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Shapiro reaches Indians' top rung

THE BALTIMORE 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.

Mark's first "office" was a cubicle in the Indians' old stadium where he typed memos, warmed by an electric heater. He was promoted to assistant director of minor-league operations, then to director. As head of the farm system from 1994 to 1998, he scouted prospects in places like Burlington, W.Va., and Watertown, N.Y., and oversaw Latin American operations.

He is credited with creation of the Winter Development Program, held in the off-season to introduce prospects to the city and the big leagues. The young men stayed in Cleveland homes and met with members of the front office, current and former major-league players and umpires.

"When I told friends of mine in other organizations about it, they couldn't believe it," said Indians shortstop John McDonald. "They can't believe all the resources the Indians put into us."

The GM in waiting

As impressed as the organization was with Shapiro, it was clear that should Hart depart, his successor would be Dan O'Dowd, formerly the team's assistant GM. But when O'Dowd pursued - and failed to get - a position with the Orioles in 1998, his relationship with the Indians soured. Soon, O'Dowd left and Shapiro was named assistant general manager. A year later, O'Dowd became the Colorado Rockies' GM.

"Early on, we identified Mark as an intelligent young man," Hart said. "It wasn't much different than developing a young player. When Dan left it was an automatic to have Mark here."

Once Hart decided to leave, it was an automatic for Shapiro to replace him. About eight months before the announcement was made public, Hart talked with Indians owner Larry Dolan and vice president Paul Dolan, stating his conviction that the organization needed to maintain stability by hiring from within.

One benefit is expected to be the depth of Shapiro's knowledge of the players. He has known many of them since they were drafted.

Third baseman Russell Branyan was 18 when he left his home in Warner Robins, Ga., to play rookie-level ball in Burlington. Shapiro was the farm director, and he got to know Branyan well.

"There are periods in a young player's career when they feel like they're stuck. Mark was good to me when that happened to me," said Branyan, 25.

"I remember having a conversation with him when he asked, 'Do you feel like the organization is against you?' There were times I felt that way, but Mark was able to help make things right.

"I know that I can talk to him and tell him things, and that's as far as it goes," Branyan said, recalling many such occasions. "I know I have a friend in Mark Shapiro."

The cynic might say Shapiro tried to help players like Branyan because they were top prospects. Not so, say Branyan and other players.

Shapiro befriended another prospect, Sean Casey, several years ago. When the Indians dealt him to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Dave Burba in 1998, Shapiro was devastated. He understood the trade but believed strongly in Casey's potential. To this day, Shapiro and Casey remain close friends.

"With Sean, I never felt a sense of betrayal," Shapiro said. "I knew it was the best thing for the organization and the best thing for Sean, but it was sad not to have a chance to work more with him."

The staying power of their relationship has shown Shapiro's interests to be genuine in the minds of players such as Branyan.

Earning trust, praise

Hargrove praised Shapiro's frankness.

"The thing that always impressed me about Mark is that if you'd ask him a question, he'd tell you the answer. And if he didn't have an answer, he'd go back, check on it, and honestly tell you the answer," he said.

"I always trusted Mark, and that's not something I can say about everyone in baseball."

Mark Newman, vice president of baseball operations for the New York Yankees, describes Shapiro as innovative, interesting and "not bound by the tradition of baseball."

"Mark is very inquisitive and open-minded," said Newman, who first met Shapiro during a minor-league game several years ago.

Just because Shapiro is likable and has grown up with the Indians' organization doesn't mean he has a smooth road ahead. He has to measure up to Hart, a former baseball Executive of the Year who has been as visible in Cleveland as Ravens coach Brian Billick has become in Baltimore.

Though working in Hart's shadow, Shapiro has already gained some prominence. Waiters know him at restaurants. Fans recognize his voice on the radio. And Clevelanders, who long dealt with losing seasons before the team's rebirth, have become so passionate that waiver-wire pickups can become front-page news.

An assistant GM can stay in the background. The GM cannot.

"Sure, it will get hard," Shapiro said. "People will be attacking me personally. But that will never define my self-worth."

Shapiro, who married an art gallery owner and painter in January, said that relationship helps him keep his perspective. His wife, Lissa, is not an avid sports fan.

"I realize when I come home that, hey, not everyone is living and dying with this," Shapiro said.

Those fans who are, however, are interested in several key moves the team will make during the off-season. Players who will be free agents or have options at the end of the season include outfielders Juan Gonzalez ($14 million) and Kenny Lofton ($8 million) and pitchers Burba ($5 million) and Bob Wickman. ($2.6 million). Controversial reliever John Rocker ($1.9 million) is up for arbitration.

The team recently exercised a one-year option on manager Charlie Manuel's contract for 2002 rather than sign him to a multi-year deal. Moreover, the Indians are coping with financial restraints. The team is expected to cut $5 million from its payroll to about $85 million for the 2002 season.

And there might be another labor problem, perhaps a lockout.

As Hart put it: "The No. 1 seat is the hot seat."

Still, Hart expresses confidence in Shapiro. And he's not the only one.

"I tried to hire him three years ago," said Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics' GM. "John had a tremendous decade there, but there is no doubt that Mark can take it and continue that success."

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