The Challenges Facing Shapiro

Recently, Pat McManamon of had a conversation with Cleveland Indians’ team president Mark Shapiro, who talked about his challenges and interests in baseball, the recent history of the team, and his vision moving forward. Following will be a series of opinions and insight about Shapiro’s responses and how they apply to where the team was, how the team got to where it is now, and most importantly, Where Do the Indians Go From Here.


This is part one in the series.

While Major League Baseball and its fans watch the culmination of the 2012 season in Detroit as the Tigers trail the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, Mark Shapiro and the Cleveland Indians’ front office continue their work seeking ways to improve upon a disappointing season.

Their work is cut out for them.

The 2012 season fell short of everyone’s expectations. A competitive team who somehow found ways to win in the first half absolutely crumbled in the second half after a stellar July 24th victory over the eventual American League Champion Detroit Tigers and the AL All-Star Game starting pitcher, Justin Verlander. What followed that triumphant win for the Cleveland Indians and their fans was one of the more difficult summers of sports to watch in a long time for the franchise.

Diehards of this organization are familiar to losing – it seemed to be the one thing the team was consistently good at for a 40-year span of the middle and latter portions of the 20th century. After the success of the mid-1990’s, including the club’s first two World Series’ appearances since being swept by the New York Giants in 1954, the expectations in town have changed.

Shapiro has tackled these expectations in several roles with the club. As the general manager, he led the organization on the field for nine years, twice providing a playoff team (2001, 2007) and narrowly missing a third (2005).

As team president, his role is more expanded and has seen him have to embrace areas of the game that were unfamiliar to him.

“I feel like I’ve learned a tremendous amount new about the business of baseball,” said Shapiro. “Adding that to my experiences of my operation on the field has given me a pretty global perspective of the business of the game in Major League Baseball.”

Shapiro’s name has been one thrown about often by fans trying to assign blame for the lackluster effort of the Indians this past season. To some degree, that blame is unfair, as Shapiro’s transition to team president put him in the position of running, maintaining, and evaluating the business side of the organization and viewing it as a separate entity from the baseball team and its performance. The role of player acquisitions and roster make up fall more onto his general manager, Chris Antonetti.

Shapiro has found one particular piece of his presidency more challenging.

As a society, there is a tendency to emphasize and recognize the negative far more readily than the positives. Having a poor or subpar performance while completing your job responsibilities will get you reprimanded or even fired. When things are going right, more often than not, there may at best be the occasional thanks, but generally, there is no recognition whatsoever of a job well done. In the most rare of occasions, there might be a small, merit-based raise or bonus.

Typically though, we hear nothing. It is an expectation to do the job well and as often as possible. Our decent to excellent efforts may be overshadowed by the failures of others, and the performance of the entire group will be minimized as unsuccessful.

“The single most challenging facet to running the business organization is, how do you measure, compensate, reward the business side of the operation separate from team performance?” said Shapiro, when asked about some of the challenges he faced during his transition to president. “The biggest lever and the most important area of focus is a winning baseball team. But there are people in this building on the business side who, even when the team doesn’t win, are still doing very good work.”

This more global view not only applies throughout the world, but specifically within the baseball model. As disappointing as the season was, there were likely successes in the business side of the Indians’ organization that were deserving of recognition. Whether it was new activities for fan engagement, sales and marketing, increased visibility of players both past and present, social media events, game-time entertainment, or new meals in the ballpark, those people have worked hard regardless of the 68-94 record the Indians left on the diamond.

The same could be said about the product on the field. The same record might minimize the success of the backend of the bullpen, an All-Star caliber first-half by Jason Kipnis, or the breakout emergence of Michael Brantley as a core player for the future.

If the front office focuses solely on its record as a measure of its performance, it will miss some positive contributions throughout the roster, its coaching staff, and its farm system.

Shapiro’s job is to run a successful business, first and foremost, although the product on the field certainly factors in to his ability to generate revenue and interest in his product.

“It’s very hard to see [the good work on the business side] when the team struggles. And it’s very easy to mask bad work [on the business side] when the team does well”.

Shapiro hopes to “build a sound and good business organization and evaluate and reward it separate from team performance,” but he acknowledged that “that’s been an incredibly complex challenge and much more difficult than I ever imagined.”

One large, overwhelming factor that hinders the Indians on the field and in the business world is the small market nature of the city of Cleveland.

An often-discussed concern in Major League Baseball is the lack of a salary cap, such as those in the National Football League and in the National Basketball Association, that attempts to create an environment of even spending to promote a more competitive balance amongst all the teams in the league.

Baseball is capless and is dominated by several ballclubs with team salaries more than double the average in the league. With fewer financial restraints, these clubs are less likely to lose star players to other teams for larger contracts or to handcuff themselves in the event of a bad free agent signing or unexpected injury.

It is a luxury surely not afforded to all in baseball.

The Indians have to spend wisely. In fact, they cannot afford to spend errantly at all. One bad contract (see Hafner, Travis; Sizemore, Grady; Westbrook, Jake) could destroy an entire season or worse, several more down the road.

“[The financial system] creates a leadership challenge for me to ensure that it doesn’t become an excuse,” said Shapiro. “And it necessitates the constant need for balance between understanding the magnitude of that challenge and what it means for all of our operations and our systems and our planning, but never letting it become a crutch for why we shouldn’t be successful.”

The Indians do not have to agree to like the uneven playing field, but Shapiro knows that pouting about it will do little to benefit the team moving forward. Success of several smaller market ball clubs over the last several seasons, most prominently the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays, have proven that teams can be competitive without the same financial advantages of others.

These teams have effectively thrown away their crutches. Shapiro hopes to do similar.

The name of the game has changed though. Enter the era of Moneyball, an operational style known for maximizing the talent on the roster and in the farm system while outthinking and outsmarting the opposition, using less star power and less money in doing so. It involves an elaborate strategic plan, subjective and objective scouting, and stepping away from some of the conventional norms in the sport.

“Baseball is more subtle. It takes an understanding to have that appreciation, to have that connection,” shared Shapiro, while reflecting on his loves of history and baseball. “You can go and just experience it, but you’re not bludgeoned by it. It’s not in your face. It’s not made for television. It’s a game that you have to appreciate the strategy. It’s somewhat intellectual at times.”

“To succeed you have to be able to handle the individual, like in tennis or golf. But it also has a team concept that’s important to the ultimate success. So you’ve got both the individual confrontation that’s key to being a successful player, but you also have to construct a team and develop a team to ultimately outperform the sum of individuals.”

While the game has changed for the Indians within Major League Baseball, so too has the city of Cleveland over the last 20 years.

During the team’s period of success in the mid-1990’s, the city of Cleveland was thriving, and the particulars surrounding the Indians at the time provided a perfect storm for the team to capitalize and become a yearly threat and a site of interest for potential free agents. With more money available, the team was able to be among the top spenders in the game. The talent and competitive level on the field seemed to reflect the spending.

The same does not apply today. Now, the organization is constantly questioned about not spending, low revenue, and poor attendance figures.

“On my side, I’m focusing on both trying to increase revenues every way we can and trying to ensure that every facet of the experience here over-exceeds expectations that people have,” said Shapiro. “On the baseball side, that we continue to learn, continue to get better, continue to improve, and we with a sense of urgency look to build a winning team with the resources we have.”

Indians’ fans have screamed for new ownership since watching two Cy Young Award winning pitchers traded from the club prior to likely leaving town on their own. As the years have passed and more and more stars have been jettisoned from the team, the sentiments have remained. Cries for increased budgets and activity in free agency have been ignored, while other cities continue to outspend, and outperform, the local product.

“The one thing that I do feel terrible about for our owners, and is unfair, is that our owners have spent at revenue or beyond revenue. And the few times they’ve made a profit they’ve put the money right back into the club the entire time they’ve owned the team. Our challenge has been amount of revenue, not whether they spent it or not.”

The fans recall the glory years of the mid- and late-1990’s and expect similar spending.

“The model I think sometimes is asked of them, to deficit spend $20, $30, $40 million to get us into the average payrolls, there is no model of that beyond one team in all of baseball (Detroit). I’m not sure owners are out there that do that, that are willing to lose,” said Shapiro. “It comes out of pocket.”

Shapiro seems to embrace the challenges before him. Conceivably, there may be easier presidencies and general manager positions around the league with far fewer financial restraints, but Shapiro’s love of the game of baseball and his loyalty have kept him diligently working for the same organization for 20 years now.

He grew up an Orioles’ fan. He went to Orioles’ games and his family had season tickets. He played baseball growing up and, as a teenager, got to know many of the star players in Baltimore when his dad became a sports agent.

“I would say without a doubt, my love for the game, my appreciation for the game, my passion for the game stems from my relationship with my dad,” said Shapiro. “Usually for every person baseball is something that has been handed down. It’s not usually organic. There’s usually a sibling, a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle, somebody has usually handed down that love of the game. Baseball is usually generational.”

Baseball is an acquired taste for some. It does not have the hard hitting action of the NFL or the fast pace, high flying, quick reward scoring of the NBA. It can be slow and monotonous. It can be calculated and strategic. The subtle nuances that true baseball fans are conscious of – pitching matchups, substitutions, infield shifts, pickoff plays, sacrifices, stolen bases – are the same constructs overlooked by the more casual or uninformed fan. But for Shapiro, growing up around the game and now working in the game for a living, he understands and appreciates the opportunity.

“It’s not something where you just turn the TV on and gain an appreciation for the game of baseball. That feeling you’ve got for the game is tied to someone in your life. That’s pretty unique. And I love that. I love that about the game of baseball, that it is generational, that there are usually some memories where that parent or grandparent can talk about players of two or three generations ago and compare them to today’s players. When you watch the tape of those players, it’s the same game. The uniform fabric’s different, but they are largely the same size players playing the same game. You look at the footage of Willie Mays and he’s playing the same game as Matt Kemp‘s playing. It’s kind of cool.”

Next time: a look at Shapiro’s opinion of the perception surrounding several components of the team and how the team got to where it is today.

Photo: AP Photo / Jason Miller

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