The story really begins in the fall of 2014. Mark Shapiro was still comfortably ensconced as the president of the Cleveland Indians when news leaked out that the Toronto Blue Jays were making inquiries about a possible replacement for one of the legendary figures in the history of the franchise.
Paul Beeston was the very first employee of that expansion team, served two long terms at its helm, and was one of the architects of the glories of 1992 and 1993. But the Jays hadn’t won anything since those back-to-back World Series, hadn’t even made a playoff appearance and were in the midst of a particularly rough patch. The Yunel Escobar eye-black embarrassment and the departure of John Farrell were low points, while the Hail Mary deal with the Miami Marlins and the acquisition of R.A. Dickey had created plenty of temporary excitement, but failed to right the ship.
Change was in the wind, and if it started with rumours of Dan Duquette or Kenny Williams taking over from Beeston, it certainly wasn’t going to end there.
When the Jays ownership began talking to Shapiro about the job, the magic of 2015 hadn’t yet kicked in. Shapiro was widely admired in baseball circles, and for ownership looking to change the team’s course both on the field and as a business, his hiring made perfect sense.
But by the time he was announced as the team’s new president, pretty much everything had changed. General manager Alex Anthopoulos was suddenly the toast of the town following a transformative trade deadline, the Jays were unstoppable in the second half of the season and an entire country fell in love.
Pretty tricky to walk into that roaring party as the new, slightly awkward guy nobody knows. Pretty much impossible to win over the faithful when the local hero, Anthopoulos, decided he wasn’t welcome anymore. Pretty hard to be cast as anything but a villain.
Shapiro and the general manager he hired, Ross Atkins, had a very different personal and professional style than Beeston and Anthopoulos. If the Jays had flopped again in 2015, “different” would have almost certainly been viewed as a positive. Instead, even after the Jays returned to the post-season in 2016, the new guys were met with skepticism, at times with outright hostility, as though they had appropriated someone else’s miracle.
Whether that’s fair to them or not is, in some ways, beside the point – because, for fans, it’s the emotional truth that matters.
This past off-season, with the rebuilding plan coming more clearly into focus, and with the signing of free agent Hyun-jin Ryu, the Jays’ base seems more willing to view the front office minus all (or at least some of) the baggage of the past four years. And maybe that will be enough for Shapiro and Atkins to be assessed a bit more dispassionately, as who they are rather than who they are not.
But, as Shapiro would be the first to acknowledge, the only thing that will really change the conversation is winning – and even if that comes to pass, there will be some fans who will remain resistant to conversion.
He’s not afraid to be disliked. During the Cleveland teardown, he didn’t have a whole lot of friends in that town.
But it’s a rare human being who actually savours the slings and arrows, especially when they cause collateral damage to friends and family.
At the same time, all of us take great satisfaction in those rare moments when our critics are proved wrong, and we’re proved right. In this most unpredictable of businesses, the moment when that happens – or doesn’t – now lies just beyond the horizon.
In the latest episode of Open Invitation with Stephen Brunt, Sportsnet’s award-winning journalist sits down with Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro, who has faced doubt and skepticism while trying to bring Toronto back to its winning ways.