On Wednesday – the same day the Maple Leafs begin their 2021 season and the United States tried to fire its coach – the Blue Jays announced they had re-signed team president Mark Shapiro to a new five-year deal.
In Toronto sports terms, this isn’t burying the news. It’s entombing it in concrete and dumping it into an ocean trench.
I will guarantee you that if (not when) the Toronto Raptors re-sign president Masai Ujiri before his contract expires in July, the team will paint the skies over the city Raptor red. MLSE will treat that news release like it’s the moon landing.
But Ujiri is a sports figure, not so different in the public mind than the players he manages.
Shapiro is a businessman. He runs a widget factory. The widgets just happen to play baseball.
In baseball terms, Shapiro’s first five years have been a bit of a dud. He was given a great team, turned it into a bad team and recently levelled it off into a decent team.
But in business terms, Shapiro has been a comprehensive success. He’s cut costs, worked a deal for renovated spring training facilities, spearheaded improvements to the existing ballpark and pushed forward the agenda for a new one.
He phased out the stalwarts of the previous regime, first by force (former general manager Alex Anthopoulos) and then gentle suasion (former manager John Gibbons, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, etc.).
He surrounded himself with loyalists and though he tries to avoid answering for or explaining the Jays’ baseball decisions, no serious one gets made without his say-so.
The only thing Shapiro has as yet been unable to achieve as the top baseball executive in Canada is building a top baseball team. He’s a bit like Lee Iacocca, if Chrysler cars cost half as much and ran half as often (which, in fairness, was Iacocca’s MO, too).
We often talk about the “new” sort of sports executive. In baseball, that means a Red-Sox-era Theo Epstein – a young obsessive with a talent for numbers and algorithms. A wonk.
Shapiro is the old-new executive: not so young and not so wonkish; more of a corporate knife-fighter. The sort of guy who spends his downtime reading motivational books about leadership.
The old-new executive is less concerned with the on-field product than he is with productivity as a general proposition. Things have got to be constantly happening. The real enemy isn’t the New York Yankees. It’s stasis.
Whether that’s redesigning the stadium concourse or signing a wing-dinger of a centre fielder, it’s no-never-mind to him. Both those things look alike on a year-end report. They are signs of improvement.
This is not a knock on the man. It’s a knock on his job description.
Shapiro wasn’t hired to win titles. If that had been the case, he’d have worked harder to maintain and then refurbish the team he inherited. That was easily done. All Shapiro needed to do it was a ton of money.
Instead, Shapiro was hired to slowly transition the Jays away from being that sort of team. The second year he was in charge, the Jays’ opening-day payroll was north of US$160-million. Next season, it may clock in as low as US$80-million.
You show me an executive who can cut costs in half, and I’ll show you someone the boss loves.
By dangling the possibility – not the likelihood mind you, but the possibility – of a title-contending team at some point in the not-so-distant (as well as not-so-near) future, Shapiro has also managed to stay on the right side of the fanbase. It got wobbly for a couple of years as the Jays divested themselves of their stars, but the crowd has a hard time maintaining focus, even when it is angry.
Shapiro jiu-jitsued that anger by avoiding the mistakes other executives make when their customers start shouting at them. He made no snide comments (or many other sorts, either). He didn’t over-promise (though many of his pronouncements can be mistaken as such). He didn’t panic buy (or do much other buying either).
If you wanted to attack the man, it was impossible to get hold of him. He was always receding.
Shapiro didn’t re-emerge as a public presence until last year, after he’d finally made a few moves.
By that point, the young talent – Vlad Guerrero Jr. & Friends – was catching some notice. The team made a measured splash on a single free agent, Hyun-Jin Ryu. It squeaked into the final spot in an expanded postseason.
This was not a breakthrough, so much as a reasonable return on investment. Through modest aspiration and judicious spending, the Jays had arrived at a team that could be a small success on the field, and a big one at the annual board meeting. Only one of those things matters to the club’s owner, Rogers Communications.
Imagine selling that corporate pretzel logic to the public? “We want to be the best, and cost is no object! Also, we want to save a bucket load of money! Also, we need to constantly raise ticket prices! For this team we hate spending on!”
A new deal is Shapiro’s reward for making all those contrary ambitions sound complementary. Plus, in terms of budgets slashed, he’s been Rogers’s employee of the month for, like, 60 months running.
That does leave a few small questions – how does any of this top-level executiving add up to a great baseball team? Was that ever the goal? Does anyone in charge even care?
But I’m pretty sure that whatever Rogers plans to pay him, Shapiro’s already earned it, and more besides.