By Chris Kline
December 7, 2005
When the Indians promoted Mark Shapiro to general manager in November 2001, he inherited a team coming off its sixth American League Central Division title in seven seasons. But behind the success was the reality that the big league roster was full of expensive 30-somethings, and the farm system was in need of major retooling.
Shapiro immediately began an overhaul, trading popular players including Roberto Alomar. And on his return from the Winter Meetings, he called his wife Lissa and told her he probably should have worn a flak jacket when he got off the plane.
He announced the rebuilding plan, saying it would take until 2005 to contend again. And contend the Indians did. They won 93 games in the season labeled as the target year, but still wound up with a second-place finish behind the World Series champion White Sox.
Shapiro’s skill in signing free agents, making impact trades and building a farm system helped him craft a contender with the fifth-lowest payroll in baseball and earned him Baseball America’s Executive of the Year Award.
But as Shapiro humbly accepts the honor, he does so somewhat grudgingly. Never one for self-promotion, the postseason award that he says means the most to him is BA’s Organization of the Year.
“Obviously I’m honored,” Shapiro said. “And the award is really a testament to the hard work everyone in our organization does on a daily basis. I don’t see this as my award. It’s paying tribute to our organization as a whole. It’s recognizing the entire package and the direction the Cleveland Indians are hopefully headed for years to come.”
Still, there’s no denying what Shapiro has accomplished in three full seasons as a GM. He took what he was given, had the foresight to see that it wasn’t going to work for the long term, and used his acumen to strip down what he had and build for the future.
“I think there is a reason why the Cleveland Indians have made a quick turnaround,” Twins GM Terry Ryan said. “He’s got leadership qualities, and he thinks things for the impact of the present, the near future and the distant future.
“He’s the complete package in terms of being a people person, being organized, understanding and evaluating talent. In the GM industry, I’ve never heard a negative word about Mark Shapiro.”
Shapiro grew up in Baltimore, and it was Memorial Stadium that provided the backdrop for his introduction to the game. His timing was perfect to fall in love with the Orioles, who were perennial contenders at the time and boasted several future Hall of Famers.
Shapiro’s father Ron was a powerful local lawyer who specialized in civil rights and securities law, and the Orioles eventually came calling on one of their season-ticket holders. Ron Shapiro was brought in initially to help Brooks Robinson with some bankruptcy issues. Before long, he was representing Robinson and other Orioles as an agent. Soon, 8-year-old Mark was not only seeing how well Robinson could vacuum up ground balls, but also seeing the game from the inside out.
“It was a much more personal thing,” Mark Shapiro said. “It wasn’t just a business connection back then, it was a personal connection as well. I grew up with all these players coming by our house all the time. They were kind of part of our lives and we were a part of theirs.
“I was cognizant of it being special, but my dad was really good of making sure that we didn’t take anything for granted.”
If anything, Shapiro came to understand the balance between the player on the field with the business behind the curtain. His father likes to say that he didn’t give Mark much in the way of athleticism, but what he did give him was just as valuable.
“It definitely shaped him to be exposed to those kinds of guys,” Ron Shapiro said. “For as much as he loved sports, he was disadvantaged in that genetically he was deprived because his father was probably the worst athlete in the world. But exposure-wise, he got to have a unique view of players and their lives outside baseball. I think that gave him a better understanding of how things work right from the beginning.”
Mark wasn’t unathletic. While he played baseball in high school, Shapiro says the nice way of putting it is that his body was “better suited” for football. He played both offensive tackle and center at Princeton, lettering in 1988 as the Tigers went 6-4.
But his heart was never far away from baseball, and when he graduated in 1989 he figured that going to work for his father would be his first–and best–option. But Ron dissuaded Mark from getting into the agent business, instead pushing him in his own direction, which first led to a real estate development company in Southern California.
“I thought that such a large part of the job was sales–and you can impact values on people–but you have to spend so much time selling people that I thought he’d grow impatient with that,” Ron Shapiro said. “I thought that there would be other roles where he could be more creative and exercise his leadership skills. I felt that if he really wanted to be in baseball full-time, that the only way to do that was to move in a direction where he could use all those skills.”
As usual, father knew best, and Mark became convinced that he wanted to work in baseball after visiting his father in spring training in 1990, when he got to meet and greet with several front-office executives.
Mark returned to California and promptly sent out letters to every major league club. Most went unanswered, but he got a call from Dan O’Dowd, who was then the assistant GM for the Indians. O’Dowd offered him a job in baseball operations, where Shapiro got his feet wet in 1991 with a team that was just coming off a 105-loss season.
After a year, GM John Hart and O’Dowd allowed Shapiro to run the farm system, finally giving him the official title in 1994. But it was the early months when O’Dowd brought Shapiro in to his office that affected him most.
“I could have stayed an assistant on the major league side and been fine there,” Shapiro said. “But instead of letting me go on my own, Dan put me on a track and gave me a strong foundation to work with. I didn’t do much the first year, but when I had ideas of things I wanted to implement systematically, those guys believed in me and empowered me to an unprecedented level.
“I think it’s the basis for the way I am as a general manager.”
Shapiro was farm director for five seasons before being elevated to assistant GM and then finally to GM three years later. While he has the extraordinary leadership skills required of a GM, but his empathy and compassion for people set him apart. His approach emphasizes openness with everyone in the organization, creating a comfort zone for his staff while also delegating authority.
“There’s no place for insecurities in a well-run organization,” Shapiro said. “I think what you want is kind of an open culture where guys feel free. Across the board, in player development and scouting, there are no boundaries. We’re all part of the same organization, and we share the same vision on where we’re going. We share the same set of values as to how we want to get there.
“So whether (scouting director) John Mirabelli has an idea for the major league club or (farm director) John Farrell has a thought on an amateur player that we’re scouting, there’s a freedom of thought and a freedom of having the ability to contribute.
“There’s a balance in everything we do. And we want to tap into every resource out there to make the best decisions possible and be as effective as we can in what we’re doing.”
That balance has created a winning atmosphere, and one where while some on his staff are likely to leave for higher positions with other clubs, most want to stick around to see the master plan come to fruition with a World Series title.
The Red Sox approached assistant GM Chris Antonetti about their GM vacancy after Theo Epstein unexpectedly left Boston, but Antonetti respectfully declined. And with Antonetti out of the mix, the Red Sox were reportedly going after Farrell–which speaks volumes about the personnel Shapiro has in the system.
“If it happens down the road, it happens, but it’s not anything I’m thinking about,” Antonetti said. “Working for Mark is unbelievable. He’s a tremendous leader that empowers the people around him. He’s one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known, and that carries over into everything he does. I want to finish what we’ve started here in Cleveland and be part of something special for this city.”
Still, Shapiro understands that turnover inevitable. So now the former farm director is faced with a whole new set of challenges–finding new talent to keep the organization pointed in the right direction. And much like developing depth on the major league roster or in the farm system, Shapiro is building a plan for the future in the front office as well.
“I think your depth of talent in the organization, beyond player personnel, definitely matters,” Shapiro said. “Every single hire, whether it’s entry level in the front office or it’s player-development staff, you’re looking at building a deep organization.
“What we’re hopefully trying to do is have a lot of success here and when you have a lot of success, you lose people. And that should be a good thing, you should be happy about that. Chris Antonetti and John Farrell will be GMs. It’s just a question of when. So we have to play strong attention to who’s below them. So it may not be something anyone else focuses on, but believe me, I’m involved and I’m aware of the guys below them. It’s not tangible in the results of wins and losses in the short term, but it’s going to impact wins and losses in the long term.”