Mark Shapiro, general manager of the Cleveland Indians, acknowledged it was unusual for any of the 30 men with his job in Major League Baseball to comment on a trade involving two other teams.
As he put it yesterday, by phone from Cleveland, "I never do this."
But he had read and heard of the public backlash in Pittsburgh regarding the trading of All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth to the Atlanta Braves for three prospects, and he made known in an interview with the Post-Gazette his strong backing of Neal Huntington, the Pirates' general manager, as well as his longtime friend and former front-office employee in Cleveland.
"As another general manager in a very similar market with similar challenges, I can say that the move was not only understandable but also wise," Shapiro said. "The greatest challenge in building a sustainable winner in these markets is ensuring that the pitching and position-player talent line up. Sometimes, that involves painful and tough decisions that are not easily understood by fans or players. In this case, it appears to me from the outside that Neal and the Pirates have made a good, tough decision that gives them the potential to have a championship core in place in the not-too-distant future."
Asked about the backlash, Shapiro laughed and replied, "I've been through worse, believe me."
Along the way to building one of the most respected foundations in the majors, Shapiro, now in his eighth season on the job, has traded several prominent names for prospects, none more notable than the one on June 27, 2002, when he sent All-Star pitcher Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos.
"To be honest with you," Shapiro recalled, "I had no idea when I did that quite what the wrath of the fan base would be, how offended they would be."
The Associated Press account from the following day, one which described the deal as "Colon and pitcher Tim Drew for first baseman Lee Stevens and three prospects," also included angry reaction from Cleveland players and fans.
"I don't think there are too many happy people around here right now," Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel said that day, sounding strikingly similar to Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche's comment last week to the Post-Gazette that, "There ain't a guy in here who ain't ticked off."
It was not until the 19th paragraph of that AP account that it mentioned the three prospects Shapiro acquired: Grady Sizemore, now one of the best center fielders in baseball; Cliff Lee, the American League's Cy Young Award winner last season; and Brandon Phillips, now a standout second baseman with the Cincinnati Reds.
Shapiro's quote in the next paragraph: "If you trade a player of Bartolo's caliber, you'd better not make an error."
Obviously, Shapiro was proven right on that count, and he said yesterday he often leans on the memory of that trade.
"That empowered me to make other tough calls along the way," he said. "It helped me understand that you need to communicate, need to be as honest and open as possible about what you've done, but you also need to understand that it doesn't matter. People still aren't going to understand it."
Some, Shapiro added, will delve into such trades more deeply than others.
"What you'll find is that the people on the intellectual baseball blogs will applaud you for it. But your market, the people who pay for the tickets, they might not. Those prospects you get don't mean anything to them. That's why I always say that your driving motivation has got to be to be right in the end."
The latter is advice Shapiro said he has offered to Huntington.
"This way, when the Pirates' fans look back in three or four years and Charlie Morton's a legitimate No. 2 or 3 starter, blended right in with Paul Maholm, Zach Duke and Ross Ohlendorf, you guys are saying, 'Wow, can you imagine that McLouth would be a free agent right now? We've got this guy, Hernandez is on the bubble, and Andrew McCutchen's blossomed into an All-Star because we gave him a few months to get his feet wet.' "
Morton, currently with Class AAA Indianapolis, is the closest to the majors of the three prospects the Pirates acquired for McLouth. Outfielder Gorkys Hernandez is with Class AA Altoona, pitcher Jeff Locke set to make his debut for Class A Lynchburg tonight.
Morton is 7-2 with a 2.26 ERA, including a strong debut Thursday for Indianapolis, and Shapiro acknowledged that Cleveland had been interested in him, too.
"We've actually spent a lot of time on Morton. We really like him," Shapiro said. "There's some concern because there's a lack of track record. His history doesn't quite match what he's doing now. But there is stuff. We would have liked to have gotten him. Especially in the National League, he's got a chance to be a middle-of-the-rotation guy."
Shapiro described Hernandez as "a real tools guy," and said he did not know enough about Locke to comment.
"In general, what I would suggest to people is to look at the trade as a whole," Shapiro said. "And be patient. I understand what the environment must be like in Pittsburgh, but it takes time."