro suggested an unusual solution: dinner for Puckett and his wife at team owner Carl Pohlad's suburban Minneapolis home.

No salary figures were discussed at the December soiree, but somewhere between sips of vintage wine and bites of beef tenderloin, the frost melted. Within 12 hours, they had the deal that had eluded them for 12 months: $30 million over five years.

In Baltimore a few months earlier, shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. landed a $30.5 million, five-year deal after emotionally trying negotiations between Shapiro and the Orioles. In the end, both hometown heroes kept their hometown mailing addresses.

Shapiro's aversion to public fights with team owners and the free-agency shopping network seems at odds with the realities of modern baseball. And his style has its critics, who suggest a tougher line might mean more money, especially for marginal players, and that his courtly relations with employers must conflict with the interests of his clients.

But you won't find those critics among the marquee clients he represents. Puckett and Ripken, whose teams meet tonight at Camden Yards,are in the top 10 of baseball's most highly paid. Only one other agent has two clients on the list.

Shapiro, whose success last year launched him into the top ranks of baseball agents, has pioneered a holistic brand of athlete representation that involves everything from investment advice to public relations and substance-abuse counseling.

Mike Powers, another Baltimore-based agent, said: "If you look at his clients whose careers are over, nobody's in jail or on drugs or on the front pages. He's got to get some of the credit."

Shapiro selects clients carefully, avoiding the controversial, and counsels charity and lawyerly career planning. Consequently, his players usually make news for runs batted in, not run-ins with the law.

"The way that he picks his clients, you might get a guy that sees the bigger picture," says Ripken, who pitches milk and literacy when he's not ruling the infield. "Ron likes that sort of thinking and keeps it going if it's in you."

Shapiro's low-key style also is appreciated.

"Anybody could have gotten Cal and Kirby a lot of money. His real skill as an agent is that he is a people person. Players like him, and general managers find his style comfortable," says Alan Hendricks, a Houston-based agent whom one magazine recently ranked among baseball's most powerful figures.

"To the people in the mainstream, he may not until now been well-known. But he has always been viewed in the top echelon within the business," Hendricks says.

Ripken said he was wooed by a number of agents when he was a promising 20-year-old. Often, agents would arrive in limousines to take him out to dinner at expensive restaurants -- pretense that was wasted on the earthy Aberdeen native.

He preferred Shapiro's business-lunch approach.

So do team executives.

"Ron is a very intelligent, honest, farsighted individual who honestly will look at the entire individual of his client," says Andy MacPhail, general manager of the Twins.

Says Orioles president Larry Lucchino: "While we battle with some intensity, we are able when it's over to put it behind us and resume a cordial relationship."

Is that, and his reluctance to shop players among many teams, good for the clients? Says one rival agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity: "He's never done the dirty deed and walked a free agent from the Orioles." This agent suggests Shapiro is concerned about the beating his image, and possibly his law firm's business, would take at home.

But Shapiro stresses the long term with his clients, and says that sinking roots into a commmunity is good not only for the soul, but also for business. It can enhance a post-playing career in broadcasting, endorsements or front-office work.

"Ron looks at you as your whole life, not just your baseball career," Ripken says.

Finally a full-time agent

Given his success last year in baseball, it's not surprising that Ronald Maurice Shapiro, who turned 50 in March, has begun to step back from his prosperous corporate law work.

He moved last summer from senior partner to "counsel to the firm" on the letterhead of Shapiro and Olander, the 35-lawyer firm he helped found in 1972 and which has grown into one of the city's most successful municipal finance practices.

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