Shapiro reaches Indians' top rung

Baseball: Baltimore native Mark Shapiro, 34, has worked his way up from the bottom to earn the general manager's job in Cleveland.

October 24, 2001|By Amy Rosewater | Amy Rosewater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CLEVELAND - Mark Shapiro won't forget his visit to this city in November 1991. It was cold and wet, and the cab driver took him by the site where Jacobs Field was to be built.

"He told me that someone had just gotten car-jacked there," Shapiro said. "I was wondering what I was doing there."

His interview with the Indians was at Municipal Stadium, a vast facility built in 1932. In 1991, when the Indians lost 105 games, the official average attendance was 12,985. But there were many times when only several hundred showed up.

No, Cleveland wasn't the top choice for Shapiro. It was his only choice for the baseball job he sought. Every other team in the major leagues had turned him away or ignored his calls.

Shapiro, a 1985 Gilman School graduate who grew up in Mount Washington, was 24 when he accepted a job as baseball operations assistant for the Indians. His main duty was answering phones, and his $30,000 annual salary was a pay cut from his previous jobs in retail and home building.

Friends teased him about working for one of baseball's worst franchises, but Shapiro took the incessant ribbing in stride while devoting himself to learning the baseball business.

Over the next decade, the Indians transformed themselves into one of the league's most competitive and admired teams, playing in front of sellout crowds at Jacobs Field, which is considered one of the best new ballparks in the country.

On Nov. 1, Shapiro will become the team's general manager, making about $500,000 a year. He was hand-picked by John Hart, who as GM guided the Indians to six Central Division titles in seven years and trips to the World Series in 1995 and 1997.

Hart has been grooming his 34-year-old successor since making a surprise announcement on April 5, just two games into the season, that he would step down and work for the team as a consultant based in Florida. Recently, Rangers owner Tom Hicks received the Indians' permission to talk with Hart about the GM position in Texas.

"I would've been shocked if Mark hadn't been named the GM," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who worked with Hart and Shapiro when he managed the Indians.

This season as a general manager in waiting, Shapiro has handled everything from the draft to media obligations.

"I feel fortunate to be in this position," said Shapiro, sitting in a restaurant overlooking Jacobs Field. "One of the challenges is that expectations are so high here. Sometimes what's frustrating is that people don't acknowledge excellence if we don't win a championship. But it's one of the best jobs in baseball."

Baltimore roots

Shapiro's career choice began taking shape as he was growing up, when he tagged along at Orioles games and made trips to spring training with his father, Ron Shapiro, a highly respected player agent. The Baltimore attorney started working in baseball 25 years ago, attracting an elite group of clients - Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray and Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Kirby Puckett among them.

When Mark was as young as 9, his father would bring him to the Orioles' executive offices while negotiating contracts with then-vice president and GM Hank Peters. Murray and Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, now one of Shapiro's business partners, were regular guests in the Shapiro home. Former Orioles pitcher Mike Boddicker and his wife (and later, their baby) even lived with the Shapiros for a couple of years.

Mark played first base at Gilman, but was more athletically suited for football, going on to become an offensive lineman at Princeton. Yet baseball remained his passion.

His pursuit of a baseball career came as no surprise to his high school football coach, who said he expected Shapiro to excel.

"It's so hard to get to that level. He has one of 30 jobs," said Sherm Bristow, a former Gilman coach who is now a financial adviser in Towson. "But Mark has always been a natural leader and totally prepared."

Shapiro did not take a liking to either of his first jobs out of college, in home building in Southern California and retail in New York. So he talked to his father about switching to baseball.

Ron Shapiro was enthusiastic, but said he chose not to use his status and connections to get his son a job in the big leagues. He wanted him to do it on his own.

"My father was an immigrant from the Ukraine," said the elder Shapiro, "and he escaped the pograms [organized massacres of Jews] in 1906. I had to work my way up on my own, and I wanted Mark to meet the challenges of working his way up, too. He understood there were certain values he had to learn."

Still, the spot in Cleveland was no coincidence. Peters, a longtime friend of Ron Shapiro's, had become Indians president. And Hart, who spent seven seasons in the Orioles' system as a minor-league catcher and later as a minor-league manager, considers Ron one of his few close friends in baseball.

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