TORONTO – An email from a prominent member of the Canadian baseball community arrived not long after news of Stephen Brooks’ departure from the Toronto Blue Jays had spread. There was concern. He wondered what exactly was happening.
“Stephen is a rock star,” he wrote. “So great for Canadian baseball.”
Forget for a moment where you stand on Mark Shapiro’s tenure as Blue Jays president and CEO so far, your feelings on the addition of Andrew Miller from the Cleveland Indians as the new executive vice-president of business operations, a move announced internally to team staff Wednesday, or any angst over the departure of Brooks, whose resignation Tuesday hit lots of people hard.
The continuing Americanization of the Blue Jays is an issue worth paying attention to, for a number of different reasons. Since the club’s inception, there’s always been a commitment to the game at the grassroots levels in Canada, one that waned during the Paul Godfrey/J.P. Ricciardi years but was rekindled during Paul Beeston’s second stint as team president.
Under his watch, the Blue Jays made sure to give, not just to take, with support for everything from Baseball Canada to the creation of the Tournament 12 showcase event to local development camps to support for the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Brooks was heavily involved on all fronts, and as Canadians, he, Beeston and former GM Alex Anthopoulos were all invested in taking care of home.
Now with Shapiro, Miller and GM Ross Atkins, the top three jobs in the organization belong to Americans. The Canadian disposition is to be suspicious of outsiders with a public trust like the Blue Jays, to believe they won’t be as invested locally as Canucks in the same role would be.
That isn’t necessarily fair.
Regardless, the Canadian baseball community, a tight-knit group, will be watching for what comes next, and Shapiro, Miller and Atkins can buy themselves plenty of currency by ensuring that the bond between the Blue Jays and community institutions remains strong.
"I’ve got a long track record of caring deeply and working in youth baseball," Shapiro said Wednesday during a conference call with a small group of reporters. "You look back on my track record in Cleveland in both starting youth baseball and being one of the national core advisors of positive coaching alliance and chairing and starting a chapter in Cleveland. I believe the lifeblood of baseball exists through youth baseball. So any franchise I work in, any organization, youth baseball is not only going to be important but it’s going to be a focus.
"T.J. Burton (co-ordinator, amateur baseball for the Blue Jays) is a guy that pitched for us in Cleveland," Shapiro continued. "I have a good relationship with him already. It’s a seamless transition for me to work with him. I would give a guarantee that our support of youth baseball, our understanding of the role it plays in this country, and really for the Blue Jays in general, as well, is not only appreciated but is going to be celebrated and continued."
That is only part of the issue.
The other is that the Blue Jays have given Canadians an opportunity to enter the business side of the game, something that visa restrictions makes difficult for them to do in the United States. Assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish is now the highest ranking Canadian on the baseball operations side of the club, working his way up from a baseball operations intern in 2001.
Given the natural tendency of people to hire people they have past experience with, will others get the same opportunities Tinnish did early in his career? The Blue Jays were proud to be a Canadian team run by Canadians, and sought to be a place that incubated Canadian talent.
They’ve done a good job of that.
"I’m aware, extremely sensitive and extremely appreciative of the role and position of the only Canadian franchise in Major League Baseball, I take that seriously," said Shapiro. "To some extent, I was obviously very aware prior to making the decision to bring Andrew in of (the need to give opportunities to Canadians), and struggled with bringing in someone else that was not Canadian in a leadership role.
"If I had not felt so confident that this was the right person, if I had not been so sure that over time he would have the opportunity to help continue to build this organization, largely or almost completely with Canadian leaders moving forward, then I wouldn’t have brought that on myself. I wouldn’t have brought that question you just asked on myself."
Those are reassuring words, but it will probably take reassuring actions to ultimately convince people that the departure of Brooks isn’t an ominous sign.
His resignation was the result of "a series of conversations, not something I thought was necessary," said Shapiro. "It was the result of probably a mutual agreement that there was some disconnect on alignment."
One of those things may have been Brooks’ frequent interactions with fans on Twitter on all sorts of customer-service related matters.
Asked how that void gets filled, Shapiro replied: "We’ll certainly have to address the Twitter, that’s the primary spokesmen’s role there. We’ll have to address that and look to back-fill that with someone else in the organization. Throughout baseball and sport, the primary spokesmen in the organization are hopefully the manager, the players and then the general manager. You default to club president and business leaders only in very small situations and circumstances."
The need to move on Miller now, according to Shapiro, was based on the needs of the Indians, who said "there were a very limited number of employees I could talk to, and a very short period of time I could talk to them."
Brooks became a casualty. Business can be cut-throat like that.
Miller comes with a stacked resume, and his past experience renovating Progressive Field in Cleveland and overseeing the development of the Indians’ complex in Goodyear, Ariz., makes him a natural fit given the Blue Jays’ current needs.
He’ll also modernize the team’s business side with "the application of business analytics, business intelligence, the use of data to drive decisions," said Shapiro.
This is a hire with lots of promise. But he’s not Canadian, and while the Blue Jays shouldn’t pander and hand out jobs based on birth certificates, there has to be a balance, too.
Shapiro insists there will be. Judge based on what follows from here.