Mark Shapiro might turn out to the the best thing that has happened to the Blue Jays – and to their fans – in decades
The latest game in the Toronto Blue Jays media and blogosphere is Shapiro-bashing. It is funny-sad that the same writers who were calling for Alex Anthopoulos’ firing less than 12 months ago, and who complained incessantly about Paul Beeston’s non-answer answers, are now describing both as candidates for sainthood. While Shapiro and Atkins are candidates for impeachment.
Well, let me tell you my deep, dark secret. I like Shapiro.
#1 – He does not push the buck down
When A-squared announced he was leaving, Shapiro was greatly criticized. It would have been easy for him to try to push the blame down on AA – to point out that Shapiro had bent so far backward as to offer AA a contract with a one-year “opt-out”, or to comment on AA’s unreasonable expectation of having total control over baseball operations, or to say that AA’s timing – leaving just when a new President arrived, who could greatly use his help – was so unfortunate for the team. What did he say instead? “Like all of you, I’m disappointed that Alex won’t be back. It was my sincere hope to have the chance to learn from him.” Took the criticism on himself, and let AA leave with class.
#2 – He tells unpleasant truths
When David Price announced that he was signing in Boston, it would have been easy for Mark to pretend that the Jays made every effort to sign him and that Price just chased the dollars. Instead, Shapiro was up-front, saying that he did not pursue Price “that aggressively” and that “We had multiple holes to fill, and putting all those resources in one player really would have created a team with one complete hole in the rotation with nowhere to fill it“. Not what many fans wanted to hear, but refreshingly honest.
#3 – He does not pass the buck up
When asked about the budget, Shapiro said “We have all the resources necessary to build a championship team“. In saying that, he set himself up for the blame if the Jays fail to produce, rather than leaving the door open to make excuses based on insufficient budget or head office support.
#4 – Mark knows analytics, and is not afraid to innovate
DiamondView, the Indians’ proprietary analytical database, was launched in 2000. Shapiro – then AGM – is credited with being one of its creators. It was one of the first (and is still one of the best) sabermetric databases in baseball. By comparison, the Jays did not hire their first analytics guru until 2011, launch their analytics database (The BEEST — a tribute to Paul Beeston) until 2013, or name a Director of Analytics until 2015. Analytics is not the be-all and end-all in managing a baseball team, but it is a valuable tool. And in today’s environment, a team needs to use every tool possible to compete.
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#5 – He manages to win, not to impress
When Shapiro first arrived in Toronto, many fans and writers decided to “help him out” by setting his priority list. First, he *had* to convince Alex to stay. Then, he had to re-sign David Price – or at a very minimum, another “name” free agent (or two!). Then he had to sign or trade for a big-name reliever, even at prices that were crazy by historical standards. Mark did none of those things. Instead he made the moves (Estrada, Happ, Chavez) that he believed were needed for the team to succeed in 2016 and beyond. His decisions may or may not turn out to have been successful, but nobody can accuse him of governing by fan opinion poll.
#6 – Mark believes in collective decision making
It is widely rumoured (though tellingly never explicitly confirmed by Shapiro) that the reason AA left is because he wanted full control over baseball operations. When asked about how Shapiro worked in Cleveland, Chris Antonetti (the Indians GM) said:
"He was involved in baseball operations, but he wasn’t looking to be the primary leader of baseball operations. Thankfully, and I’m very appreciative of the fact, he entrusted me to lead baseball operations. We tried to have a very collaborative working environment, so we talked every day all the time about issues in the organization. More often than not when we were faced with decisions, we would end up in the same place."
Most modern business leaders will acknowledge that the days of the tyrant-at-the-top are long gone. Shapiro’s team approach makes a lot of business sense.
#7 – Mark does not encourage false hopes
It is an old politicians’ trick: get the voters excited about something and then make sure to never let hard facts burst their bubble. Refer to “goals” and “intentions” and “visions” rather than practicalities, to keep the voters’ hopes up (at least until election day!).
Mark does not play this game. When asked about installing real grass in the Rogers Centre, he said (with remarkable candour) that “My opinion is we don’t need (natural grass). My opinion is clearly it would be better, it’s just a question of alternatives and what we’re going to have to choose between.”. Mark went on to say “We’re going to have to prioritize. It’s like anything in life, you’re not going to be able to do the entire laundry list. On that list likely will be grass once we are certain it can be done and understand the cost-implications of doing it.”. I for one prefer being treated as an adult, and told the truth – that until the Jays know that natural grass is possible and cost-realistic, it is impossible for them to commit to installing it.
The bottom line?
I look for certain qualities in a leader. The willingness to accept accountability. The courage to be honest (even when the truth is not what people want to hear). The willingness to embrace new ideas without letting go of old learnings. Clearly, only time will tell about whether Shapiro’s actions live up to his words, but my initial opinion is more than mildly favourable.