At his introduction as Toronto Blue Jays president, Mark Shapiro began with, “I want to say at the outset, just to set the tone, I know that you don’t know me yet.”
It sounded like an invitation. It wasn’t.
A year later, we still don’t know Shapiro. He is one of those grey sports executives who insulate themselves by never taking a public risk. Like, for instance, speaking in any substantive sort of way.
Instead of selling a team, Shapiro has spent his first year absorbing the anxiety and occasional animus of the city. Throughout, he remained detached and understanding, like a distant, dependable parent. He never once lost his cool.
He spent the first few weeks in office being ripped up and down for the sin of replacing a pair of well-liked locals.
When he refused to make an offer to free agent David Price, he was ripped for being cheap and a shill for ownership.
When he started turning the joint into Cleveland north, he was ripped for insufficient loyalty to all of Toronto’s old baseball soldiers.
When he would not bend for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion during spring training, he was ripped for giving up on the future.
When it all started going off the rails in September, the ripping stopped. Because everyone was busy sharpening their tools for the final gory round of ripping to come.
As Shapiro receded further from public view, so did his team. Most Major League Baseball outfits treat the postseason as a marketing opportunity. Their stars are suddenly omnipresent, speaking constantly, trying to soak up every available ray of sunshine.
Not the Jays. Taking their cue from management, they are absent everywhere but on the field. A bunker mentality has taken hold in the clubhouse – everyone outside it is a potential wrecker.
A few days ago, Shapiro was walking quickly through the busy Jays locker room when a group of reporters tried to grab him for a chat.
“Not in here,” he said. “That would be like someone walking into my office and starting to do business.”
He moved five feet outside the door to the main room and held court in a hallway. Several players visibly took note of this small bit of professional courtesy.
They do their thing. He does his thing. Everybody else is just interfering with those two very separate things.
You may or may not appreciate the approach, but you cannot argue with results. Like the boss, this isn’t a cuddly, expansive Jays team, but it’s a highly functional one.
There are several knock-on effects of the Jays making it as far as the American League Championship Series, all of which benefit Shapiro.
First, the ghost of former general manager Alex Anthopoulos has been exorcised. Until a week ago, Shapiro and his executive gang were the ones at risk of taking the blame for any collapse. Today, they get all the credit for keeping the faith. It’s funny how quickly things turn – the space of seven games.
Manager John Gibbons has secured his own future. Gibbons has spent the entirety of his managerial life waiting for things to go wrong. That’s over now. He can remove the invisible “interim until Bud Black or Eric Wedge get a call” from ahead of his title.
This is great news for Shapiro. He gets to move on with a man who remains connected to the previous regime and so provides a buffer between Shapiro and ownership. If things go badly wrong at some future point, Gibbons takes the blame and leaves, putting Shapiro on the clock. Winning one playoff round has wound that clock ahead, perhaps by years.
Whenever this ends, Shapiro will have to begin bargaining with a slew of internal free agents. Sunday night’s win strengthened his hand significantly.
Fans will give him the benefit of the doubt now. If he says Jose Bautista wanted too much money, they will accept that Bautista wanted too much money.
And think of things from Encarnacion’s point of view: A week ago you were probably leaning toward a winner like Boston. That’s changed rather dramatically.
Are you going to leave just for the sake of a change of scenery? Maybe. But (increasingly with each Jays win) maybe not. If you won’t take Toronto’s money, others will.
In the case of everyone else, Shapiro and his GM Ross Atkins have proved they can pull serviceable parts for a championship-calibre team out of baseball’s recycling bin. I mean, how did Joe Biagini end up a Rule 5 freebie? And who would have guessed Jason Grilli would be such an important set-up guy out of the bullpen?
That deft touch with low-cost pickups makes everyone who isn’t a front-line star expendable.
Most important to someone of Shapiro’s business turn of mind, this gives him permission to remake what little is left of the old Blue Jays, top to bottom. We don’t know exactly what that looks like because Shapiro’s never said. That may have been the smartest decision of all.
Shapiro can’t go back on promises he didn’t make (aside from a gauzy “we want to compete for titles”). So every option remains on the table and, in hindsight, will look like it was always planned that way.
A World Series appearance will complete the job. Shapiro’s now 10 or so days away from becoming the most important sports executive in Toronto – not just by virtue of winning, but because the entire organization will be personally beholden to him.
If you pull him out of the puzzle, the edifice collapses. You’ll need a new GM, new manager, new assistants, new scouts. Who wants the bother? It’s easier to allow yourself to be steered in whatever direction by the guy you’ve got. As each year passes, he consolidates his power to a greater degree.
It’s the spot CEOs dream of – becoming the only one who understands everything going on inside a complex operation. It’s total control.
How did Shapiro manage it? A lot of ways, but the major factor was providing a bottom-line result rather than sharing his personal vision.Report Typo/Error
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