Shapiro Speaks!: A lengthy chat with the Cleveland media

Mark Shapiro
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Because of Alex Anthopoulos’s Canadian provenance, we’d forgotten about this phenomenon for a number of years, I think, but there has always seemed to me to be a tendency among Jays executives to let their guard down a little bit when not speaking with the Toronto media. This was a thing with J.P. Ricciardi, perhaps by design. The former GM certainly seemed to save his best stuff for an American audience — which, I tend to believe, fuelled the embarrassing and pointless campaign to shame the man for not uprooting his family and moving to the GTA.

Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins appear to be aware enough of the local media’s tendency to pettiness that they’ve said and done all the right things about making Toronto home that they won’t have to endure a similar campaign (instead it’s the “WAHHHHH Cleveland North” doofuses they probably need to be more wary of). But they have relationships with reporters in Ohio that surely run deeper than any they’ve yet managed to build here in Toronto, meaning it’s worth taking a look when they open up to them — as was the case over the weekend with the Cleveland media in town for their club’s series with the Jays.

Shapiro sat down for a 20 minute chat with Cleveland reporters, and former BlueJays.com reporter Jordan Bastian, who is now the MLB.com reporter for the Cleveland franchise, transcribed it at his MLBastian blog. Here are some highlights:

On payroll…

I think the payroll piece has not really factored in yet, but the support piece has been [eye-opening]. The point of differentiation for me that was most obvious was Game 2 [of the regular season]. Everybody here was telling me, ‘You need to see Opening Day here.’ I’m like, ‘Hey, I’ve been through that. Opening Day is a celebration in Cleveland.’ And then Game 2, because it’s 37 degrees out and there’s 10,000 people in the stands. Well, we were close to sold out Game 2 here, and Game 3. And then, the other one was the Raptors had a big playoff game and they were 200 yards away and there was not only 20,000 people in the arena there, there was 3,000 people outside the arena and we had 35,000 here. The depth of the market, I think, has been what has been more of a difference to me. As far as the money goes, we have our own set of differences here. We have the exchange rate that diminishes a lot of it. There’s other challenges. Obviously, in our division, it’s not that different from [Cleveland]. We play against teams that have, not double our resources, but close to double our resources. So, there’s still a significant challenge. Not to ever complain, because I think the upside of this market is just remarkable. If you could build a sustainable winner here, it’s just the number of population, the fact that we’re the team for the entire country, the density near the ballpark of the population, it’s just remarkable.

A few thoughts here. For starters, I imagine he doesn’t, but I still want to say that I sure hope Shapiro doesn’t take for granted the fact that high attendance in the second game of the season is abnormal here, too. It was a factor of, y’know, the Jays being fucking great last year and making the playoffs and the atmosphere at Rogers Centre being such a damn blast. Because winning. It’s all about winning.

And that’s the thing that ought to irk people a little bit about his last point — or at least it does me. Shapiro, of course, is not wrong about the incredible advantages of the market and the ballpark. There is more tappable wealth within walking distance of the Rogers Centre than maybe any park in the sport — which I point out not as a suggestion to start pricing regular people out of the ballpark more than they already are, though that’s the way this whole fucking city is going anyway — and having a sustainable winner here could surely be a self-perpetuating moneymaker here, like one of the true elite clubs in the sport. But do you need to “build a sustainable winner here,” Mark? Or do you need to sustain the winner you’ve already got? Because that’s the way I want to think about it — and I’d sure prefer to hear it phrased that way from management.

This also means not pissing and moaning so much about the exchange rate, and especially not about the resources of the clubs they’re competing with. There is no earthly reason a team in downtown Toronto, with a nation of 35-million TV viewers to market itself to, should be so badly outstripped by the financial might of a team from fucking Boston. (I’m not saying Boston isn’t a brutally wealthy city itself, what I’m mostly saying here is: fuck off).

On the Dunedin situation…

There’s a real sense of appreciation for how Dunedin feels about the team. The one thing I cannot accept would be the split facility. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to move everybody to one place. Seeing that has made clear to me that that’s a bad arrangement. You want to have an organization that’s aligned, where the big leagues is attached to the Minor Leagues. Well right now it’s like two separate worlds.

My immediate reaction to this was that it was different than what we’d heard before. He out-and-out refuses to have a split facility? The geography supposedly doesn’t permit that. However, while there’s really no way to meaningfully expand the facilities at Florida Auto Exchange stadium, the team is actually looking to move big leaguers out of there and over to a reimagined Bobby Mattick Complex, with the club returning to FAES only for actual games.

Such a set-up is similar to the facility the Cleveland Indians, Shapiro’s former club, and the Cincinnati Reds share in Goodyear, Ariz. The clubs do everything at their complex before busing a kilometre to the stadium where their Cactus League games are played,” Shi Davidi explained for Sportsnet at the end of March.

Davidi said that the club is trying to get additional land near the Mattick Complex for the project — though apparently there are plans drawn up somewhere for the Jays to expand and move into the Phillies’ facility at Bright House Field, not far away in Clearwater, just in case.

Anyway, point is, the club seems to genuinely want to make it happen in Dunedin… I think. And the talk about the outright refusal to have the facilities split doesn’t necessarily indicate otherwise, even if it maybe doesn’t read like that on first blush. (Not that, y’know, I wrote a whole piece on it being some huge revelation, which I then scrapped after more careful consideration of what he said and what we know *COUGH*).

On his role on the baseball side of the front office…

It’s just a different relationship and he’s in a different place in his career than Chris [Antonetti] is in his. Chris is a mature executive — one of the best in the game. I think it got to a point for me with Chris where the best thing I could do was get out of his way and just kind of be there for him, both to make sure he had the advocate he needed to get decisions made and, if he ever wanted kind of a grayhair to bounce ideas off of, or a different perspective, that I was there for him. Ross is still developing as a general manager. First year doing the job. He hasn’t even been through a cycle yet, so I can play a very different role with him. The task is a big one, because I think a player development system and scouting system, all those things, need to be shaped. So, I can roll up my sleeves and get my hands in on the baseball side, which is something that I had missed. I’m excited to be back involved in it.

This certainly makes a lot of sense, though I’m sure a great many Jays fans will be wondering why he couldn’t have found a way to work with the already-established Alex Anthopoulos in much the same way he did with Antonetti by the end. But at least some of the answer is right there in the same paragraph: “I think a player development system and scouting system, all those things, need to be shaped.”

There is very obviously a different philosophy at play in the Shatkins regime than there was with Alex. The change in the way they think about and focus on player development is evident in not only the way they speak about it, but in their conservative assignment of prospects coming out of spring training (Conner Greene, for example, went back to Dunedin, despite finishing 2015 under the more aggressive Anthopoulos regime in New Hampshire), and some of their draft picks (which seemed to focus less on pure tools and more on players who seemed to have the ability to get the best out of whatever tools they do have). It’s evident in the way they’ve augmented their analytics department, and added a “high performance” department that is focused on nutrition and health and injury prevention. It only follows that they’d have different ideas about scouting, too. That’s OK. And it’s OK that Shapiro is being more hands-on about it, too.

On Bautista’s contract talks this spring and other impending free agents…

Spring Training is a time where the focal point goes on contracts, because the games don’t count and you have to write every single day, and there’s not many things to write about. You can’t write about guys losing weight every day, so inevitably it turns to contracts. You had to expect that coming in, that we were going to have a lot of focus there. We have eight free agents at the end of the year. It’s a remarkable situation. It’s a situation that I didn’t walk into blindly. We knew. There’s challenges here. Solving those challenges, if it’s not fun to you, if you don’t enjoy that, you’re probably in the wrong business.

See, now this is better. “Solving those challenges” doesn’t mean taking a step back, being intentionally mediocre, and wasting key late-prime years for Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Marco Estrada, and J.A. Happ right? Right??? That’s what people are afraid of, and their fears are certainly stoked by certain media types. But that’s no “fun” response to these “challenges,” right???

On his shitty reception from fans in Toronto…

People were kind of like shocked at how it ended and I was the only one standing. So, I got a lot of that directed at me. Other than the fact that that wasn’t what you expect when you make a decision to leave a place and come someplace, again, I’ve been through plenty of criticism over a career. You’ve been there, man. I mean, Robbie Alomar. I’ve been through trading Colon. I’ve been through that stuff before. It’s just, I didn’t expect it this time. So, it was a little weird. And, the second we started playing in Spring Training, the focus went back on the team and playing baseball. The front office guy shouldn’t be a focal point. That was kind of my point coming in here. It shouldn’t be about a front office guy. If you’re running an organization well, it’s not about one guy — ever. One guy doesn’t make decisions. One guy shouldn’t be the lightning rod. It should be about an organization.

I truly don’t want to make everything Shapiro says about the great AA schism, especially since we’re all doing a pretty damn good job of moving on — as he correctly points out. But there are still people who badly want to believe Anthopoulos walked away for reasons other than the ones that seem, to me, to be pretty obvious. Alex, from everything I’ve ever heard, was a micromanager. I’m not saying he wanted to be the focal point for the club (though one could maybe read his actions during the celebration in Baltimore after his club clinched the AL East title last September that way), and he certainly valued input from others — the obsessive phone calling we always heard so much about wasn’t just about talking to other GMs, but spitballing ideas at trusted confidantes, too — but in a lot of ways, I get the sense that he had ownership over the minutiae of just about everything in a way that I don’t feel from Shapiro and Atkins. Or at least not from their cache of corporate buzzwords about team building.

On the stadium, the infield, and turf…

The mechanics of watching a game, except for the fact that I wasn’t freezing in April and May and we didn’t have any delays, it feels natural. I may be the only person that in April and May was like, ‘Yes. Close it. Astroturf? No problem.’ I was applauding. …  I think it’s taken our grounds crew a little bit of time to get used to keeping [the new infield] moist and how to break it up a little bit. But, yeah, it’s been all positive. We’re still studying [natural grass]. The turf here actually plays fairly natural. Except for seeing the specks of dirt, or rubber, you won’t be watching and go, ‘That doesn’t look right.’

Uh… well, the turf still looks like shit. Not as bad as it used to, but yes, I’ll be watching going, “That doesn’t look right.” (Especially when the place is empty… which hopefully is a thing of the past, right? RIGHT???)

Maybe I should get used to it, though, because despite throwing a bone to the who grass thing, it feels a bit like Shapiro is being awfully kind to the turf here. Certainly not the “we have to get rid of this!” stuff posture it felt like Paul Beeston was taking at the end of his tenure. (Of course, above all else Beeston would have taken whichever posture he felt best avoided making the natives any further restless.)

Bang on about the dirt infield being a challenge so far. Because that hasn’t always looked the greatest, either, but indeed seems to be getting better.

Not getting better? My ideas on how to not end this piece abruptly, so… uh… *SMOKE BOMB!!*