The Departure Of Stephen Brooks And What It Says About Mark Shapiro’s Blue Jays

Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Brooks, the affable executive whose fame rose above the level of an ordinary executive because of his patient and informative handling of fans’ questions on Twitter, came to a mutual agreement with the club this week that he’d been shitcanned and would no longer work there. Or something like that.

So many fascinating off-field tensions that exist within the club and the conversation about it are present in this move. Brooks is well liked and Canadian, and being replaced by yet another American from the Cleveland organization. The new front office explains in their slick corporatese that they need to modernize their operations, but fans remain uneasy about how the new regime operates. There’s quite a bit going on here.

Did Brooks deserve to lose his job? Is the Cleveland model really worth following? What are these new ways of doing business going to mean for fans? Is Shapiro correctly reading the market? Will weepy-eyed provincial laments from the Bob Elliotts of the world about nationality start to cause the kinds of consumer confidence problems they eventually did for JP Ricciardi?

Those are some pretty interesting questions, I think.

i.

Whether Brooks deserved to lose his job is a question we can’t really answer — despite Elliott’s barely concealed attempts to wink and nudge us into believing that it is, that the answer is “no,” and that it’s a matter of national pride.

Elliott does reveal a detail that undermines this contention, though, telling us about a then-candidate to be Brooks’s replacement, Dennis Lehman, who is a member of the Cleveland organization.

“Lehman was interviewed before by the Blue Jays and Rogers shortly after the purchase of the SkyDome, when the goal was to lure an NFL team to Toronto,” he explained.

Ultimately the Jays went with another Cleveland exec, Andrew Miller, who had been their vice president of strategy and business analytics. But the credentials one assumes Lehman — Cleveland’s executive vice president, business — must have, based on the job he’d previously interviewed for, tells us something, I think, about that organization. So too does the fact that, in speaking with reporters this week, Shapiro noted that Miller “had played a role in filling the gap” over the course of the off-season, as they transitioned in the wake of Shapiro’s departure.

These aren’t garden variety cronies, I don’t think, and Shapiro isn’t just bringing them over for the sake of it.

Did that mean Brooks had to go? I suppose not. But there were signs that things maybe weren’t quite right: the sudden (and late, relative to most of the league, switch to dynamic ticket pricing, and — as Drew and I discussed on this week’s Birds All Day podcast — the fact that it somehow fell to an executive to act as a CSR for fans on Twitter.

People loved the Twitter thing, naturally, and it would be a shame if the Jays didn’t find someone to fill that role going forward — for the record, Shapiro says they will. However, part of the reason people liked it was that it was unusual. Brooks was unusually candid and generous with his time and knowledge, and I just don’t think this group really does unusual.

That said, if Twitter was the only thing they viewed as a problem (aside from “didn’t work with us in Cleveland”), it’s hard to see how it couldn’t have been solved with a conversation, rather than a firing. There must be something more, and I do think the fact that the Jays likely left a whole bunch of money on the table last fall by not having implemented dynamic ticket pricing by then (which would have allowed them to raise prices to better capitalize on the huge demand for so many late season games) highlights at least one fairly significant element of the disconnect.

ii.

I’m just guessing, but the idea of leaving money on the table like that is probably pretty unpalatable to people coming out of a Cleveland organization where they so badly had to scrape for resources.

That’s the sort of model one expects Shapiro and crew to be importing, and why shouldn’t they? The nature of the Jays’ ownership situation, with Rogers owning the club in large part to use it to generate content for its TV networks, means that they’re never going to get the kind of massive piles TV money that other clubs get. Maximizing the resources that they can control for themselves just seems like smart business. As much as possible, the club should avoid needing to go to Rogers executives with hat in hand. And while it’s impossible to say whether Brooks was or wasn’t doing that, the ticket pricing thing does seem like a sign. Getting rid of the Ballpark Pass is maybe a sign. The fact that he was the point man on Twitter, in addition to being a missed opportunity in terms of strengthening the brand as a whole (by having those kind of communications coming through the official @BlueJays account, or a separate on-brand one), was potentially a red flag to his new bosses because it’s not exactly a great indicator of importance being placed on efficiency.

Frankly, the basic fact that Brooks was running the business side of things in what was ostensibly Paul Beeston’s casual, 1970s-flavoured front office meant that he was probably not going to mesh with the new, modern, slick group.

iii.

Shapiro’s front office is, at least, supposed to be new, modern, and slick — and, of course, also down-to-earth and collaborative and people-first. It’s locally engaged and responsive to consumer needs. It’s whatever you want it to be, man! — but as a paying customer, when speaking of the business side, it’s hard to read that as anything other than code for: relentlessly seeking new and innovative ways to separate you from your money.

Dynamic ticket pricing is the perfect example. Under that setup the price of single game tickets fluctuates based on the demand for any given game, allowing the club the chance to wring every dollar possible out of that revenue stream. It’s a smart way to add money to the team’s coffers, but unashamedly verges on price gouging — or it will if the Jays see the kind of sudden and massive spike in demand that they experienced in the second half of last season.

If that’s a little difficult for fans to swallow here in the early phases of the club’s transition into its Shapiro era, it’s probably because while they’re being asked to put up more of their money, the team is letting guys like David Price, and likely Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, walk because of a lack of resources.

That might play in Cleveland, but here it’s perhaps a harder sell. More to the point, like a lot of things, it’s a different sell. And that’s something it’s not so clear the new regime has a proper handle on just yet.

iv.

When Mark Shapiro spoke to reporters about the move this week, many of the questions zeroed in on the loss of yet another Canadian from the Blue Jays’ payroll. Rightly or wrongly (hint: wrongly), fans get very resentful of the idea that “we” need Americans to come in and run “our” team. And apparently there are always going to be reporters at the ready to stoke those fires as though JP Ricciardi had just risen from the dead to fire all their drinking buddies in the scouting department.

Personally, I can’t blame Shapiro for a second for seeing the business side of the organization as a place to improve, or for bringing in someone he truly values and trusts and knows he can work with. Personally I don’t think birth certificate issues should resonate the way that they seem to, either. But what I think doesn’t really matter — the fact that I, and surely a whole lot of like-minded individuals, don’t think it should be that way doesn’t change that it is that way. And as much as the adage about a GM who listens too much to the fans ending up in the seats with them holds true — and as great as I happen to think it is that Shapiro maybe just doesn’t give a shit about the optics of hiring too many Clevelanders or too few Canadians — there are real consequences to allowing these perceptions to be built, I think.

Alex Anthopoulos very possibly got more rope because he understood, and was the living embodiment of, the Canada angle, and JP Ricciardi probably got less because a lot of the time he didn’t. And because he didn’t live here. And because media types found his smarm off-putting. And because media types didn’t like his dismissal of their pals.

That said, Ricciardi actually ended up getting quite a bit of rope, lasting at least a year longer than he probably should have. So maybe there isn’t as much of a penalty for crossing the birthers as the chatter makes it seem, but that hardly makes it less disconcerting to see Shapiro’s front office stumbling into such obvious PR pitfalls.

“These are the guys who are supposed to know what they’re doing? Well they sure don’t quite seem to know how to do it the way we expect it to be done here.”

Shapiro and Ross Atkins can move their families here, they can pay homage to Paul Beeston, they can recite the line about representing a whole country at every opportunity, but Americanization is a much more deeply tricky thing to have to deal with in this market. Because we’re not Americans, we don’t want to be Americans, and we have a hard time saying, “Oh come on, what’s the difference?” One wonders how quickly someone, or a whole front office team *COUGH*, that isn’t from here can really understand that dynamic.

One also wonders, though, how much those concerns, at least when it comes to a baseball team, are about conjuring something — anything — to get upset about. Such drama llamas we are.

v.

When it comes down to it, however, the antidote to all of this is winning — as Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston repeated to Jays fans many, many times over the years. That’s not something these executives from Cleveland have a whole lot of experience with *COUGH* *COUGH*, but it’s not difficult to see why the idea that the concepts they used to moderate, cyclical success in Cleveland can bring even greater things here in a situation where they’ll have significantly more resources at their disposal.

Thanks to a roster that was largely built by their predecessor, for the next several months, that’s not going to be a problem. This team will win, I have no doubt. Maybe not the World Series, and maybe they’ll end up in a real fight to make the playoffs, but the club’s performance on the field should give the front office lots of room to breathe here. When this poor first impression will really start to matter, I think, is down the road.

As reasonable as it might have been to replace Brooks, as talented an executive as Miller might be, and as much as some financial context might make Shapiro’s track record in Cleveland look less unimpressive, how wildly might all these threads start to unravel when next winter the Jays find themselves asking for patience and understanding as Bautista and Encarnacion likely walk away and the front office has to decide how best to proceed with the on-field product.

If, as many have speculated, the club might look to retool (i.e. try to stay competitive enough while focusing on getting younger), the front office will likely be proposing that from a weak position in terms of consumer confidence. I don’t want to act like something as relatively minor as Brooks’s dismissal could possibly sink the whole project, but they’re not exactly making things any easier on themselves, and they’ve had almost six months now to stop making people scratch their heads.

It’s a bit weird. And it’s a bit amazing to watch — or, at least, it would be if so much of our damn happiness wasn’t tied up in how the Blue Jays are doing at any given moment. Shapiro’s remaking of the club in his image pushes on unabated, and it sure seems like it’s going to keep on being an interesting ride.

  • Sandman

    There was a huge increase in both season ticket and flex pack sales for 2016. One account executive described the demand to me as “unprecedented.”

    It will be interesting to see what the renewal rate is for 2017.

    Although Toronto is a trendy kind of place..gotta be seen where it is “in” to be seen, guessing the W-L record and pricing will be the deciding factors for most. All the rest of it is probably background noise.

  • Barry

    This is a superb piece. It does a better job of trying to make sense of this move than anything I’ve read yet.

    I’m really impressed with the quality of the content on this site.

    • OakvilleJays

      Agreed. I do not like the direction that Shapiro has been taking. It’s getting ridiculous how many of his co workers from Cleveland are taking over the team. He can rest on his laurels based on the team that AA built, but we will know for sure after the season ends. I hope the Jays make it to the World Series in 2016. I am weary of a Shapiro led rebuild. It could be worse than the JP Riccardi era.

      • Barry

        Then we don’t agree. I think the article was quite good, but I’m not currently concerned about the “direction.” I think Shapiro has made some promising additions to how the team does things, but those need time to play out and I’m not prepared to assess his work one week into his first season. There certainly has been more to like than dislike, but time is the test.

        The reality is that when someone new comes into any organization they tend to bring in people they know. This is true not only in baseball but in other industries. And poaching the best of any organization is a good thing, not a bad thing. Are these guys the best, or even good? None of us are qualified to answer to that question right now.

  • mktoronto

    Stellar analysis, as usual.

    As for Elliot’s piece, I see similar articles written every time a non-Canadian gets a major arts post. There is a legitimate concern tied into the ability of Canadians to advance in their professions. In the arts community, it becomes a big brain-drain issue (you have to succeed elsewhere before you’re considered good enough) and a question about how to promote talent here.

    Shi Davidi wrote an article that mentions the green card barriers that makes the Blue Jays the only MLB employer for most people in Canadian baseball. That is a legitimate concern. It was heartening to see Shapiro recognize this in the same article and take steps to reassure the Canadian baseball community that upward mobility still exists.

    Miller has a skill-set that few have. Having him here means that we have a much better chance of having the dome reno and the spring training facility come in on time and on budget. As long as most of the people involved in the project are Canadians, it becomes a net win as those people get the experience that can then be spun off for facilities across this country and make them more attractive to other head offices. That’s a good thing.

    It may have come down to Brooks wanting to spear-head the project and Shapiro wanting someone with more experience. We don’t know. But you can bet the MSM will take any opportunity to tear this team down.

  • This site blows

    Thank you for calling Shapiro “Slick” multiple times. I’d rather my favorite team’s execs address the media after not having shaved for four days, wearing a 10 dollar walmart shirt without a tie as opposed to wearing a perfectly pressed 5000 dollar sooit and always looking like you just got a hair cut and a shave.

    As far as where employees are from – I don’t care. This isn’t the CFL.

  • JimS

    I fear that Shapiro is following the model of the Edmonton Oilers last dynasty. Not the one with the cups but the one where Kevin Lowe surrounded himself with all his old buddies and fiddled as Rome burned.

  • JustinTet

    The fact that every 500 level ticket costs the same price is stupid. I was hoping they would move to different prices as they did in the playoffs (when it was MLB setting prices), but they didn’t. I can see Shapiro being frustrated with our lazy ticketing pricing.