Shapiro is link in labor peace His role as liaison facilitates agreement in baseball struggle

November 29, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro wears a lot of hats. He's the superagent who represents Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray. He is a major mover and shaker in city politics, acting as treasurer of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's campaign committee.

And, over the past four months, he has been an unofficial labor mediator, smoothing the way for baseball's long-awaited labor contract, approved by owners Tuesday.

Shapiro, whose conciliatory manner has allowed him to maintain close ties with both the Major League Baseball Players Association and interim commissioner Bud Selig, is getting some of the credit for rescuing the deal that was roundly rejected by the owners at a Nov. 6 ratification meeting.

His role in the negotiations was a closely guarded secret, but he acted as a liaison between Selig and the union several times during the bitter four-year labor fight, and he was -- by many accounts -- the man who neutralized the mistrust between the two sides long enough to get the final version of the collective bargaining agreement hammered out during negotiations in August and late October.

"He was, in effect, a shadow mediator," said management negotiator Randy Levine yesterday. "He was not directly involved in the process, but he was a big player whose role has not come out in this. He had a huge role."

That was a neat trick, considering that Shapiro's primary role as a player representative figured to put him on one side of the labor battle. But he worked closely with fellow agent Tom Reich to keep the lines of communication open between union officials and moderate owners during the darkest days of the dispute, and was in almost continuous telephone contact with both sides as the major compromises were reached in August.

It was not a new role for Shapiro and the other agents who worked behind the scenes during the negotiations. He has been at least a peripheral player in baseball's collective bargaining relationship since union head Marvin Miller was wrapping the owners around his finger in the 1970s. But never before had there been so much at stake.

There had been bitter disputes before. There had been strikes and lockouts. Never before, however, had the commissioner canceled a World Series. Never before had fan interest declined by 20 percent in a single season. Never before had the future of Major League Baseball looked so dim.

Shapiro had been reluctant to acknowledge his role in the negotiations, but he said yesterday that it became apparent to him that someone had to convince both sides that they had to break the four-year cycle of confrontation and recrimination or risk even more damage to baseball.

"I kept telling everyone, 'You started out fighting over the pie. Now, you're fighting over pieces of the pie. And pretty soon you're going to be fighting over the crumbs,' " Shapiro said. "I preached that pie argument to anyone who would listen."

The negotiations proceeded slowly and quietly after a decision by federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor on March 31, 1995, forced the owners to lift their impasse declaration and prompted the players to end their 232-day strike. Levine was appointed to replace Richard Ravitch as ownership's chief negotiator the next September.

Shapiro was introduced to Levine at the World Series and soon would become a friend and confidant, providing insight into the workings of the opposing side that would help Levine to forge a better relationship with the union.

The breakthrough occurred in early August, as rumors circulated that the owners might go back to court and ask Sotomayor to lift the injunction that had kept the previous Basic Agreement in effect nearly three years beyond its original term. During a flurry of negotiations, Levine and the union neared compromise on a luxury tax plan that gave the owners some drag on payroll inflation without destroying the free-agent market.

"That's when I really started to insert myself in a substantial way," Shapiro said. "It was a torturous weekend. It was night and day. I was in Baltimore, talking to both sides over the phone. There were times when I'd get a call from ownership people saying, 'Tell the union people to hang in there,' and then I'd hear from the union people saying the same thing.

"In the end, they had negotiated most of the important things that ended up in the final settlement."

Still, there was a point where it all seemed for naught. Shapiro was the one whom union negotiators went to in August when they needed to know if Levine was acting with the full authority of ownership's Executive Council. It was Selig's assurance -- transmitted through Shapiro -- that led to the final union concessions that made the deal possible.

The settlement almost collapsed, however, when Selig failed to express that same support before the Nov. 6 ratification vote. He chose instead to vote against the deal, leaving frustrated union officials ready to fight again.

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