Shapiro doesn’t have to woo hearts of Blue Jays fans; he just has to win

Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro introduces himself to Toronto, talks about the hard task of replacing Paul Beeston, and the disappointment over Alex Anthopoulos not returning.

TORONTO – He arrived in a nicely crafted black suit. Someone had given him a poppy for the left lapel, a detail the significance of which he could not have known when he accepted the job as president and chief executive officer of Canada’s only MLB team just two months ago.

Mark Shapiro’s tie was grey; his shirt matching with subtle pinstripes. He was dressed to impress.

Accessories not in evidence in any shape or form: A pitchfork, horns, cloven hooves or a tail.

It’s rare that newcomers aren’t given the benefit of the doubt or the chance to make a positive first impression. But Shapiro isn’t any newcomer. He was introduced on Monday as the replacement for a franchise legend in outgoing Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, the club’s original employee. More to point, he’s the guy fingered – fairly or not – for bumping off Alex Anthopoulos, the general manager next door who just happened to engineer one of the most exciting seasons in Canadian sports history.

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So Shapiro had the deck stacked against him before he arrived for his first day of work at Rogers Centre, his arrival covered on live television, his walk to the microphone heralded by whirring cameras and flashes. He may have been speaking from the heart when he finally introduced himself to a nation of suspicious baseball fans, but he was clutching a carefully written address. He referred to it several times during his opening remarks, which in turn were punctuated by the kind of polished hand gestures public leaders practise hours to master.

Shapiro’s got them down.

He acknowledged he was nervous, celebrating that he climbed to the microphone without tripping on the steps. He tried to start light, making a joke about how he had told Beeston that he’d hoped his first official act as team president would be to be driving the float carrying Beeston at a parade celebrating a World Series win.

No one quite got it and he moved on. His speech less a statement of purpose than an effort to win the hearts and minds of Blue Jays fans. Shapiro has the title of Toronto Blue Jays president, but he sounded like he was running for the office, still stumping for votes:

“I know that you don’t know me yet,” he said. “I know that in time what you will learn about me is that I will act with consistency, with character, with candour and with integrity.

“I think over time you’ll learn to trust what I have to say and understand when I speak, I speak with honesty.”

That he felt compelled to say it perfectly underlines the nature of the challenge he’s facing.

But you can’t escape the contrast between the old and the new. For decades the Blue Jays have been a big money organization owned by multibillion-dollar companies that ran like a small business which, compared to the larger businesses they were a part of, they are.

But a lot of that had to do with the folksy charm of Beeston and his skill or will in keeping the team’s interests at a distance from the larger corporate interests.

Was this good or bad? Who knows. But you get a sense that going forward under Shapiro it will be different, and in this respect there is a tremendous opportunity for him.

Long-term his best chance for success may lie in not being the best possible replacement for Anthopoulos but the best possible replacement for Beeston. Word from insiders is that Shapiro impressed ownership with his ideas for making baseball make more money for Rogers.

If Shapiro can leverage whatever untapped revenue potential that the Blue Jays and Rogers Centre might offer and use that success to earn more spending money for the baseball team, he could earn the affection of Blue Jays fans in a hurry. The Canadian dollar is sinking, the Rogers Centre feels old and convincing Rogers Communications that spending more and more on the uncertain returns that a professional sports team can offer is an ongoing discussion. But any big company understands revenues and if Shapiro can grow the Blue Jays cash pot better than Beeston did, that’s all that really matters.

What is Shapiro like? Well, there’s no doubt he’s in sharp contrast to the men he’s replacing. Unlike Beeston he wore socks; the tight line of his jaw suggests he finds time between work and family demands to get regular workouts in, as opposed to Beeston’s regular diet of cigars. I’m not sure the suit Anthopoulos wore to his wedding was as crisp as Shapiro wore to work on Monday and I’m betting there are several more where that one came from.

Both Beeston and Anthopoulos were loved in Toronto because they went considerable distances to seem like they could be talking baseball with you on a break from shovelling the driveway. It wasn’t an act. Beeston was a friendly guy from Welland, Ont., who somehow became a MLB powerbroker, but never changed the way he dealt with people. He’s the kind of guy you could have a beer with while waiting for a plane and leave feeling like you’d made a friend.

Anthopoulos never seemed to quite shed his own sense of wonder that he’d somehow become a MLB general manager not all that long after leaving the family heating and air-conditioning business and giving up being a bank teller. He never came across holier than thou because he had no real reason to feel that way.

Shapiro, a Princeton graduate whose father was a player agent, seems like he might have a guy with a plow come and clear his driveway while he spends the first 10 minutes of his morning searching for inspirational quotes he could share.

Has Beeston read Good to Great or any of the other business books concerned with creating a corporate culture or thoughts on leadership or transforming organizations? Did Anthopoulos?

I mean, maybe. But Shapiro kept a copy in his office. He gives the impression that he doesn’t just read business books, but memorizes them.

He doesn’t make decisions, he “stewards them.” He doesn’t tell people what to do, he “empowers them.” When it is time for him to lay out his plan of action, we’ll know because it will be “articulated.”

None of this matters, of course. How much he knows about Canada and the Blue Jays’ place in the national fabric doesn’t really matter. How much he likes or doesn’t like Toronto doesn’t matter. What exactly happened between him and Anthopoulos doesn’t matter. Mark Shapiro will be judged not on his first day of work, but what he’s accomplished a year from now.

Shapiro doesn’t have to win the hearts and minds of Blue Jays fans.

He just has to win.

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