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11/29/09 10:00 AM EST
Shapiro learned people skills from dad
Lawyer, player agent set stage for son to become GM
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
CLEVELAND -- The line to get Brooks Robinson's autograph at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore stretched from the field, up the aisle between seating sections and toward the concourse. Mark Shapiro, about 10 years old at the time, wanted to get one of those autographs. And if he wished to avoid the long line, he certainly had an "in." His father, Ron, after all, was Robinson's agent. But Ron wasn't going to let his son cut any corners (or any people in line) for this or any opportunity that might come his way in life. "I escorted him up the row and all the way down the line," Ron remembered. "The point is, you've got to respect everybody along the way, and you've got to understand that, while you may reach a certain level, you can't forget the basics, in terms of how you treat other people. Being at the back of that line that day may have left an imprint on Mark in a certain way." Mark, of course, is now the general manager of the Cleveland Indians. And throughout the successes and failures the franchise has experienced in the eight years he's held that position, the values instilled in him by his father have remained a constant. "He was a great example of treating everybody the same, regardless of stature," Mark said of his dad, "and having compassion and having high internal standards and expectations." Family matters Mark spoke in a phone interview as he drove from Cleveland to Baltimore on Wednesday to be with his dad for the Thanksgiving holiday. And when this family gets together for the holidays or other functions, it's a union of some powerful people in the world of professional sports. While Mark is one of baseball's most-respected GMs, Ron is one of the game's most-renowned player agents. American League MVP Joe Mauer is a current client, and, in the past, Ron has worked with the likes of Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr. and Kirby Puckett. And as Cleveland sports fans know, Ron's daughter and Mark's sister, Julie, is married to Eric Mangini, head coach of the NFL's Browns. Clearly, this family could submit its home videos to ESPN. Both Mark Shapiro and Mangini have dealt with their profession's more pressing difficulties this year. Shapiro's Indians finished in a tie for last place in the AL Central, while Mangini's Browns entered the Thanksgiving weekend with a 1-9 record in his first year at the helm. "We support each other," Mark said. "But one thing you know, being on the inside of professional sports, is there's nothing you can really say. I know how much he cares, and he knows how much I care, but there's no right thing to say. It's nice to know people care for you, but all you can do is focus on the work and doing the work necessary to pull out of where we are." Mark's work ethic was instilled in him by his father, the son of an immigrant. Still, when it comes to the working relationship between Mark the GM and Ron the agent, the Shapiros are careful to keep everything on the up and up. Shapiro and son have certainly had several mutual interests, in terms of players Ron has represented and Shapiro has signed to contracts. But those negotiations are always handled outside the family, in order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. One example of this came in 2007, when the Indians were negotiating a contract extension with Jake Westbrook, one of Ron's clients. On the agent side, Westbrook was represented by Ron's associate, Michael Maas, while Shapiro handed his negotiating duties off to his assistant, Chris Antonetti. "During Westbrook's deal, I remember going out to dinner with my dad," Mark recalled. "[The contract] was the elephant in the room. We were not talking about it. It was uncomfortable, but he and I knew it was the right thing. We just weren't going to go there." But when Mark does handle a negotiation or any dealing with a player, he does so with a background shaped by the experiences of growing up an agent's son. The company you keep Ron wasn't always a sports agent. In fact, his work as an agent is just one of his many business pursuits. He was and is a prominent Baltimore attorney who specialized in civil rights and securities law. More recently, he founded the Shapiro Negotiations Institute, a consultation firm that has trained hundreds of thousands of professionals in the skills of negotiation and conflict resolution. He has penned several books, including "The Power of Nice: How to Negotiate So Everyone Wins -- Especially You!" Ron's involvement with ballplayers happened merely as a byproduct of him being a Baltimore Orioles season-ticket holder in the late '60s and early '70s. The O's requested that he help Robinson with some bankruptcy issues, and soon Shapiro had become Robinson's agent. "I remember Brooks Robinson wanted to give my dad his 15th Gold Glove [as a thank you for his assistance], and my dad wouldn't take it," Mark recalled. "[Robinson] rang our doorbell and ran away, and there was a Rawlings Gold Glove at our front door." That would merely be one of many instances in which a young Mark Shapiro got to see what the players he admired are like off the field. He remembered Murray coming over his house and lifting Ron's weights over his head. "He looked like he was seven feet tall," Mark said with a laugh. During the 1983 season, when rookie Mike Boddicker came up from Triple-A Rochester and eventually helped spark the Orioles to a World Series run, he and his wife stayed on the Shapiro's pullout sofa bed in their den. "He talked baseball with me every day," Shapiro said. "The day after he pitched one of his biggest games in the ALCS, I remember looking at that room he was sleeping in. He was sleeping right in our living room." Perspective and pride Getting up close and personal with some of the game's best gave Mark perspective. He saw that these players he idolized were, indeed, human. And while it was easy for many fans to assume that a player who made it to the big leagues was on Easy Street for the rest of his life, Mark knew that was not the case. That's a lesson Mark carries with him today, in his role as a GM. But when he finished his education at Princeton, he initially considered taking that lesson into a role as an agent. Ron was strongly against that possibility. "I saw the agent business as changing," Ron said. "Mark loved baseball, and he wanted to be involved with it. It was my feeling that the agent business would not provide that level of satisfaction. It was a business that spent more time focusing on keeping clients than the game of baseball." But Ron did not discourage Mark from getting into the business from baseball operations side of the equation. So while Mark's first job out of college was with a real-estate development company in Southern California, he diligently wrote letter after letter to GM after GM, expressing his interest in an opportunity to get his foot in the door. A visit with his father in Spring Training in Arizona in 1990 cemented his conviction to get involved with the game. In 1991, Mark found a taker. Indians assistant GM Dan O'Dowd offered Mark a job in baseball operations, and, over the next decade, he climbed his way from low man on the totem pole to farm director to assistant GM and, finally, to the position he holds today. All this time, Ron has watched his son with pride -- not just because of his ascension to a highly coveted position, but primarily because of the values Mark hasn't strayed from along the way. When Mark was a kid, Ron used to bring him along for various negotiations. Ron knows now that Mark used those experiences, as well as that Robinson autograph session, as a means to observe and absorb. "In my business, you meet a lot of people," Ron said. "And I've met ballplayers along the way, players who have been released by the Indians, and they tell me Mark treated them with such dignity and caring and such encouragement, even though he made the decision they no longer fit in. When I hear that, I knew the values had paid off. You treat everybody the same, not just the people who benefit you."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.