Over his dad's objections, Mark Shapiro got into baseball. A childhood of Brooks, Cal and Eddie left him little choice.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"You are the leader," Shapiro said. "You know you are going to walk out of the building one day with a pretty good tradition in place. And walk back in the next day and every constituency you have - fans, players, the other people in the office, the business people, the marketing people, and even the manager and staff - they are all going to look at you like you are letting them down. Like why?"

Shapiro's stomach turned when he saw the ESPN scroll announcing the deal: "Indians trade Bartolo Colon to Montreal for INF Lee Stevens and three minor leaguers."

Stevens was a throw-in to even the transaction's finances. The beauty of the deal was in the quality of the minor leaguers. Grady Sizemore is now one of the game's best young outfielders. Cliff Lee, a left-handed starter, was fourth in the 2005 AL Cy Young voting. And middle infielder Brandon Phillips was the trade's centerpiece, but he was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds last month after three disappointing seasons.

Fans may have been skeptical, but baseball executives understood.

"We really thought he got the mother lode of prospects," Duquette said.

Shapiro said that was the seminal moment of his career, but it wasn't the toughest. That came last June, when the Indians were worst in the league in runs, batting average and on-base percentage.

Manager Eric Wedge wanted to change hitting coaches, so, with Shapiro's blessing, he brought in minor league instructor Derek Shelton and fired Murray.

The same Eddie Murray that started his Hall of Fame career in Baltimore, the one whose agent through those seasons was Ron Shapiro.

Parting with Murray"[Murray] was one of the guys that was the root of my passion for the game and kind of the root of my childhood experience in baseball," Shapiro said. "That was the most painful moment of my career. It was the toughest challenge for me as a leader in my time so far."

His dad called it a "painful familial experience."

"Painful because Eddie was one of the first players that Mark knew and was a role model for how people played this game," said Ron Shapiro, who still occasionally advises Murray. "Painful for me because I am still in Eddie's life and he is important to me. But in the end, when you are a leader, you've got to make decisions."

The change paid off. Shelton helped turn around the team's offense, which had the majors' best average through the season's final four months.

Shapiro's personal relationship with Murray turned into a business one, but he is still that playful kid to some other Orioles of his childhood. When the Indians were at Camden Yards last month, Orioles bullpen coach Rick Dempsey bear-hugged Shapiro.

"He was always fun to be around," said Dempsey, who was one of about 20 Orioles on the 1983 team to be represented by Ron Shapiro. "Mark enjoyed being around the ballpark and being around Eddie Murray and Cal and myself. And we had a lot of fun with him."

Return to Baltimore?

In turn, Shapiro will always have fond memories of the Orioles' organization. But the odds of his leaving Cleveland for his hometown anytime soon aren't good.

He's signed through 2007 and, despite payroll limitations, has the autonomy to make moves, something uncommon in baseball. There has been speculation that, if he ever returned to the area, it would be with the Washington Nationals, partially because his father and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, two of Baltimore's most prominent attorneys, have butted heads during owner-player negotiations and may have a strained relationship.

Shapiro puts his future in these terms: "I don't live my life thinking about what the next steps are. I live it in the present. I love where I am and what I am doing, but Baltimore will always be home for me. I will always feel a special attachment to Baltimore as well. That is probably the best way to say it."

Regardless where his future unfolds, those who knew that wide-eyed kid are ecstatic to see how he has developed.

"He knew where he was going in life, and he did it the right way," Dempsey said. "To see what he has become is amazing."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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