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Zack Wittman/The Globe and Mail

Five years ago, Mark Shapiro took over a long-struggling team at the worst possible moment—as it was enjoying its greatest success in decades. Rather than being hailed as a saviour, Shapiro—an American—was seen as an outsider threatening change. There was little the former Cleveland president could have done to win over Blue Jays fans, and the one thing he did do—try to wring more success out of an aging team—delayed a necessary rebuild, which just made his job harder. He also struggled to adjust to an ownership model very different from the one he’d known. But Shapiro survived. Over the past five years, he has instilled a new organizational culture and figured out where the Jays fit in the Rogers portfolio. He has overseen a complete remodel of the team’s Florida training facility. Its minor league system is thriving, and its major league roster is full of promise. Now, with a five-year contract extension in hand, Shapiro seems poised for success on his terms. He spoke to us from the Jays’ player development complex in Dunedin.

First of all, congratulations on your new contract extension.

Oh, thank you. I thought you were going to say congratulations on our player development complex.

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We’ll get to that. Who were you working with on your extension?

Primarily Edward Rogers. I have a strange reporting structure. I report to the C-level executives at Rogers, periodically to the CEO. Obviously we’re a tiny piece of what the CEO has to oversee, so Edward is the most consistent interface.

How has your relationship with Rogers evolved since you started?

It’s changed. There’s a different CEO now than there was then. But it’s been more my evolution. You have to understand, the only ownership structure I’d ever known was one person in one family, which is not that unusual for sports. To shift from that to an extremely large, publicly held company, and not to have had any experience in how a publicly held company thinks, acts and makes decisions, what it means to have shareholders, what it means to have a board, and what it means to be a tiny piece of that company’s portfolio—it took a little while. I think I wasted energy early on trying to fight the wrong battles. Once I started realizing that it’s never personal, and I understood better how to deal effectively within that structure, it’s been nothing but positive and supportive.

What’s your assessment of how major league baseball has handled the COVID-19 crisis, compared to other professional sports leagues?

We had a unique challenge in that it was the worst possible timing for baseball. We were two weeks away from beginning our season. The other major sports either hadn’t begun yet, like the NFL, or were already very close to their playoffs, like the NHL and NBA. They had booked a lot of revenue. We hadn’t booked a dime of revenue. And all of a sudden we’re shut down, and we’re playing in front of no fans for an entire season. Incredible challenge. I think it was important to play a shortened season. And I think it was largely pulled off.

Why was it important to do that?

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If you look at the ratings, almost every single sport is down 5% to 10%. It has had some impact on peoples’ avidity, and on their level of attention and focus. To just disappear for a year would have been dangerous to the health of our players, for one. And certainly dangerous to the health of our brand. Not the Blue Jays, but Major League Baseball.

Did you ever get involved in conversations with government about allowing the Blue Jays to play in Toronto?

Quite a few conversations at the city and provincial level. And some conversations at the federal level. We did make a proposal with very rigid protocols—basically a bubble within Rogers Centre for both home and visiting teams. But cross-border travel, and playing in places that had high infection rates, were too much of a threat to public health.

Has it changed recently?

We haven’t made a proposal yet, so I don’t know where they stand on it right now. I do feel somewhat more optimistic than I felt last year, because we’ve had zero cases all spring. Not one. And in the next few weeks, vaccines are gonna be available to not just our players, but their families and our staff.

Florida isn’t necessarily the ideal place to be during the pandemic.

I wouldn’t look at Dunedin through the lens of Miami Beach. We’re not in Miami Beach.

There’s a saying, “Don’t let a crisis go to waste.” The Rogers Centre has been vacant for a year. Have you been able to take advantage of that time at all?

We had a food drive. We occupied the entire floor of the centre and all of the concourses, and helped with food insecurity throughout the entire country. We’ve already expressed that we want to make it a location for vaccine distribution, as soon as we start vaccinating people at a greater pace.

What about improvements to Rogers Centre?

We’re not undergoing a large-scale improvement, but for the first time in the history of the stadium, the turf will be fixed. We used to roll it up, because the stands rotate. We’re no longer going to rotate the bowl. The turf will be a better playing surface, better quality, better maintained and a truer game experience. We’ve redone the batting cages. What was probably one of the worst batting cages in all of baseball will be one of the best. We put in a new sound system for our fans last year, but no one’s ever heard it other than us.

How have the Blue Jays been affected financially by the crisis?

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We’re gonna lose well more than $100 million this year, and we lost, like, $100 million last year. It’s been probably the strongest display of our ownership that I can imagine, because we’ve never deviated from our plan. It would have been reasonable for ownership to say, “You need to pull back.” Instead, we went out and signed the biggest contract in the history of the Blue Jays—George Springer, US$150 million. We increased payroll dramatically. But this has all been part of a multiyear plan, and we are acting as if nothing has changed.

There have been other recent changes for the organization. One that shocked me—you eliminated dedicated radio broadcasts.

No, we didn’t do that. We are run completely separately from Sportsnet and had nothing to do with that decision. Zero say. We were informed of the decision, and opinion was asked. That’s it.

What was your reaction?

My reaction is, I don’t profess I know other people’s work. I’m not gonna criticize Sportsnet. My hope is it’s a one-year decision. That it’s COVID-related, and we’ll see how the year goes.

Let’s talk about Dunedin. It’s wonderful serendipity that you needed a top-grade facility to play in, and you suddenly have one in Dunedin. Where does it rank now in terms of the major league training facilities?

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The training complex—six full fields, two half-fields, a covered practice field, a running hill, a 115,000-square-foot development building—I would think we’re the best in Major League Baseball. The challenge in Dunedin was finding enough land to put everything in one place. Our stadium’s still an 11-minute drive away. It’s now been renovated to the point that it’s probably not the best, but upper third.

What did you learn in the process of transforming Dunedin that you can apply to Rogers Centre?

They’re very different projects. This project is 95% about the players. That project is 75% about the fans. Fans want to come to ballgames for different reasons. There are people who want to bring their kids, people who want to be at the coolest bar in Toronto, foodies who want to go to the best food court and still see the game. We don’t have that diversity and depth of entertainment experience right now. A renovated or new Rogers Centre would be a much different fan experience. And it would certainly have more premium seating.

Zack Wittman/The Globe and Mail

You’ve been a president or GM for 20 years. How has your approach to leading a team changed?

I am reminded very frequently of just how unimportant my individual leadership is to our success. When I became a GM, I would have thought our success would be dependent on my decision making and my leadership. Now, I feel like our success is dependent on our collective intellect, our collective experiences, our collective perspectives, and ensuring it’s an environment where people are aware that their work is meaningful and our success is dependent upon them, and that they feel genuinely empowered.

Take me into a meeting of the Blue Jays executive. How is a decision made?

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A decision’s made by ensuring we’re making informed, data-driven decisions that are preferably model-based, and that we do everything we humanly can to remove bias. And that we factor in all the variables. What’s the benefit, what’s the risk? And then two things: How does that fit into our plan, and is it consistent with our values?

How is disagreement handled?

Take a player decision. We’ll look at subjective information, like scouting reports. We’ll bring in objective analysis, looking at projected performance and declining performance. We’ll factor in the medical risk projected over the length of a contract. We’ll look at what financial value we can attach to acquiring a player. We’ll look at character, make-up and personality. We’ll talk to people who have played with him, who he’s played for. We’ll talk to equipment guys, clubhouse guys, trainers, everyone we can, to build a model of: Will that person fit in? Will he be a plus? How does he fit into our clubhouse environment? When you go through all that rigour, Trevor, it is very, very rare that it’s not an obvious decision for everybody. When you short-circuit the process and start to insert personal opinion, that’s when disagreements come in.

So, if a cheating problem like the one in Houston emerged, how would you deal with it?

Very hard hypothetical to deal with. But clearly it would be a breakdown in culture. So you’d want to dig to see where that breakdown happened and why. Was a message—that we value your ability to drive wins over everything else—communicated down through an entire organization? If so, who was communicating that? Why did people feel that way? And where’d that breakdown happen? A good process and a strong set of values that link all of us are the most important thing, and they’ll lead to winning if you do it right, and consistently, over time.

Your major acquisition in the off-season, George Springer, arguably benefitted more from the cheating system in Houston than just about any other player there.

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What evidence do you have that he benefitted more than other players?

One analysis of the bang system used to communicate pitches to batters found there were more bangs for Springer at-bats than just about any other player.

That seems pretty anecdotal to me.

Let’s put it this way: He was a leader in that clubhouse. What was your thought process around bringing that person in?

We’re sure about the person. George Springer is the guy that had a debilitating stutter that caused him to miss an entire year of high school, but fought to overcome that adversity. And he’s dedicated a lot of his adult life to impacting other kids with impediments and learning disabilities. We’re sure he is obsessively focused on getting better. We’re sure he’s humble. We’re sure he’s open-minded. We’re sure he cares about his teammates at a deep level. And we’re sure he’s driven to win. We didn’t bring him in lightly. We did a lot of research, and we’re confident of his character and who he is.

Good luck with the season. You need a new closer. I hope you’ve got a plan.

We’re gonna be okay in the bullpen. I still will have sleepless nights worrying about the rotation. It may be an area we have to address before things are done. But this year’s gonna be another step. We’re on a really good trajectory.

Zack Wittman/The Globe and Mail

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