Call him a parent's dream.
A Gilman School and Princeton University graduate. An overachieving college football player. Smart, well-mannered, good-looking.
Straight out of college, he worked in real estate construction in Southern California and retail in New York. There's little doubt Mark Shapiro could have succeeded in corporate America.
Ron Shapiro, the well-connected, well-respected sports agent and Baltimore attorney, kept repeating that message to his oldest son.
Try to stay away from baseball's grip, he would tell him. And, for goodness sake, don't follow your old man's footsteps into the world of player representation.
Mark Shapiro, now general manager of the Cleveland Indians, heeded part of the plea. He eschewed being an agent. But baseball made his heart beat. And, really, the old man was the one to blame for that.
The father was the one who threw all those Wiffle balls outside the family's Mount Washington home. He was the one who took the kid to all those games at Memorial Stadium.
He was the one who literally introduced his son to Orioles legends such as Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray. He was the one who allowed Mike Boddicker, a rising prospect and key to the 1983 world championship season, to sleep on the family's pullout couch for more than a month during that magical year.
How could a kid with that background walk away from the sport? No New York skyscraper or California beach has that kind of pull.
"I asked my dad numerous times, and he pushed me away definitely from being an agent and even away from baseball," Shapiro said. "And I kept being drawn back to it. I wanted to do something passionate, something I was passionate about."
So Shapiro kept sending out letters to baseball's hierarchy asking for a chance. Polite rejection after polite rejection funneled back. Until one day, the Cleveland Indians came calling.
In January 1992, Shapiro dumped his big-city job to become a lowly baseball operations assistant for the sport's worst team in probably its worst stadium.
`Chair in a hallway'
His dad visited that fall on a snowy, nasty cuss of a Cleveland day when only hundreds trickled into 78,000-seat Municipal Stadium to see the Indians limp to their sixth straight losing season.
"I discovered he hardly had an office. He had a chair in a hallway. And he had taken a very substantial decrease in pay from his New York job to have it," Ron Shapiro said. "But I saw the smile on his face. ... Mark was happy and excited by what he was doing."
Now, in Shapiro's 15th season in Cleveland, it's the Indians who are smiling. That kid assistant with the Ivy League education and the baseballs in his eyes worked his way up from the basement to become one of the top general managers in the sport.
Last season, when the surprising Indians won 93 games and nearly made the playoffs, The Sporting News and Baseball America named him Executive of the Year.
"Of the group that has been doing the job five to 10 years, I think he is at the top of that class for the payroll restrictions that he has, the quality of the team and the potential of the team going forward," Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said. "I think they are one of the best young teams in the American League. They are going to be, I think, a team to be reckoned with for a long time."
These definitely are the salad days for the former Princeton offensive lineman and his young ballclub. Despite having the sixth-lowest payroll in the majors ($56 million), the Indians' roster is ripe with tremendous talent under the age of 27. But the future wasn't always so promising.
Making his moves
When Shapiro, now 39, took over from John Hart after the 2001 season, he inherited a team that had won 91 games and the American League Central. But it was an old club, and there weren't legitimate replacements in the minors.
A month after his hiring, he traded second baseman Roberto Alomar to the New York Mets for a mix of major and minor leaguers. It showed little direction, little plan. His next big move was bolder, and much riskier.
In June 2002, with the Indians in third place with a 35-41 record, Shapiro traded club ace and future Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon and a fringe major leaguer to the Montreal Expos. In return, he received journeyman first baseman Lee Stevens and three minor leaguers who had played a combined 10 games above Double-A.
It basically signaled the start of the rebuilding effort, known as "Blueprint for Success II," that has led to this new wave of optimism in Cleveland. But, at the time, Shapiro pulled the plug on a club that was seven games out of first with 86 to play. The Indians' organization, which had won six of the past seven division titles, was in shock.