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Issue Date: April 2002 Issue


Don't Hate Mark Shapiro


Linda Feagler

On Dec. 31, 2000, just three months after the season ended for the Cleveland Indians without a trip to the playoffs, Mark Shapiro prepared to ring in the New Year surrounded by the tall palms, jagged terrain and gentle streams of Arizona's Sonoran Desert.

Vacationing at Miraval, a spiritual resort and spa near Tucson, with friends and his then-fiancee, Lissa Bockrath, Shapiro filled the getaway with seven-hour hikes, rock climbing, dining near the beehive fireplace on one of the resort's patios and taking classes on mindful eating and stress management.

The disappointment of the season past remained fresh, yet Shapiro had already begun preparing for a new season and, potentially, a new job.

Remember the Indians in the late '70s? Dan Coughlin's 1984 article, "Confessions of a Baseball Writer," spells out a period in Cleveland Indians history that Mark Shapiro believes the Indians can and will avoid.
A few weeks earlier, John Hart had confided to Shapiro that he was thinking about stepping down as the Tribe's general manager. Hart said he believed that Shapiro, his assistant GM, would be his natural successor. So Shapiro crafted a 100-page business plan outlining his vision for the organization to present to new owner Larry Dolan.

But before he did, Shapiro brought the plan along with him for a red-pen critique by his friend Tim Mueller. "It was one of the most impressive documents I've ever seen," recalls Mueller, chief development officer for the city of Cleveland. "It boiled down to the basics of running a baseball team: hiring good solid people and treating them as peers, empowering them to make decisions, backing them up after they've made them and allowing them to shine.

"It was about creating an organization that lasts long after you're gone."

Like his predecessor, Shapiro wants to win the World Series. But winning won't come at any cost — whether fiscal or personal — for Shapiro. Those with a reputation of being difficult (à la John Rocker) are not welcome on his team.

"I believe the greatest fulfillment in winning comes from winning the right way," Shapiro asserts. "I want players who are motivated by pride and pride alone. Players we can believe in both as people and as talent."

While Shapiro's team-first philosophy may sound like a reaction to the loss of such high-priced stars as Juan Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton and Roberto Alomar, it's also a reflection of the man. He is a different sort of guy, especially in baseball circles. One who's just as enthralled with Matisse and van Gogh as he is with Brooks Robinson and Eddie Murray. One who honestly believes there are things just as important as winning.

"The core of my personal philosophy is to never let my job define my worth as a human being," the 35-year-old Shapiro says. "I want my value as a human being to be governed by who I am as a husband, brother, son, father and friend."

But winning, of course, is still the name of the game in Major League Baseball. And the Indians' success, which many fans have taken for granted since Jacobs Field opened in 1994, is no longer a sure thing. Dolan's order to cut payroll — a slash that could amount to $20 million — means the team roster won't be the All-Star revue it's been in recent years.

Shapiro's first big move of the off- season — the trade of All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar to the New York Mets — raised fan ire. Following the deal, Shapiro told Lissa, whom he married in January 2001, that she'd better stock up on groceries because they wouldn't be going out to dinner for a while.

Shapiro says he believes, however, that this year's roster creates a win-win situation for the team and the fans. "Although there's less superstar talent with this plan, there's more balance," he explains. "And it's the best opportunity to give everybody what they want in the end: being happy in the Septembers and Octobers of the next three or four years to come."

Why can't we be like the New York Yankees?""When will we win the World Series?"

"Have you ever thought about trading Wil Cordero for Barry Bonds?"

No matter where he goes — from stints on radio talk shows to sports forums at Landerhaven — the questions fly at Shapiro with the speed of Bartolo Colon fastballs. Not one to dodge bullets, he makes himself available to answer, gamely addressing even the most obnoxious questions that armchair umpires pose.

Shapiro's affable demeanor, boyish grin and all-out charisma make him easily approachable to fans, most of whom don't think twice about cornering him anywhere throughout the city — from the Blue Point Grille to his artist wife's gallery openings — to talk Tribe.

"Fans get very emotional about baseball," Shapiro says, "and I understand that."

Shapiro has had a decade to prepare for this job, beginning as an assistant in the team's baseball operations division in 1992, progressing to director of the Tribe's minor-league system two years later and becoming the club's assistant general manager in 1998.

Still, Shapiro is wrestling with his new role's responsibilities. "Almost all of the business decisions I make now directly affect people I care about and like," he says. "That's the toughest part of the job for me with my personality."

"Mark is one of the most sensitive people you'll ever meet," says Mueller. "What impresses me over and over again about him is his ability to relate to people across the spectrum and earn their trust, whether they're a CEO, a player or a ticket-taker at Jacobs Field. People say, ‘What a good guy.' Everyone likes him so much they genuinely want him to succeed."

In February, as spring training begins in Winter Haven, Fla., the Indians and Shapiro face having to win in a climate that he terms "transition without rebuilding."

"We're firmly out of the business of collecting talent and into the business of building a team," he says. "We can win. We just have to get back to doing some of the things that started us on this championship run."

The future, he states, is in player development. Shapiro says the team's greatest strengths lie in the talents of its young pitching staff, including Bartolo Colon, C.C. Sabathia, Danys Baez, Ryan Drese and David Riske.

"Strong pitching is an effective way to win deeper in the playoffs," he contends. "That's the way we're best geared to succeed right now."

To combat the complacency that can develop when players are together year after year, Shapiro plans to foster a competitive atmosphere, calling up talented minor-leaguers who are anxious to prove themselves and giving them the chance to learn from the pros already here.

"The greatest leaders in modern sports are not managers or head coaches," Shapiro says. "They're the players. Ellis Burks, Jim Thome, Travis Fryman, Einar Diaz — these are the guys who have the characteristics I want our team to embody."

Shapiro's introduction to the Great American Pastime went beyond the games of catch he played with his father, Ron, in the back yard of the family's Baltimore home. One of baseball's most successful attorneys and sports agents, Ron Shapiro maintains a major-league client list of stars, including Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., Kirby Puckett and Jim Palmer.

"The root of my passion for the game lies with these players," acknowledges Shapiro, a rabid Orioles fan during his youth. "I grew up around them. They were my father's friends, so they were often around my house. Because of them, my front-office perspective is somewhat unique. Since I've learned that the players are essential to the team-building process, I try and look at things from their viewpoint when I'm contemplating a move."

In his teens, Shapiro played first base at Baltimore's Gilman prep school. "I was a good hitter, but not a very good player," he admits. It was his football ability that caught the eye of Ivy League scouts.

"At 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, I was a big overweight kid," Shapiro recalls. "I stood out in football because of my size. My experience was one so many kids go through during those awkward, adolescent years. Something gives them the ladder out of their insecurities and into self-confidence. For me, it was football."

After visiting Brown, Columbia and Penn, Shapiro chose Princeton University in New Jersey. "The campus is beautiful. It's only a three-hour drive from Baltimore. And it felt like a place where I could challenge myself both academically and athletically," he says.

While playing center and offensive tackle for the Princeton Tigers, Shapiro majored in history, focusing on modern America. His thesis explored the patterns of Baltimore city housing, which, since the area is located on the Mason-Dixon Line, is uniquely segregated by a mixture of custom and law.

"The more I'm away from it, the more meaningful my experience at Princeton is to me," Shapiro reflects. "Although I didn't realize it at the time, the greatest gift of that education was not so much the classes I went to, but the student body I was immersed in. My average was about a B+, so I was not on the elite level of those students who were in the top 8 percent of the country. But they pulled me up to their level. When you're around brilliant minds, your standards are raised and you learn to compete intellectually in any environment."

Shapiro was awarded his bachelor's degree in 1989, not certain where he was headed.

"I had no plan. I was a 22-year-old struggling with what to do with my life," he recalls. "I had a very liberal-arts education but no definite idea of how to apply it. My high-school friends were all going back to Baltimore and my college friends were all going to Wall Street.

"Although I celebrated the schools that had impacted my life, as well as my family and friends, I felt like I had to separate from them to find my own identity. I had a desire not to follow the traditional path."

It wouldn't be the first time Shapiro opted to buck tradition. And he'd continue to do so in major-league baseball, which was dominated by ex-players and managers who were used to focusing solely on the fundamentals of the sport.

Before starting his job search, Shapiro and a buddy — with a tent and two sleeping bags in tow — took a six-week driving vacation across country: Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Canada, down the Pacific Coast Highway. As the miles ticked by, Shapiro decided to enter the nonprofit sector, specializing in home-building. To hone his skills, he signed on with a Southern California construction company and became an executive-in-training. He spent seven months as assistant superintendent on job sites, followed by time spent planning and engineering projects.

Before his internship in the company's finance department commenced, he knew the fit wasn't a good one. As spring training got under way, Shapiro visited his dad in Arizona. He hobnobbed with front-office executives for the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres and met John Hart.

Shapiro left knowing that a career in baseball was what he wanted.

Ron Shapiro remembers the day his son told him that he was entertaining thoughts of joining his dad's business. It was a plan Ron discouraged.

"I advised Mark to pursue his own path in baseball," Ron Shapiro recalls. "I told him not to be afraid to make hard decisions and to live with the mistakes that sometimes go along with them because, more often than not, you'll make the right decisions. The guys who get lost in this game are the ones who have an inability to make choices."

Shapiro mailed résumés to all 26 Major League Baseball teams in existence at the time.

The Indians, says Shapiro, were the only team that offered employment. The fall day he flew into town to interview with Hart and then-director of player development Dan O'Dowd in 1991 was typical of Cleveland in November: cold, rainy and a far cry from California.

"That taxi ride from the airport to the old stadium was a bad one for someone who's never been to Cleveland before," Shapiro says. "We were driving by the site Jacobs Field is now on and the cab driver said, ‘Hey, that's where the new baseball stadium is going to be. Some lady just got carjacked in the parking lot.' It certainly was daunting."

As Shapiro walked into Hart's office, he was taken aback by the plastic plant, the wind whipping through the room, the space heater and the lack of ceiling tiles. "I'm thinking, this is a major-league general manager's office," he says. "You gotta be kidding me."

Hart, now general manager of the Texas Rangers, rose through the front-office ranks in Baltimore and Cleveland after playing minor-league ball for the Montreal Expos and operating a baseball camp during the 1970s. He was as impressed by Shapiro's lack of illusions as he was by his intelligence.

"Here's a guy who graduated from Princeton who was not afraid to start at the very bottom," Hart remembers. "[When I interviewed him], the team was somewhat of a laughingstock. But he and I shared the vision of where we wanted to go."

An hour and a half later, Shapiro was sold on Cleveland and the Indians.

"When they hired me, they took a leap of faith," Shapiro says. "Their confidence in me was one of the greatest gifts I ever received. My decision to come here was instinctual, not intellectual. I bought into John and Dan's work ethic, their values, their passion, their discipline. I walked out of there thinking that these were two guys that I'd like to work next to every day.

"When I talk to young people today, I tell them first and foremost to align themselves with people who share their vision. If you do that, you'll like the culture you're in and you'll succeed and be happy."

Shapiro was offered a job as an assistant in baseball operations — the next best thing to a gofer in the organizational hierarchy. Ensconced in a cubicle outside Hart's office, he was responsible for daily tasks ranging from picking players up at the airport to analyzing numbers for their multiyear contracts.

"It was a very proud moment for me when Mark called and told me the Indians had offered him the lowliest job in the organization," his father remembers. "I was pleased that he was willing to start at the very bottom and work his way through.

"Now," Ron chuckles, "he's left me in the dust. He understands more about the inside of baseball and how it operates than I could in several lifetimes."

A stranger in town, Shapiro gave his all to the job. He was often the first to arrive at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the morning, and the one who turned off the lights at night before heading back to his Reserve Square apartment.

"The things I was working on and talking about were exciting to me," Shapiro says. "I took pride in every single thing I did, whether it was writing a memo or analyzing a deal. I wanted to exceed expectations on everything I was involved with. Today, I hold everyone who works for me to those same standards."

In 1993, O'Dowd suggested to Shapiro that it was time for him to find a niche that would serve as his foundation. Shapiro opted to become the assistant farm director, helping manage player development in the minors. A year later, he was named director of minor-league operations and began to put his touch on a system that hearkened back to antiquity. With Shapiro at the helm, player development was no longer a process done to the player but a partnership with the player. This holistic approach, still in place today, encompasses all things mental, physical and fundamental.

"I use the analogy of the three-legged stool," Shapiro explains. "If one of the legs of the stool is weak, the stool's going to wobble no matter how strong the other two legs are. We had to stop focusing 90 percent of our energy on fundamental baseball skills and start to improve the other links as well.

"The only way to do that clearly is to provide each player with an individual development plan for which he is accountable. By the time a player gets to the big leagues, his plan should be something that he has taken such ownership of that he can enforce it himself."

In addition to mastering the fundamentals of the game — throwing, hitting, fielding and running — and working on conditioning and strength training, players are encouraged to discuss focus, concentration and perspective — both on and off the field — with a team psychologist.

"The same qualities and attributes that make successful people in any business are found in successful baseball players," Shapiro says.

To foster effective communication, Shapiro is a strong proponent of cultural diversity training, to which staffers at all levels are exposed.

"Culture transcends much more than just ‘Latin America' — that's an overused term," Shapiro explains. "You've got Venezuelan, Mexican, Panamanian, Dominican, Puerto Rican players — all very different cultures where speaking Spanish is the only commonality. And in this country, there's rural South, urban North, West Coast, East Coast and all classes.

"If you don't take the time to be aware of where your players are coming from and stop looking at them through your own eyes, the chances of building trust are slim and you will fail."

Everyone's an art critic. So in the seven years she's owned Bockrath Gallery in Little Italy, Lissa Bockrath-Shapiro has learned to develop a thick skin when facing a review.

But she's still stunned by the comment a TV call-in show participant made following the Alomar trade: He compared her husband to Osama bin Laden.

"It was so obscene, I had to laugh," she recalls. "They said something like, ‘Why are we so worried about terrorism when we have Mark Shapiro leading the Indians?'

"How could anyone possibly make that kind of comparison?"

A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art with a bachelor of fine arts in painting, Bockrath-Shapiro, 30, is an accomplished artist who's exhibited at such prestigious venues as San Francisco's Olga Dollar Gallery, the Trias Gallery in Toronto and the Chamot Gallery in Jersey City. Here, her work can be seen at a variety of galleries, including SPACES, Art at the Powerhouse, and the Brenda Kroos and Reinberger galleries, as well as her own.

The Norwalk native's medium of choice is a unique combination of oil paint on photographs. She applies light color washes to pictures she takes of urban landscapes — shot in locations ranging from the Flats to crowded city streets. The result is a luminosity that makes each image border on surreal. Bockrath's talents also include making candles, jewelry and soap.

An avid gardener, she's transformed the roof of the couple's four-story Little Italy townhouse into a cornucopia of food and flowers. She tends pear and apple trees, as well as tomato, broccoli and pepper plants, lobelia and pansies.

Inside, Bockrath-Shapiro has filled every room with art that encompasses "a little bit of everything," from figurative paintings to abstracts made of lead.

"You see where the talent in the family lies," her husband beams. "I'm in awe of her ability to express emotions and feelings through her work."

He relishes nights out with his spouse at Sergio's Brazilian restaurant ("It's our Cheers," he says) and going to movies

(especially comedies and independents), as well as kicking back at home to admire the panoramic view of the city visible from their large picture windows in the living room. The couple are expecting their first child in August.

Bockrath and Shapiro's romance resembles a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie. In April 1997, Shapiro, his mom and sister wandered into the Bockrath Gallery. Shapiro thought the time had come to upgrade his poster collection.

"We're not talking Farrah Fawcett," Bockrath-Shapiro smiles. "He wanted to replace reproductions he had purchased in museum gift shops."

Shapiro made a beeline for two of Bockrath's abstract naturescapes. He didn't know she was the artist. It took, she remembers, a while for him to make up his mind, but he bought the paintings. "If he had held out a little longer, he probably could have got them for free," she laughs.

Shapiro toured the gallery, studying every art object on exhibit. Bockrath was impressed by his ability to express his likes and dislikes, concepts many patrons have problems putting into words. "He started talking about the other paintings he liked and immediately responded to the same ones that I did," she says.

Both, however, were in long-term relationships. After Shapiro's ended, the two met casually for coffee.

"When he asked me out [the first time], I was involved with someone else," Bockrath-Shapiro says softly. "Mark said, ‘I've lived here for 5 1/2 years, and you're the first girl I've met who I really want to date, so it doesn't surprise me that you're taken.' I was struck by his honesty."

He's Jewish. She's Catholic. She was raised in a small town. He's from a big city. Two years after their initial meeting at the gallery, both admitted they belonged together.

"We clicked immediately," Bockrath-Shapiro says. "For two people who've come from such different places, our bond is incredibly powerful. It's truly a soulful connection."

Shapiro proposed during a romantic weekend at the Inn at Brandywine Falls in April 2000. He hid her engagement ring in a piece of bread during breakfast.

"I thought she'd never find it," he recalls. "Lissa got a little exasperated because she couldn't understand why I kept asking what kinds of bread were in the basket."

She introduced him to the work of Russian artist Mark Rothko. He introduced her to the world of runs, bunts and stolen bases.

Although she'd played basketball, volleyball and softball at Norwalk's St. Paul Catholic High School, Bockrath-Shapiro readily admits that before meeting her future spouse she was oblivious to Indian fever — even during the pennant race of 1995.

çThere sure are a lot of games," she laughs. "I asked Mark before we got engaged, ‘Honey, how many baseball games are there in a season?' He said, ‘A lot.' I think he was afraid I wouldn't marry him if I knew how many there were."

Over the past five years, the sport has become an acquired taste for her.

"I've learned to enjoy it," she says. "This year, since Mark is such a direct influence on the team, the games are going to take on a whole new meaning for me."

When I managed the farm system, I woke up with 150 problems each day," Shapiro reflects. "You're in charge of 180 players and 40 staff members. There might have been four injuries the night before, or two of the players may be having family problems or one manager might be dealing with a disciplinary issue. I had to pick the right five to handle each day. The rest would either take care of themselves or move up on the priority list."

Now that Shapiro's GM, the daily to-do list may be shorter but each item is as crucial as the next. This morning, he cleared up the media frenzy centering around the age of Bartolo Colon, who turned out to be two years older than the Indians believed him to be. This afternoon, he signed C.C. Sabathia to a long-term contract.

Tomorrow, he'll take the field to look at the Indians' top prospects. His eye will be on the future, but fan concern with the here and now still takes precedence.

"This season, we have more ‘ifs' than we've had in a lot of years," he says. "Is Travis Fryman going to come back healthy and resume the play of two years ago? Is Omar Vizquel going to be a little better [than last season]? Is Milton Bradley going to succeed in his rookie year in center field? Is Russell Branyan going to make more consistent contact? Is Danys Baez going to be a good starter? Is Chuck Finley going to come back?

"If the majority of those questions are answered positively, winning will not be an unrealistic scenario," he says. "We'll be a team that can go as far as we have in past years — or further than ever before."


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