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Negotiations training is this agent's secret

THE BALTIMORE SUN

John Hirschbeck needed advice, and fast.

A night earlier, the umpire had been spit on by then-Oriole Roberto Alomar during a game. Now, television trucks were parked in front of his home. The media demanded to know how Hirschbeck would respond.

In those turbulent moments of 1996, Hirschbeck did what other umpires along with dozens of athletes and sports executives have done since: He turned to Baltimore sports agent and attorney Ronald M. Shapiro for guidance.

Shapiro, 62, may be best known for representing Cal Ripken, but he founded a Baltimore-based negotiations training institute 10 years ago and has quietly become a guru for the corporate and sports sets. He is a specialist at modulating inner demons so as to navigate sports teams, executives, sales professionals, players, umpires and others away from potential trouble.

When Hirschbeck and other umpires grew uncomfortable with the hardball tactics of union leaders in 1998, they summoned Shapiro to help find a remedy.

When the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs faced difficult player contract talks in 2004, they dispatched Shapiro for a primer on negotiating techniques.

"In the end it's about relationships," says Shapiro, who represents two dozen baseball players, including the Orioles' Steve Kline, the Washington Nationals' Brian Schneider, the Boston Red Sox's Trot Nixon, the Cincinnati Reds' Sean Casey and the Minnesota Twins' Joe Mauer.

Shapiro's philosophies are largely laid out in two negotiating books, including this year's Bullies, Tyrants & Impossible People: How to Beat Them Without Joining Them.

Says Shapiro: "If you put it to a team in a negative way, you squeeze them. If there's a problem later on, they're going to put it right back at you."

His son, Mark, is general manager of the Cleveland Indians and espouses many of the same "be nice without being soft" negotiating principles as his father. "The point is that this is too insular a business to treat people badly because you're liable to encounter them more than once," says Mark Shapiro, a former Princeton football player. "You can't hide from your track record."

Sports are, of course, about conflict on the field or the court. But that doesn't mean leagues need be filled with player-management enmity or Terrell Owens-variety squabbles between players and their teammates and coaches. In effect, Shapiro is teaching people whose lives revolve around games how not to behave like kids when the contests are done.

Advice for all

Shapiro is an adviser to NBA, NFL and broadcasting executives on dealing with employees and customers in ways that avoid disputes. He also has voluntarily advised umpires.

Shapiro had met Hirschbeck when the umpire, now president of the union representing major league umpires, was a guest on the agent's old Baltimore television show in the early 1990s.

The most important thing Shapiro noticed about Hirschbeck after the Alomar incident was that he seemed to desperately want to move on. Three years earlier, Hirschbeck had lost his oldest son to a rare genetic disorder that now affects his youngest son.

"Life is too short to hold grudges and be miserable," Hirschbeck recalled telling Shapiro. "My wife and I just wanted to enjoy our time at home."

Though Alomar said he had been provoked by Hirschbeck, some umpires wanted to boycott the American League playoffs. Many were angry that Alomar's suspension was only for five games of the 1997 season. But Shapiro counseled Hirschbeck to lower his voice and consider the long-term consequences of his response.

"Basically," says Hirshbeck, who shook hands with Alomar at Shapiro's recommendation before an Orioles game during the 1997 season, "it was about learning to step back."

It's a message that Hirschbeck says he has carried forward. "I know I've made mistakes on the field where I've overreacted and taken things too personally," he says. "But when I leave the hotel now each day, I say [to God] that there's nothing you and I can't handle."

Says Shapiro: "If you watch him now, he doesn't scream and holler. I told him that one thing I frequently do when people start to provoke me is to lower my voice."

Shapiro's message has seemed to resonate in the often-overheated professional sports world as well as corporate boardrooms.

Though he often works with corporations - Shapiro and business partner Mark Jankowski's institute has trained executives from Wachovia, MBNA, Verizon and many other companies - he has found a sports niche.

Shapiro's athletic clients have included numerous baseball teams' sales departments and concessionaires, as well as the NFL's New York Jets. He is a special adviser to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and helped the club with the development of its new training complex. The Spurs brought him in last year and credit him with helping maintain a culture in which players and management don't routinely feel at odds.

"He gave us a road map to follow in the negotiation process," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said.

For the Spurs, creating a player-friendly culture isn't about altruism. Rather, it's a competitive necessity if the team is to attract and maintain players in a relatively small market.

"I think we're 38th in terms of media markets in the country," Buford said. "Relationships are very important in a market like San Antonio."

With Shapiro's help, Buford said coach Gregg Popovich and current and former players - including Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, David Robinson and Steve Kerr - "have created an environment that guys seem to enjoy playing in and living in."

A little respect

In Cleveland, Mark Shapiro said he also has tried to create a respectful culture for players, in part by making long-term contract commitments to those who fit well with the team.

The Indians made a statement last year by trading Milton Bradley, perhaps their most talented player, who had problems with manager Eric Wedge. Shapiro said he agreed with his father's philosophy that a team needed to have "values" and that no player could have his own set of rules.

The elder Shapiro's negotiating techniques can be applied in a variety of settings - say, an umpire facing an out-of-control manager. His newest book asks the advice-seeker to identify whether the combatant is "simply difficult" or just "situationally" difficult like an Alomar or John McEnroe in their playing days. A third category is the "strategically difficult" character - such as a manipulative agent or general manager - who makes life difficult as a means to an end.

Then, Shapiro suggests ways to subtly shape the outcome - in part by resisting the urge to blindly fire back.

The agent knows some may wonder about the wisdom of a sports agent preaching about getting along. This, after all, is an age when perhaps the best-known agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is notorious for using hardball tactics.

"When I wrote these two books, people would say, 'A sports agent writing a book on how to beat them without joining them - that's a contradiction in terms.' Sports agents are held in very low esteem in society," Shapiro says.

Shapiro has encountered some of the skepticism directly.

He writes in Bullies, Tyrants & Impossible People of conducting a 1997 seminar for the NFL Management Council, which includes team presidents and general managers. Shapiro said he heard a voice pipe up from the auditorium: "What are we doing here? Learning to deal with the scum of the earth? Learning from another agent?"

It was the voice of Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian, then the Carolina Panthers' GM.

"He had a bright red face to match his bright red hair, and he was really upset," Shapiro said.

Rather than engage him in an argument, Shapiro said he empathized with the occasionally frustrating experience of dealing with agents. He allowed Polian to vent about a particularly tough negotiation with linebacker Kevin Greene that led to the player's release. And Polian, now a friend of Shapiro's, soon calmed down.

Shapiro has talked players down, too.

In 1983, Orioles utility infielder Lenn Sakata told Shapiro he was frustrated with sitting on the bench and needed to be traded. Shapiro listened and decided to buy time. "I got him to give me a week," Shapiro says.

Luck intervened and Sakata was soon inserted into a game long enough to hit a game-winning home run that helped soothe his psyche. "My seat was in the front row on the third base side and it was one of the rare times that I ran to a player," Shapiro said. "He saw me and threw his arms around me, and I said, 'See, Lenn, I told you we'd work it out.'"

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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