TORONTO – This is a mess, an awful one for the Toronto Blue Jays, with the reign of an excellent and earnest general manager over despite a lengthy, lucrative extension offer, “fit” taking the blame, and the tenure of a highly accomplished new president and CEO blemished before it’s even started.
Really, that Alex Anthopoulos is leaving just as Mark Shapiro is arriving, that things got to this point is beyond description, and there are no satisfactory answers to be found, no explanations to make sense of why this happened.
There’s nothing here to make you feel better.
Over and over Anthopoulos, very obviously torn up by leaving a job he loved and colleagues he cared deeply for, spoke Thursday of not sensing “the right fit” with the new incoming order, and logic tells you “fit” here is a euphemism for some combination of power, control, autonomy and environment.
No one walks away from a five-year contract worth millions of dollars to work a job they’ve invested their souls in, unless there are real concerns.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that the conversations between the two men that followed the Aug. 31 hiring of Shapiro could have gone so poorly that Anthopoulos preferred leaving to giving it a shot.
Shapiro’s track record with the Cleveland Indians, starting out in player development in 1991 before becoming general manager in 2002 and president in 2010, suggests a belief in stability and continuity. As Sportsnet colleague Jeff Blair pointed out, manager Terry Francona chose to make his return to the dugout following a knives-out departure from the Red Sox with the Indians and Shapiro, and that says something.
All that may mean is that the two-time winner of Sporting News Executive of the Year (2005 and 2007) won’t necessarily capsize the baseball operations department or manager John Gibbons and his coaching staff, even if Anthopoulos, named recipient of the 2015 award Thursday, ironically enough, is gone.
Some clarity about Shapiro’s vision is due early next week – he’s scheduled to take the reins from the retiring Paul Beeston on Monday – when he meets with media for the first time since joining the Blue Jays.
Of course now that session will be dominated by questions about what happened with Anthopoulos and who fills the GM role in his place.
Current Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava could emerge as one candidate as it was his recommendations based on knowledge of the Expos farm system that led Shapiro to acquire Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips from Montreal for Bartolo Colon in 2002. Another name to draw some initial speculation is that of Indians vice-president, player personnel Ross Atkins, seen by some as GM in waiting.
What that role ends up looking like may shed light on what was in store for Anthopoulos under Shapiro had he stayed. Clearly things were going to be different, and it’s likely and understandable that he chafed at the thought of additional oversight. At the same time, Shapiro’s title, resume and track record suggest some room for accommodation.
As one executive who knows and gets along with both men put it, “The process in Cleveland was probably more collaborative than what Alex is used to.”
Any shift in that regard might certainly have been taken as a slight by Anthopoulos, who earned the right to maintain his independence this season. But in some ways it’s possible he would have also been predisposed to view any Shapiro fingerprints on baseball operations with extra suspicion given the thin ice he started the season on.
In that sense Anthopoulos ended up collateral damage in the troubled relationship between Beeston and Rogers Communications Inc., which came to a head last off-season with the failed attempts to replace him. The focus on a business person with a baseball background could have been taken as another shot across the bow, and by entering the 2015 season with both the president and GM in a lame-duck position, there was always a chance of things getting tricky, no matter who got hired.
The shame is that ownership didn’t get to know Anthopoulos earlier, as he had virtually no dealings with senior executives at Rogers since that end of things was handled by Beeston. That led to him being perceived as a Beeston disciple, even though he had strong ideas about how the franchise could be run.
By the time Shapiro was hired, it was too late to change course – timing is everything.
And so Anthopoulos exits, one week after his team’s captivating run came to end in Game 6 of AL Championship Series, while once he arrives, Shapiro faces the tough task of winning over fans who’ll see him as an unwanted replacement.