Mark Shapiro Still Has A Perception Problem

Mark Shapiro
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend I snarkily tweeted something about the Blue Jays. That’s not anything particularly new, of course, but it turns out this time I did something especially egregious to some: I dared to try to defend Mark Shapiro in the wake of another hire from out of his former organization in Cleveland.

Here’s the tweet:

The response was predictable.

Some agreed. Some said they were at least still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But others were incredulous that they were again being asked to believe that the best candidate possible for the Jays just happened to be someone from Cleveland. Others still questioned whether Shapiro had actually been worth hiring in the first place.

It spoke to a still unfixed perception problem, and one that seems as though it’s going to remain fairly intractable. As one of the folks who responded to my tweet noted, it’s just too easy for certain fans to have it both ways: they’ve decided that they want badly to dislike Shapiro, and if they’re wrong about him it at least means the team is being successful (or, if they want to be especially stubborn, they can tell themselves that this isn’t really his team yet anyway).

There remains a lot of distrust in the air. Shapiro still gets blamed for Alex Anthopoulos not being here, or his record in Cleveland is sneered at without anything resembling fair consideration to the difficulty of competing in that market, or he is considered by some as an avatar of Rogers’ frugality, only here because of his ability to operate a team on a shoestring budget.

The fears of Rogers’ not doing right by the club will never go away, I’m sure, and rightfully so, but a lot of this stuff can and should otherwise be pretty easily dismissed. Yet so far it hasn’t gone away, and  there has sometimes been a tendency among Shapiro and his new group to shoot themselves in the foot as far as perception goes, leaving themselves open to some weak criticisms.

The “Cleveland North” stuff? Point to Angus Mugford, who Shapiro told Sports Illustrated this week he looks at like an assistant GM, and the fact that the UK-born head of the club’s new department of high performance spent the last 12 years as the head of IMG Academy in Florida, and has no connection to Cleveland’s front office.

Point to Gil Kim, who was hired away from the Rangers (and formerly worked for the Pirates), to be the Jays’ all-important Director of Player Development.

Point to the fact, as Shapiro has at least mentioned, that he was only given a small window to talk to a limited number of employees from Cleveland, meaning that he had to act fairly quickly to bring over someone like Stephen Brooks’s replacement, Andrew Miller.

It’s hardly implausible to think that this “wave” of imports from his old organization (a wave, by the way, that constitutes Miller, Ross Atkins, and really no one else — unless you’re so desperate to make this argument that you want to count Eric Wedge or Gavin Floyd) is just Shapiro trying to keep together people he knows and trusts and believes in and values while he still can. Frankly, it’s part of the advantage of coming to Toronto for him. He has more resources here to keep his best on-field talent, and it seems as though the same is holding true for off-field talent as well. That sounds to me like a good thing rather than something to be afraid of, but for some fans it’s all they need before letting accusations of cronyism and lazy hiring practices fly. It’s as though people want to believe he materialized in Toronto having never done the job before, or had never scoured the league for the best and brightest before.

Not all club presidents need to embark on months-long employee searches before ultimately hiring themselves, I guess. *COUGH*

And speaking of Paul Beeston (which I was — and who I seem to recall hiring a GM with an office down hall from his, rather than searching far and wide, and forcing his buddy Cito onto the club for a victory lap despite a full-on revolt from the players), it doesn’t help any of this that the rate at which Canadians are disappearing from the front office has now become a cheap media narrative. Especially because the front office isn’t exactly doing themselves favours with a media ready to be adversarial after the love-in that was last season when they hire an additional PR flack for just Shapiro and Atkins (as they’ve done), or when they actively (if unintentionally) piss off reporters, as Steve Simmons explains for the Toronto Sun (before he gives a nice overwrought tug at your maple-flavoured heartstrings):

What Shapiro also hasn’t come to grips with is, he’s not in Cleveland any more. This is not a small market. This is a huge media town with four daily newspapers, three national sports networks, two sports radio stations, wire services and numerous websites. You can’t — as Shapiro did earlier this week — have a conference-call interview for a few selected reporters after the Brooks resignation, which only angered some of those not included. You do that and you’re asking for disagreement.

And that’s not to mention the Blue Jays ended last season with a Canadian team president, a Canadian general manager and a Canadian VP of business and now have [a Cleveland] president, [a Cleveland] general manager and [a Cleveland] business director. He searched high and low for a GM and business leader but all he really looked at was Ohio.

Simmons has sometimes been the local writer most in need of a diaper change when it comes to this Shapiro business, and the lecturing tone and barely concealed “He’s not one of us!” stuff truly makes me roll my eyes at even including this passage, but that’s really the kind of attitude Shapiro is up against, for one. And for two, Simmons is at least not wrong about the conference call to selected reporters thing. That sort of thing isn’t going to help this front office win the PR war.

And the thing is, Shapiro should be able to win the PR war here. He is widely respected throughout the game, as is the organization he built in Cleveland, and for good reason. We’ve already seen all kinds of positive change here, too — the high performance department, more resources going into analytics, a move to tighten up the business side of the organization that surely left money on the table last year because of its lack of dynamic ticket pricing — but those things, perhaps because implicit in the changes is the fact that the sainted Beeston and Anthopoulos might have been doing something wrong, seem to slip a lot of minds when the chance comes to get huffy and suspicious about another American from Cleveland coming into the fold (and another well-liked Canadian who maybe wasn’t as great at his job as fans allowed themselves to believe going out the door).

Shapiro is hardly perfect, obviously. He’s made missteps already and he will make missteps again. The worries about losing homegrown talent are legitimate. But if he ultimately doesn’t win over this fan base, and if that’s ultimately rooted in what is essentially a fear of Americans and Americanization, how incredibly fucking deeply sad and weird and petty of us that would be.

  • Completely agree. Can we not just judge the guy on, y’know, his GD merits?

    Also, the fact that his former employees are itching to come with him not just to a new team, but to a new country is actually a plus in his column for me.

    The fact that a lot of this ‘issue’ seems to centre around his handling of the media is a sad reality as well. The media purportedly represent the fans (in their own minds) but too often they need to be treated with kid gloves or they go piss all over the rug.

    This organization getting a facelift and doing things differently is a good thing. Let’s treat it that way.

  • OakvilleJays

    Interesting article on Shapiro. It’s rather surprising that an Ivy League educated President who has been a GM & President in another organization for many years has made some basic PR mistakes. The firing of Brooks last week ( #2 on the org chart) wasn’t explained in detail other than Shapiro complaining about Brooks using Twitter to communicate with fans. It would have more sense to let him go in the offseason rather than wait 2 weeks into the new season.

    The next hurdles for Shapiro will be the draft this summer & what he does at the trade deadline.

  • 0noggin

    I suspect the real test of Shapiro with the masses will be what happens with the EE/JB contracts. If he somehow resigns both of them, that will shut most people up (and the Jays winning a world series wouldn’t hurt, either). If he just resigns Bautista, he’ll probably get a little begrudging respect. But if they both walk under his watch, his “perception problem” could get a whole lot worse, especially if the Jays don’t even make the playoffs this year.

  • fred2

    1) My mom swears like a member of the Coldstream Guards.

    2) I’m not an idiot, I’m not a mouthbreather, and I’m not naturally quick to jump to conclusions, but I need to see a lot more before I’m happy with Mr Shapiro.

    I say that recognising in full that the method of his arrival in the city wasn’t his problem. That there’s nothing wrong per se with hiring from Cleveland – although it would be nice if there was some recognition of the fact that this was a very Canadian organisation that is becoming less Canadian in a hurry. I say that recognising that no move he has made so far has been particularly horrendous.

    It’s just that a) You don’t change a winning team. The change was made by Rogers in a terrible cack-handed fashion when they decided at the start of last year to clean house, before the season had a chance to play out. That may or may not go down as the dumbest thing ever, depending on where the next couple of years go.

    b) For front office suits, Beeston and Anthoupolous were pretty damn likeable people. It’s not necessary to like the front office suits, but sport is the built on irrational support and affection for an organisation. The fewer likeable people are involved, the harder it is to go through the suspension of disbelief required to give a damn about who wins a game of stick-ball.

    Mark Shapiro seems like the sort of person you’d expect to run a baseball business. I’m sure he’ll probably be fine, although I think the nature of running a club in a foreign country is a bigger deal than you give it credit for.

    Excuse me if I just don’t particularly warn to the guy, and excuse me if I miss the cigar smoking dinosaur and the geek.

  • Barry

    Some thoughts:

    1) I don’t think Shapiro needs to do anything at the moment to win the PR war. He wins the PR war if he can maintain a competitive team going forward. He loses the PR war if he fails to do so. AA was losing the PR war until July 2015.

    2) Fans and media are reactionary, which is a poor quality when assessing an executive. Unless there is criminal activity or other major controversy, you can’t evaluate an executive based on six months on the job, less than three weeks of which involved a team actually playing baseball. A president comes in with a plan, implements the plan, and we assess the results. We’re at least two years away from being able to provide a credible evaluation of Shapiro, positive or negative.

    3) “Not Canadian” is a poor way to decide whether someone should work for the team, and has a can-of-worms element to it: if we insist on our team’s executive being heavily Canadian, shouldn’t we also insist on greater Canadian content on the field?