DUNEDIN, Fla. – The demands on a sports executive’s time are immense, which is why the way they allocate it offers an immediate insight into what they feel is really important.
Since he first joined the Toronto Blue Jays on Nov. 2, 2015, one of Mark Shapiro’s top priorities as president and CEO of the team has been building a state-of-the-art training complex for the club, a vision that will soon be realized in Dunedin, Fla.
A refurbishment of the newly christened TD Ballpark is also part of the now slightly more than $100 million project, $40 million of which is coming from the club (initially, the project was to cost $81 million, with the Blue Jays providing $20 million; the rest of the money is coming from Pinellas County at $41.7 million, the State of Florida at $13.7 million and the City of Dunedin at $5.6 million).
Slated for completion by late summer, it’s a point of pride for the organization and Shapiro, who sat down with Sportsnet.ca to discuss the 110,000 square-foot building at the heart of the new complex, the signing of ace Hyun-Jin Ryu, expanded playoffs and plenty more.
Here is Part 1 of the discussion. Part 2 of the Q&A can be found here.
Sportsnet: You’ve mentioned often that the new complex will be a competitive advantage for the Blue Jays. How does it accomplish that?
Shapiro: It does it in a multitude of ways. The first would be organizationally, it gets us all under one roof, which would allow for both purposeful and casual interactions between our major-league players and our minor-league players, something that does not happen currently. That’s valuable because I’ve first-hand seen the power when you have a Cy Young Award winning pitcher and our younger pitchers can see him work in the weight room, can see him throw his bullpens, can watch the way he eats and the modelling of what it takes to be the best in the game. Not just to get to the big-leagues, but to be an elite player, that realization that there’s no chance (as in luck), it’s not just talent alone that differentiates the elite player from the double-A player. Having a chance to see that every day, whether it’s a hitter in the cage, a guy in the weight room, the way a guy handles himself in the training room, this is going to afford a lot of those opportunities.
Secondly, a great challenge for us, no matter how purposeful we are in trying to get over there, the amount of interactions that happen staff to staff, and front office to player development staff, it’s just intermittent and to some extent we’re different ecosystems. We’re removed from each other. That’s problematic because everything they’re trying to do is develop players for up here. When you’re not able to benefit from the experience in that room, and on those fields, as well as ensure there’s an alignment of thought in the way we’re developing players, nothing replaces the time spent in those groups.
Then, it’s a space that facilitates the ability to develop, prepare and rehabilitate our players in a much more effective way than we currently do. We’re currently not making excuses but taking infrastructure that was built largely just to prepare players six weeks for a season and trying to use it every day of the year to be the best we can be. We’re going to move two generations, we’re going to skip from last generation – because that is last generation – skip this generation and go right to the next generation and have a facility that incorporates technology, incorporates the multiple dimensions of staffs that we’ve got, from performance to coaching, to analysts to medical to nutrition and allows them all to collaborate more together with the player at the centre of everything we do. That building was built with the thought that we were creating a player-centred building and every space in it was about best providing our players with cutting edge resources, mentally, physically and fundamentally, in a way that’s natural as they move throughout the building.
Sportsnet: The complex includes three tech labs (one for pitching, hitting and running/fielding), an indoor pool, plus hot-and-cold tubs for the training staff, collaborative spaces for pitching and hitting, a classroom, a lounge and even private phone rooms for players to call their families. You visited several other facilities before construction started. Which were particularly impactful or influential in what you settled on here?
Shapiro: Different ones for different pieces of the building. The Tottenham Hotspurs visit was really influential from the perspective of designing player experiences and thinking of the player’s journey throughout the day, as well as the thought given to the academy teams and the first team and keeping them together but still having some understanding that you’re aspiring to get to the highest level and there is some different treatment of those players along the way. The University of Michigan’s weight room, the Vikings’ training facility, every one in its own way had some impact, whether it was thinking about nutritional, dining areas, weight rooms, different people influenced different things.
Sportsnet: Which elements from the player-development complex are must-be/can-be replicated pieces you would want to include when the Rogers Centre is eventually renovated?
Shapiro: They’re for such different purposes. As we think about a stadium at Rogers Centre it would be serving a very different population – just 26 players and staff. But the same core philosophy of creating collaborative spaces for the resources that we have to support the players, and ensuring the players are at the centre of everything we do, those two underlying philosophies would drive it. Whether it’s a new space or whether it’s a renovation would have major impact, because a renovation would create certain limitations in and of itself. We’ve renovated the weight room four years ago with a dramatic overhaul and we continue to think about spaces within the clubhouse. We do little things every year to think about how we can make it better, but the underlying philosophies would be the same. That building has to serve 150, 200 people at a time for five or six weeks, but it’s meant to be used 365 days a year, whereas a stadium would be for the season.
Sportsnet: Let’s transition to the big-league squad. The $80-million, four-year deal for Hyun-Jin Ryu is the biggest contract you’ve ever handed out. How do you measure whether a contract has given you value?
Shapiro: There’s not one way to do that. It is pretty easy to do, just by looking at the number of wins a guy contributes over the history of that contract. But again, not all those wins are equal and sometimes teams are front-loading the value and having inefficiency in the back-end of contracts. There’s not one answer to that. Obviously this is a contract that fit the most clear need on our team and potentially fit it in a way that could supply a front of the rotation starter, so that was a big plus. But time will tell the value return. Free-agent starting pitching in general is a high-risk market and we’re very aware of that. That’s why we’re so careful. You don’t pound your chest over signing someone. You have all your reasons for doing it, you know the risks going in. We identified the need and felt this was one of the best opportunities for us to get better and take a step.
Sportsnet: You make an interesting point about contract efficiency. If we’re valuing wins at $10 million, Ryu needs to give you eight wins to perform to the contract. You’ve spread the dollars out evenly over the four years – if he gives you, say, four wins in the first season, then two and one and one, how does that impact the contract’s value in your mind?
Shapiro: It’s certainly not ideal but it’s certainly not disastrous. That’s a way of saying we got the bulk of the value in the first two years. In a perfect world, you’d probably try to spread that over the length of the contract. But contracts get more risky as a player ages, so you would expect to get more on the front side.
Sportsnet: How does the financial efficiency of contracts impact the way you design your roster, when you’re weighing getting the player now versus how $20 million in 2023 is going to impact the team?
Shapiro: That’s definitely the case – you’re thoughtful of as our players mature and as our roster starts to get a little bit less efficient. I choose to look at it maybe more from a positive lens, which is this: Ross (Atkins) and I have remarked quite a bit how it’s been somewhat surprising how many people congratulated us on signing Ryu, which to us felt a little bit odd.
When I reflected on it, it was like, yeah, what feels good and what we should have some pride over as an organization, particularly from a baseball operations perspective, is the work that’s been done to put us in position to be able to sign Ryu. I say that from a standpoint of acquiring, developing players and transitioning them to the major-league level where there is a young talented core in place that both provides us an opportunity to win and creates awareness throughout the league from players and agents that, ‘Oh, these guys are going to be good. I could see making a choice to go there.’ And that creates financial flexibility because they’re young and talented. So they provide a lot of efficiency on our roster. So we had the ability to sign Ryu because we’re going to be good, one; two, our roster is pretty efficient, so we can take the risk of adding that player at this time; and a lot of work’s been done over the last five, six, seven years to kind of create this mass of talent coming up now.
Sportsnet: You say you were caught off guard by people congratulating you. Through my lens, that’s because I don’t think people expected you to sign Ryu and that’s what led people to congratulate you. Through your lens, why do you think people would feel that way?
Shapiro: So I think different populations, different kinds of segments of our universe feel that way for different reasons. Fans feel excited by off-season signings because they represent an appreciation of their support, like, ‘Yes! Ownership, the front office, they want it as bad as us.’ That’s the easiest way for them to know that we want to win. You articulate it, you articulate it, but when you go through what we’ve went through the last couple of years, it’s hard not for them not to doubt it. So it’s, ‘Oh, they want it as bad as us.’ I think the fans feel that way.
The players recognize it as an affirmation of our belief in them. Like, ‘Oh man, that’s so cool, these guys know we can be good. That’s awesome.’ And for us, it is a kind of reflection of our belief in our players. These guys believe so much in their potential. They believe so much in each other. They have so few limits on what they think they’re capable of doing that as I sit and listen to Ross, listen to our baseball operations staff, that fuelled their desire to do it now.
So it means different things to different segments, different groups. But it’s all positive.
Sportsnet: What was the impact on ticket sales?
Shapiro: Pretty minimal. It’s hard to say, because you can’t say what it would be without it, but we’re largely at this point about where we were last year.
Sportsnet: There wasn’t a sudden spike?
Shapiro: Not really.
Sportsnet: What do you make of that?
Shapiro: Not much. Ultimately, the sentiment’s positive, but when you’ve got a very large stadium, there’s not a sense of urgency, because of elasticity, people feel like we’ll be able to get tickets when we want them, you know? Until you create demand to where there’s a scarcity of tickets, people don’t feel urgency to buy. To do that you’ve got to really win to where it’s absolutely the place to be. I think we will have more people here this year than last year (when the Blue Jays drew 1,750,144, a drop of 575,000 fans from 2018). But again, I think your urgency to buy is not quite there yet, and that, that usually lags behind a little bit. That’s not unusual.