Six weeks ago, while we were leaned up against a wall in the visitor’s clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, I asked Alex Anthopoulos what I thought was an obvious question with an even more obvious answer.
“You’re coming back, right?”
“I’m not sure,” Mr. Anthopoulos said.
At that point, the then-Toronto Blue Jays general manager hadn’t talked to anyone about his contract. He’d only met incoming president Mark Shapiro in passing, and had no feel for him. He said he was not interested in staying if it meant running every move up the ladder. He was open to collaboration, but did not want to be micro-managed.
He used the example of last November’s trade of outfield prospect Anthony Gose – a move that at the time seemed like small beer.
“Would I still be able to trade Gose without asking someone?” Mr. Anthopoulos wondered.
I guess he got his answer.
He also hadn’t talked to ownership. Ever. Mr. Anthopoulos said that up to that point in his six years as general manager of the Blue Jays, he had never had a single conversation with anyone up the Rogers food chain. Not team chairman Edward Rogers or new Rogers Media boss Rick Brace. No one. Outgoing president Paul Beeston was his sole point of contact with his employers.
“That’s weird,” I said (thinking it was a lot more than weird).
“It’s a little weird,” Mr. Anthopoulos agreed.
He didn’t say he was leaving. He talked about keeping an open mind and hoping for the best. He asked that none of the conversation be repeated while the team was still playing, lest it draw attention away from the playoff run and/or unsettle his upcoming talks with Mr. Shapiro.
Like everything Mr. Anthopoulos does in his professional life, this wasn’t an accidental conversation. It was an explanation for future use. By saying he might not come back, Mr. Anthopoulos meant he wasn’t coming back. And here were the reasons.
It’s also notable that the story of his leaving was leaked Thursday morning. For the first time during his years in charge, the Blue Jays were doing their business in the press.
As he left, Mr. Anthopoulos behaved as expected – gracefully and with a practical eye to the future. He showered in garlands on all of the people who’d pushed him out of a team he’d largely built.
Everyone had treated him with “respect” – a word he injected into every third sentence. Mr. Shapiro and Rogers Media – his unwelcome rival and his silent benefactor – came in for special notice. It just wasn’t “the right fit.” Mr. Anthopoulos wouldn’t explain what “fit” meant.
While he was in the midst of not explaining why he’d quit, it was announced that his MLB peers had voted him baseball’s executive of the year. It couldn’t get any more perfect.
“My desire was always to be with the Toronto Blue Jays for the remainder of my career,” Mr. Anthopoulos said. “There was no doubt about that for me, and I operated that way.”
Given that he turned down a five-year offer, those two sentences don’t make any sense. But that’s only if you think of Thursday in terms of a farewell, which it wasn’t. Instead, it was a pre-emptive introduction to his next employer. In how he made his exit, Mr. Anthopoulos is telling 29 other teams: “I will take a bullet for you, even if I believe you’ve mistreated me.” He’ll be just fine. I’m not so sure about Mark Shapiro.
In general terms, the dismissal (constructive or otherwise) of a sports executive comes following a period of great turbulence. The boat is taking on water. The cannons have come loose on deck and are rolling around, crushing crew members. You hire a new captain to come aboard and get things tied down.
Because it’s not failure that kills management careers. It’s the impression of chaos.
Currently, the Blue Jays are working this pattern backward.
Mr. Anthopoulos had things under control. There was stability, success and the promise of more to come. The team hadn’t been this calm and confident since the early-1990s.
That was a nice feeling, all 12 weeks of it.
Now it looks as if no one has any clue what’s going on. Once the news broke, Rogers Media rushed out a series of press releases unsubtly placing the blame on Mr. Anthopoulos for walking away. By refusing to rise to the bait, Mr. Anthopoulos made everyone who remains seem petty and foolish.
That’s what baffles you here – how Rogers Media continues to do the stupid thing when the smart thing is so much easier.
From a standpoint of pure self-interest, why would ownership let Mr. Anthopoulos go? Why not tell him anything he wanted to hear, and offer him every possible assurance? Those sorts of promises are easy to break later.
By going nose-to-nose with Mr. Anthopoulos and losing, Mr. Shapiro sets himself up as the villain of the piece. It may not be fair, but it’s undeniable. It also shifts all of the pressure for the team’s performance onto his shoulders. Josh Donaldson could strike out 600 times next year, and somehow it’ll be Mr. Shapiro’s fault.
In most cases, a new executive or coach has three or four seasons to get things right. A president has forever and a day. Mr. Shapiro – now both president and de facto GM – has one year. And he may not have that long.
If the Jays take even a small step backward next season, Mr. Shapiro will take all the blame. After he fires John Gibbons (when, not if), he won’t be able to use his new manager as a human shield. They’ll both have to go together.
Without yet having said a single public word about the Toronto Blue Jays, Mr. Shapiro has become the face of this franchise. You’ll find it pinned up on dartboards around the city.
You almost feel for him. When Mr. Shapiro was negotiating to take this job months ago, he thought he was agreeing to lead the modest, achievable rebuild of a pretty decent ball club. Then Mr. Anthopoulos made his mid-season moves, the team took flight, the playoffs happened, Mr. Anthopoulos quit and, before the new boss had even arrived, the #ComeTogether narrative had begun tearing itself apart.
There’s only one way out of this for Mr. Shapiro – win right now. Win a division. Win a pennant. He may have to win a World Series.
If he can’t, this could be the shortest, most disappointing leadership tenure in the recent history of Toronto sports. It’s already the most clumsily introduced.Report Typo/Error
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