Perhaps it’s a by-product of all of those years spent wandering through the desert with a variety of losing franchises. Perhaps it’s a function of faux sophistication, of centre-of-the-universe solipsism, of believing that Bay Street is the true national capital. Perhaps it all goes back to Harold Ballard, or at least to Brian Burke.
Take your pick.
The fact is that for some reason, the focus of fan interest and especially fan dissatisfaction hereabouts tends to skip right past the usual target—the players—lingers only briefly on the next level—coaches—and then alights, especially in moments of crisis, on the folks wearing suits and ties rather than the ones wearing pads and athletic supporters.
Owners. Executives. They ought to put their faces on bubble-gum cards.
And so, in the middle of the first real pennant race since 1993, on the last day of what might well have been the greatest month in Toronto Blue Jays history, the appointment of Mark Shapiro as the new president and CEO of the franchise stirred a remarkable amount of chatter.
Would the magic spell be broken? Would the players be put off their feed?
And, especially, would GM Alex Anthopoulos, who spent much of the past year right behind John Gibbons on the firing line, be able to stick around to complete his master plan, which especially since the trade deadline had revealed its genius?
Well, magic is a tough thing to predict, and teams can sometimes slump for mysterious reasons, though the naming of a new president would certainly be a novel one. As for Anthopoulos, whose contract expires at season’s end, he’s in the catbird seat, deciding whether he can coexist with a guy he doesn’t know all that well, whether he can retain sufficient control of baseball operations working for someone who also comes from the personnel side of the sport, or whether he might want to opt for free agency at a time when there are numerous job openings and his market value is soaring. (Understanding that Shapiro is a very sharp fellow, that Anthopoulos is comfortable professionally and personally in Toronto and would like to enjoy the fruits of his labour, the bet would be that they’ll work something out, at least for the near future.)
What’s lost in all that is the fact that Shapiro’s hiring signals a sea change that, eventually, will have an impact on the things that fans actually care about.
The internal culture of the Jays organization is in large part the creation of Paul Beeston, who will be retiring as the team’s president at season’s end. He was the franchise’s first employee, initially as the guy to keep the books, though he soon enough became much more than that. The Blue Jays had a three-headed ownership at the start, but the dominant partner (and eventual sole owner) was Labatt Breweries, an old-school, independent, paternalistic operation in those days. Beeston adopted Labatt’s operating philosophies as the Jays’ own. With the team’s value skyrocketing every year along with the brewer’s share of the beer market, Labatt was happy to remain hands-off on baseball matters, allowing Beeston and Pat Gillick a remarkable degree of autonomy.
Beeston chafed when Labatt was swallowed by Interbrew, when the owners no longer understood or cared about the ball club. He left for the commissioner’s office, then returned under Rogers ownership, which was a different animal entirely. The Jays had become a content generator and brand extender in the new media/communications universe. There was always a little gap there, between the way ownership operated and the way the Blue Jays operated, which in moments of stress (financial or otherwise) tended to come to the fore. (Perhaps you recall the Ervin Santana salary-deferral shemozzle.)
Shapiro is a baseball lifer who in Cleveland did a commendable job running a low-revenue team while giving its stadium a facelift. In Toronto, he inherits a much-higher-revenue and higher-payroll team, in a huge national market, with a stadium that badly needs a refresh, not to mention a new lawn.
He starts out with no burden of history, no organizational memory. It is year one, not year 38. And given who hired him, his goals and philosophies are presumably in sync with those of the people who sign the cheques.
The knee-jerk fan reaction is to automatically see that as a bad thing, ceding more control to the faceless corporate masters. But someone who can explain the value of a popular, successful baseball team in their language might also be able to persuade them of the value of doing what it takes to win, not once in a while, but always.