When six-time All-Star and Twin Cities native Joe Mauer announced his retirement Monday, it wasn’t front-page news around here, but it was the end of an era for the Minnesota Twins and the end of an incredible journey for Baltimore-based sports agent Ron Shapiro.
Shapiro still wears a lot of hats. He’s an author, a lawyer, a teacher and a world-renowned expert in the field of dispute resolution who helped negotiate an end to the lengthy Baltimore Symphony labor dispute in 1982 and played a role in bringing labor peace to Major League Baseball. What he isn’t anymore is a guy who represents professional athletes.
Mauer was the last active player he represented over a career in sports agency that spanned 43 years and began — somewhat unexpectedly — in 1975 when he was hired to represent an aging baseball player who was having serious financial problems.
It was some guy named Brooks Robinson.
Shapiro wasn’t surprised by Mauer’s decision, but the realization of all that hit home in a very emotional way over this past weekend. His voice cracked when he talked about Mauer, who was born seven years after Brooks retired, but — Shapiro says — shares many of the personal qualities that have endeared the world to Robinson.
“Just a tremendous person — a giver and a man of great values,’’ Shapiro said. “And here I am at the end of my career with a man, who like Brooks is a tremendous person with great values … a sense of community. Here are two players, and a number of my other players were characterized by this, who played their entire careers with one team, and that’s unusual.
“It wasn’t as unusual in Brooks’ day, but it still was unusual. And here’s Joe Mauer, who not only played an entire career in one community, but grew up in that very same community.”
Of course, Shapiro’s career as one of baseball’s most respected agents featured a lot of familiar superstars, most notably Orioles legends Cal Ripken Jr., Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray. He could not have dreamed of having a more impressive list of clients, but he said this week he never really dreamed of any of it.
He calls himself an “accidental agent,” because he would not have gotten into the business if not for a phone call from former Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger, who was concerned about Robinson and looking for someone to help him get his financial affairs in order.
“Jerry said, ‘Would you help Brooks Robinson?’ ” Shapiro remembers, “and here I was, a lawyer practicing corporate securities and real estate law, and I’m saying ‘Help Brooks Robinson!’ That’s like asking a kid to go into a candy store. ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘What’s up.’ ”
Robinson and Shapiro are still close friends. They sat across from each other at lunch Tuesday and reminisced about those days along with Ron’s longtime associate Michael Maas.
“I was in a partnership with four other fellows,’’ Robinson said, “and it had gotten to the point where I was the only one who had any money left at all. Mr. Hoffberger called Ron and he showed up on my front porch, but I was on the road and my wife, Connie, was the only one home.”
Shapiro remembers that moment well, because Connie Robinson looked him up and down and didn’t think he looked old enough to be a financial adviser, but looks obviously can be deceiving. He was 32 and had already made a name for himself as Maryland state securities commissioner.
“I appeared at Brooks’ front door and Connie looked at me and she said, ‘Oh, you’re so young,’ Shapiro said. “I think she was wondering whether I could do it, but I worked Brooks out of his mess and we formed a friendship and it was really Brooks, who said to me one day, ‘You ought to be doing this for other players.’ ”
That was right at the beginning of baseball’s free-agent era, and the players were just starting to exercise their new leverage in salary negotiations. Shapiro might have landed in the middle of all that by accident, but he quickly carved out a thriving practice.
“This is the mid-1970s, when the McNally-Messersmith decision was decided and free agency was opening in baseball,’’ Shapiro said. “When I started representing players, there were nine or ten agents. Now there are nine or 10 thousand agents.”
Things were different then, and Shapiro was a different kind of agent. He made it clear to prospective clients that he expected them to use some of their new wealth to give back to the communities in which they played.
Robinson was the template, because — even though he was not a Baltimore native — he had immersed himself in the community to the point where just about every Orioles fan had his autograph or the story of a friendly handshake. It’s not a coincidence that the same could be said for Ripken and other clients such as Mauer and fellow Twins star Kirby Puckett.
“Brooks shaped the model,’’ Shapiro said. “I would talk with them about, ‘this is a great game you play, but coming with what you might accomplish in this game will come the opportunity to do good and benefit others.’ They are examples of people who accomplished much in the game, but understand the Winston Churchill phrase ‘You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give,’ which appeared on the wall in my office and I truly believe in.”
Shapiro, 75, is not retiring and doesn’t think he ever will. He has written several books, including the “The Power of Nice,” which explains his philosophy of mutual benefit — or “win-win” — negotiations. He also has taken his expertise in conflict resolution global, bringing together Arab and Jewish kids in the Middle East and Catholic and Protestant kids in Northern Ireland, working with youth organizations such as PeacePlayers International.
He also serves as a special adviser to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and has consulting relationships with the San Antonio Spurs and several other NBA teams.
So, one chapter in his life has closed, but many remain open and a few more might be in the works.
“People as me, ‘Why do you do it, you’re 75 years old and you’re still writing chapters,’’ Shapiro said. “I do it because (a) I love people; (b) I love making a difference in their lives; and (c) I love to see human beings find a way to build bridges rather than burn bridges.
“As long as those challenges are out there, I’m going to keep writing chapters until a button is pushed that says, ‘You don’t physically or mentally have it anymore.’ I’m going to continue to build those bridges. You don’t have to get old. You can keep renewing yourself by doing new things that grow out of the things you’ve done previously.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
Become a subscriber today to support sports commentary like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.