In the normal course of things, Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro avoids the media. Consorting with them leads to questions, which in turn require answers, which unavoidably leads to more questions.
But every phone call these days has become a therapy session. A conference call – even a working one – is starting to sound dreamy.
All those meetings you used to complain about? What would you give for a meeting now? A nice two-hour update on proposed improvements to costing structures?
Oh yeah, bring it on. Let’s do three hours. Go straight through lunch. Pack a nice, small, windowless room with everyone from Accounting and turn off the air conditioning. What bliss it would be to go back to that world.
Maybe that’s why Shapiro sounded disappointed when his Sunday update was cut off after what once would have seemed like an incredibly long half-hour.
“Oh,” Shapiro said, after his flack jumped in to wrap things up. “Okay [pause] Thanks everyone [longer pause] Hope everyone is well.”
If you weren’t so busy feeling sorry for yourself, you’d feel even more sorry for him. Still, you feel sorry.
Over that half-hour we learned this about the Blue Jays’ plans for the near- and medium-term future: They have no near- and medium-term future. Like the rest of us, they have no clue what’s going to happen.
Also like the rest of us, they had their come-to-Jesus moment as regards COVID-19. For the Jays, that was last Wednesday, when the bulk of the team’s staff decamped Dunedin, Fla., on a charter flight headed back to Toronto.
Until that point, they’d thought they might tough it out in hopes the season would be delayed, rather than put on permanent hold.
Like the rest of us, they are worrying about friends and co-workers. Eighteen Venezuelan players in the Jays system can’t go home because that country is shut for business. “About a dozen more” will remain in hotels in Florida because they either have nowhere safe to go or aren’t able to travel. Everyone else has scattered.
The big-leaguers – most of whom are used to being surrounded by attendants and helpers even during the off-season – have been told personal assistance is no longer possible.
“A very small minority will be able to play catch,” Shapiro said.
It’s a tidy metaphor for society right now: even if you wanted to, you could not arrange a game of catch.
You could probably find a partner and the two of you could maintain the required two metres distance, but it would be annoying having to wash the ball every time you caught it.
On the topic of what baseball plans the Jays have or what will happen to the hundreds of tenuously employed people who make Jays’ home games possible, Shapiro was at his obfuscatory best.
There was a lot of talk about “scenario planning,” as though cutting a cheque requires asking an AI to simulate cheque-writing ten-thousand times before it can be risked.
Many businesses are no longer in the position to pay their staff. The Toronto Blue Jays and their merry band of multimillionaires are not one of them. There’s only one right answer to this particular scenario.
As he cogitates this, Shapiro is sitting in his Toronto home in self-isolation after returning from abroad. So it is hard to blame him for seeking comfort in familiar patterns of communication.
The one commodity more valuable than toilet paper at the moment is normalcy. Everyone is trying to get back to it, each in our own fashion. Unless your idea of a fun Sunday is licking handrails on the streetcar and hugging strangers, there’s no wrong way to do it.
So there was something comforting about listening to Mark Shapiro duck around specific questions with fantastically vague answers. It felt like Ye Good Olde Days of Yore.
But we are all changed just a little by the past week or so. We may never fully change back.
It was that changed Shapiro who answered questions about what baseball’s role was in all this, or how his own life had altered.
“Funny. I was just finishing up a blog to send to all 500 of our staff,” Shapiro said, and you could feel a human moment coming on.
I am not aware of having had a human moment with Mark Shapiro in a professional setting before. Mostly, what you get are business moments.
“I talked about the things we can control. We can control our reaction. We can control our thoughts. There’s a need to remain optimistic. For me, that question precisely points to the horizon and the role baseball plays. We have overcome 9/11, world wars, the Great Depression. Baseball played a role,” Shapiro said.
He talked about watching classic games on the MLB Network. He talked about watching Field of Dreams – the greatest sports movie made and if you have a different opinion, please write me so that I can tell you directly you are wrong – with his family.
Without actually using the words, he was talking about the way baseball is both an escape from and a foundation of North American society.
Baseball represents summer and steadiness. It feels slow and reassuring. Normal.
Franklin Roosevelt thought the game so important to the American psyche that he wrote a letter to the commissioner five weeks after Pearl Harbour, urging him to keep the league going.
“Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost,” Roosevelt wrote.
Okay, those two things have changed. But the point stands.
You could hear that in Shapiro’s voice as he mused for a moment on what the game means when you take spreadsheets and standings out of it. It was a small, connective moment. We need more of those right now.
“Baseball still provides the link that is the fabric of our lives,” Shapiro said. “There will be a time baseball returns.”
His mouth, God’s ears.